Project Civic Access – 2021 Department of Justice Update

Published October 20, 2021

Project Civic Access (“PCA”) is an initiative commenced by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) in 1999. The primary purpose of the PCA was to establish a process to implement solutions to bring localities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) into compliance with the Act. Settlement agreements with the DOJ have been the chief means for accomplishing these goals. At heart, PCA ensures that “counties, cities, towns, and villages comply with the ADA by eliminating physical and communication barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in community life”.

Early initiatives

The first PCA settlement was reached by the DOJ on August 23, 1999, with the city of Toledo, Ohio. This process was commenced with a complaint that alleged that Toledo:

  • failed to conduct an appropriate self-evaluation of its accessibility;
  • failed to take the necessary steps to make city “programs, services, and activities accessible to people with disabilities”; and
  • failed to develop communications with “applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities” which were as effective as communications with those citizens without disabilities.

These allegations were supported by evidence establishing that people with disabilities were effectively denied the ability to participate in and enjoy the benefits of Toledo’s “programs, services, and activities”, all in violation of title II of the ADA. The Settlement required Toledo to remedy these problems by removing barriers and, where necessary, changing activity locations, throughout the entire city infrastructure, including police and fire stations and museums, parks, and recreation centers.

A pattern is established

Following the City of Toledo settlement, the Disability Rights Section (DRS) of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division followed quickly with similar comprehensive reviews of other local as well as state governments. Importantly, the effort also generated the development of materials for providing broad technical assistance to allow other communities to rapidly start the process of coming into rapid compliance with ADA requirements.

The most common issues addressed during PCA investigations and subsequent settlements involve physical modifications of facilities to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

Subject facilities include virtually every type of government building and recreational space:

  • city, town, and village halls;
  • police and fire stations;
  • courthouses;
  • health care and childcare facilities;
  • animal shelters;
  • libraries;
  • sports stadiums and parks of all varieties – skating rinks, swimming pools, playgrounds, etc.

PCA settlement agreements have also increasingly reached further than straightforward facility modification. For example, the following modifications have been achieved through PCA:

  • modifications to facilitate the provision of curbside or absentee balloting at polling places;
  • conspicuous and widespread notices to the community of ADA rights and privileges;
  • establishment of ADA grievance procedures;
  • implementation of delivery systems and accompanying time frames for providing auxiliary aids, e.g. sign language interpreters and other formats (Braille, enlarged print, etc.);
  • installation of assistive listening systems in legislative chambers, courtrooms, and auditoriums; and
  • strengthening 9-1-1 emergency services with more text telephones (TTY’s).

PCA successes

PCA has achieved 222 settlement agreements at 207 localities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Most of the compliance reviews leading to these settlements were originated by the DOJ on its own initiative under title II of the ADA but also under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Some of these investigations were started in response to specific complaints that were filed against the local governmental entity.

From the outset, PCA’s goal was to be visible in every state and this has been accomplished. Additionally, the selections of review sites were influenced in some instances by a desire to focus upon tourist destinations and universities. Finally, in keeping with a desire to reflect the nature of America, most reviews were done in smaller towns and cities, for, after all, this is the most prevalent form of local government in the United States.

PCA today and tomorrow

Though PCA activity took a couple of years to develop, there were a surprising 27 agreements in 2001 and 41 in 2004, the highest annual amount to date, and 35 in 2005. Since that date, activity has been sporadic. There was a noticeable slow down in 2006 (7), 2007 (5), and 2008 (5), likely due in part to the recession. In 2015 there were 15 settlements but since that year, activity has plummeted – 2016 (1), 2017 (0), 2018 (2), 2019 (0), 2020 (0), and 2021 (2). Undoubtedly, the pandemic was a factor most recently but this does not satisfactorily explain the steady downward trend.

In large measure, PCA may in fact be a victim of its own success. In its most recent settlement agreement with Killeen, Texas on June 29, 2021, it was noted that the process and the settlement agreement was preventable had the City taken a greater pro-active approach to ADA compliance.

Though no one will deny that we have a long way to go, the country has made significant progress in making the world more accessible during the past thirty years. It may be that more cities are proactively addressing these issues as a result, reducing the need for DOJ action through Project Civic Access.

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