Historic Shouldn’t Mean Inaccessible: Preservation and the ADA

Published October 19, 2020

Accessibility is standard for new construction today, but that hasn’t always been the case. Federal accessibility laws didn’t come into play until 1968, when the Architectural Barriers Act declared all buildings designed, constructed, and altered by the federal government must be accessible. Accessibility laws became more widespread with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which established accessibility requirements for the construction and alteration of all public facilities.

But what about buildings constructed before accessibility was the law? Although some people assume a grandfather clause renders these buildings exempt from the ADA, the reality is that owners of older buildings are also required to remove barriers to accessibility.

Though accessibility wasn’t integrated into the original design of most historic buildings, bringing such structures up to today’s standards doesn’t have to run counter to the goals of historic preservation. Providing access for persons with disabilities in ways that preserve the character of the historic properties requires creativity and knowledge of how the ADA rules apply to such buildings.

To start, it’s important to define what a "historic" building means in the context of the ADA. Although many buildings in the U.S. have details of architectural significance or have historic significance because of events that took place there, the ADA does not recognize these buildings as history properties. Only those that are either listed or are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or are designated as historic under state or local law fall under the ADA’s definition of historic.

Accessibility rules are more flexible when it comes to these historic buildings, but that doesn’t mean they are exempt altogether. Per the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, historic buildings must, at the minimum, meet the following accessibility requirements:

  • A minimum of one accessible route (A ramp with a 1:6 slope for a maximum two-foot length may be used at an exterior entry).
  • At least one accessible entry must be provided. If public entries cannot comply, then a non-public, unlocked entry may be provided, with directional signage provided at the public entries.
  • If toilets are provided, at least one must be on an accessible route. A unisex privacy restroom may be used.
  • An accessible route must be provided to all public spaces at the level of the entry.
  • Displays and written information must be viewable by a seated person, including horizontal displays at a maximum height of 44 inches.

These are only minimal requirements. The ADA requires that historic buildings be as accessible as non-historic buildings "to the maximum extent possible," meaning to the degree that further accommodations would not impose undue financial hardship. Minimal requirements may only be used in exceptions when it is formally and properly determined that meeting the standard requirements for alterations to buildings would destroy the historic nature of the structure. Experts recommend surveying the building using the ADA Checklist for Existing Facilities, which can identify additional ways to ensure accessibility within an already-existing structure.

Many modifications to improve accessibility are simple fixes that don’t alter the historic properties of a building, such as providing accessible parking spaces, installing flashing alarm lights for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and adding raised markings on elevator control buttons. Pre-existing structures within the building can also be retrofitted or adapted, such as installing offset hinges on an original door to widen the doorway or adding hand railings to a stairway.

But what if accessibility is impossible to achieve without threatening the historical nature of the property? For these extremely rare cases, a consultation process is outlined in the ADA's Accessibility Guidelines. In situations where making specific accessibility modifications would "threaten or destroy" the significance of their building, owners are required to consult with people with disabilities, disability organizations and their State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) to determine if the special accessibility provisions for historic properties may be used. If it is determined in consultation with the SHPO that these provisions would also "threaten or destroy" the significance of the property, alternative methods of access, such as home delivery and audio-visual programs, must be provided instead.

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