Equal Access Understanding the Finer Points of ADA Compliance

For some Chicagoans, planning daily errands and activities can be as tricky as mountaineering. These folks live with disabilities, are elderly, or for whatever reason have had their mobility compromised—even temporarily. For them, getting into or out of their own buildings can feel like a monumental task...like climbing a mountain.

Fortunately, there are laws in place intended to provide protection and help make daily life a little bit easier for those living with disabilities. Two in particular—Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA)—were designed to compel owners of certain buildings to ensure that people with disabilities have access equal or similar to that available to the general public.

While Title III does not apply to strictly residential facilities and multifamily buildings, it covers places of public accommodation within residential facilities. Thus, areas within multifamily residential facilities that qualify as places of public accommodation are covered by the ADA if use of the areas is not limited exclusively to owners, residents and their guests. See definitions and examples at www.ada.gov/taman3.html.

Serious Business

While legal professionals are quick to point out that the term 'disability' can refer to a very broad array of situations which may—or may not—be visible to the casual observer, one thing is certain: a building resident requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability is not something that should ever be taken lightly. 'Reasonable accommodation' under the ADA or FHAA can refer to both structural adjustments and administrative changes, such as permitting a disabled resident to have a service or companion animal despite a building's 'no pets' policy.

As with many laws however, deciphering the language of accessibility can be complicated, and misinterpretation can result in unnecessary animosity and needless expense. For example, in some cases, managers and trustees in older or historic buildings may believe—incorrectly—that they are exempt from accessibility requirements. Others may be baffled by the technical requirements of these laws, and still others are resistant to accessibility issues because they assume they automatically imply huge capital expenditures. The Illinois Accessibility Code applies to new construction and modifications to multifamily housing. However it does not apply to modifications made using private funds. See Section 400.520 at www.ada.gov/ taman3.html. In addition to the above there are also municipal codes regarding accessibility. Chicago has accessibility requirements in Chapter 18-11 of its Municipal Code.

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