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Are businesses in historic buildings exempt from the ADA?

On Behalf of | Jun 29, 2023 | ADA |

Along with the myth that certain businesses are “grandfathered” in such a way that their owners don’t have to worry about compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a lot of business owners are under the mistaken impression that being in a historic building also makes them exempt from the ADA’s rules.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeks to strike a balance between preserving historic properties for all their cultural value and providing accessibility for all.

It’s understood that historic properties have special challenges

The ADA acknowledges that strict adherence to accessibility requirements may pose challenges for historic properties. To address this, the concept of “reasonable accommodation” is applied to find a balance between accessibility and preservation. Reasonable accommodation considers the nature, significance and purpose of the historic property, as well as the impact of accessibility modifications on the property’s character.

Determining reasonable accommodation is a case-by-case process, involving collaboration between property owners, historic preservation experts and accessibility specialists. That means that no two situations are alike, since no two historic properties are exactly alike.

Some of the accessibility issues subject to consideration may include:

  • Entrances and pathways: Providing accessible entrances is crucial for equal access. Ramp installations, if required, can be designed to be compatible with the architectural style of the building.
  • Interior spaces: Maneuverability, especially for wheelchair users, can be hard. Space constraints and architectural limitations may require creative solutions such as alternative paths or the removal of non-load-bearing walls.
  • Restrooms: In historic properties, integrating accessible restrooms may involve careful design and selection of fixtures to minimize alterations to the existing structure.
  • Program access: Historic properties that serve as museums or historic sites, should ensure that programs, exhibits and services are accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes providing accessible seating, signage and auxiliary aids, as necessary – but these can often be designed to meet the property’s historic aesthetics.

If your business operates in a historic property and you have questions about ADA compliance or you are being targeted for failure to adhere to the ADA, it’s wise to seek legal guidance that’s tailored to your unique situation.