Often, people think that historic properties don’t have to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Because wheelchair ramps, elevators and grab bars weren’t part of colonial (or even much mid-20th century) construction, such features could be considered jarring anachronisms that detract from a property’s historic appeal. Therefore, their owners may assume they’re exempt from the requirements of this law, which took effect in 1990.
That’s not the case. No building that is considered a public accommodation under the ADA is completely exempt. However, those classified as “historic properties” may have fewer requirements than others.
What qualifies as a “historic property?”
To be considered a historic property under the ADA, it must be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (whether it’s listed there or not) and/or it must be designated a historic property by the applicable state or locality.
Owners of properties that are defined as “historic” have a balancing act to maintain. They need to provide accessibility to people with disabilities. However, they still have a responsibility to preserve the original characteristics of the property.
The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief 32 was drafted to provide assistance to those who need to incorporate accessibility features into a historic property. You may also need to consult with the appropriate state historic preservation officer (SHPO) — especially if you don’t believe it’s possible to maintain the nature of the property and make it ADA compliant. In many cases, a site may be able to use the ”non-readily achievable” exception to one or more ADA requirements. These need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis with your ADA lawyer.
ADA exceptions that may be granted to historic properties
An SHPO may authorize several types of exceptions. These involve:
- Accessible entrances: A historic property may be allowed to use a non-public entrance as its accessible entrance. However, it must either be unlocked during operating hours or have some kind of notification system like a buzzer so that people can request the entrance to be unlocked.
- Accessible routes: A historic property may be allowed to have just one accessible route between the parking lot or other arrival location and an accessible entrance to the property.
- Accessible restroom facilities: A historic property may be able to offer just one accessible restroom. Of course, it must be available to users regardless of gender.
Because historic properties are required to have some accessibility, more people have been able to visit, enjoy and learn from them. However, if you’re struggling with ADA compliance regulations or facing the threat of ADA-related litigation, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.