REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The U.S. Department of Justice’s new standards for the Americans with Disabilities Act go into effect Thursday, which could mean costly changes for hoteliers.
Fortunately, the new provisions allow for “safe harbor” for elements that were required under and comply with the old 1991 Standards for Accessible Design.
“It's similar to a grandfather clause,” said Doug Anderson, a partner with LCM Architects, during a webinar series titled “Understanding the Obligations of Lodging Facilities to Meet the Needs of Customers with Disabilities.”
If a hotelier previously moved the light switch in a single-user, lobby bathroom down to 52 inches above the finished floor in order to comply with the original ADA regulations for Title III, for example, that hotelier would not have to then move the switch down to the revised 48-inch requirement as under the more stringent 2010 standards, he said.
“If you comply with the 1991 standard, which might be slightly different, that would qualify for this safe harbor,” Anderson said.
If, however, that same hotelier was to modify or renovate the bathroom after 15 March 2012—when the new provisions kick in—and alter the light switch in any way, he or she would then have to comply with the new standards.
The key, Anderson said, is to view each requirement element by element. If you renovate the bathroom and don’t touch the light switch, then you’re protected under safe harbor and don’t have to change it. The same goes for counter space, room around the toilet and any other new ADA requirement. But if you touch any of those individual elements, you must adjust them to comply with the new standards, he said.
“When we look at doing alterations after this March 15 deadline, we are going to be using the 2010 standards,” Anderson said.
Readily achievable changes and barriers to removal
When it comes to meeting new 2010 requirements not covered under previous ADA provisions, hoteliers must examine whether changes are “readily achievable,” or able to be changed without incredible difficulty or expense.
That definition is subjective, Anderson said, and the burden of proof lies on each individual hotelier. That means hoteliers will likely be required to open their books and records to prove that the removal of a barrier is simply not possible.
There is very little case law on the subject, which means the operational definition of “readily achievable” will continue to be a point of contention requiring refinement in the courts, added John Salmen, founder and president of Universal Designers & Consultants.
Most ADA provisions are articulated as “removal of barriers” that would impede the use of a guest with disabilities, he explained. “Barriers” are defined by ADA construction standards.
Some major changes include:
• Toilet clear floor space: The 1991 standards required 48 inches wide of clear floor space around a toilet. The new 2010 standards require 60 inches of clear floor space around the toilet. Things such as grab bars, toilet paper dispensers and seat protector dispensers are allowed to hang over into that space, but more obtrusive items such as urinals or cabinets are not.
• Lavatory comparable counter space: Accessible rooms are required to have counter space comparable to that of nonaccessible rooms. “Various people have different needs for countertop space,” Anderson said. “My wife has the need for a lot of countertop space, and having that small little room around the accessible sink really doesn't meet her needs. So it's not comparable.”
• Sales and service counters: The 1991 standards allowed for auxiliary sales and service counters built on to existing desks. The new 2010 standards require accessible counters of full, standard depth—not just ledges or other auxiliary spaces.
One of the biggest changes under the 2010 ADA revisions is that removable of barriers now extends to hotel recreation areas such as work out facilities and pools. Of these, pool lifts have received the most attention because of the cost and difficulty required to install them.
The “readily achievable” definition likely will see a lot of attention surrounding pool lifts, Anderson said.
“If I start trying to drill into my deck to install a fixed lift, I'm running into issues with my drainage system for my existing pool. Or in order to get the structural strength that I need, you know I have other issues that arise from drilling into the deck. And so it could be the case that with some existing conditions, it's not readily achievable to do that change,” he said.
Other recreation areas have new requirements, as well. Saunas and stream rooms now require turning space, and exercise rooms now have new guidelines for floor space and clearance.
Salmen said hoteliers should keep guests of all abilities in mind when they address these changes.
“We shouldn't just be thinking about people who use wheelchairs, but the fact is (some) people who do use wheelchairs can get up and take a couple of steps. … It's really important to get people to equipment and recreation areas or to boats, etc., all of these things because these are the kinds of activities that will allow them to participate in society as well as to maintain their own physical health,” he said.
“The exercise rooms are important for all of us, and people with disabilities have the same needs. So you don't want to make a prejudicial kind of assumption that all people in wheelchairs can't use these things. In fact many will be able to use some of these and maybe in fact as part of their rehabilitation to be able to use their strength and ability in the future.”
The number of accessible rooms required at each property is based on predetermined guidelines from the Department of Justice, as laid out in the following chart:
But it’s not enough for hoteliers to simply meet the number requirement. Accessible rooms also must be dispersed evenly throughout the property based on room type and other amenities, Anderson said.
For example, if a property offers rooms with king, queen and double beds, accessible rooms must offer the same. Or if certain rooms offer a preferred view (such as oceanfront), there must be accessible rooms that provide that same view.
What’s more, a hotel website must clearly articulate what each and every room offers so guests with disabilities can accurately book a room based on their wants and needs, Anderson said.
“They need more information about the accessible features that are offered in the reservation service so they have enough detail to determine whether the guestroom will meet their needs,” he said.