What is the goal of this part of the ADA?
The goal of Title II of the ADA, which covers state and local governments, is really to make sure that people with disabilities have equal access to civic life. Individuals with disabilities must be provided an equally effective opportunity to participate in or benefit from a public entity’s aids, benefits, and services. It essentially covers everything that the state or local government does, including public housing, licensing, all levels of public education, transportation, parks and recreation, detention, emergency response, and police.
The City Hall in my town is a very old building and I’ve been told that, because it is a historical building, it doesn’t have to comply with the
ADA. Is that true?
There are two different concepts in this question. The first relates to access to an historic preservation program and the second is program access in the form of access to city services. Structural changes to facilities that are “historic,” meaning they are listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or designated as historic under state or local law, might threaten or destroy the historical significance of the property, so the ADA might not require those kinds of structural changes. If that’s the case, though, the entity must consider alternatives to such structural changes. These might include providing the government service in another building, or using audiotape or video images to demonstrate the historical significance of the inaccessible portions of the property. If alterations are made to the property, though, then the changes must conform to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which has specific provisions on historic buildings, to the maximum extent feasible.
What about buildings that aren’t really historical, but were built before the ADA went into effect? Does the local government have to make those buildings accessible?
Government entities have to make sure that people with disabilities are not excluded from government services or activities just because the buildings are not accessible, even if they were built before the ADA. Government programs, when viewed in their entirety, have to be readily accessible to people with disabilities. This is called “program accessibility.” Governments don’t necessarily have to make these older facilities completely architecturally accessible, but they do have to make the programs accessible.
Most of the time when people talk about accessibility, they are talking about wheelchair access. I’m deaf and I need effective communication for accessibility. Does my local government have to provide effective communication for me if I am deaf?
Yes. The government must provide communication with individuals with disabilities that is as effective as communications with others, unless doing so would be an undue financial or administrative burden or would cause a fundamental alteration of the program. The government entity must provide auxiliary aids and services when they are necessary for effective communication. What “effective communication” means, though, may be different for different situations and individuals. For example, if a person is deaf and is going to a municipal courthouse to pay a parking ticket, because this would be just a routine transaction that would require little back-and-forth communication, it would probably not require the use of a sign language interpreter. Just writing and gestures could be effective communication under those circumstances for some people. But if the same person wanted to fight the ticket and appear in court to explain why s/he should not have to pay the ticket, there may be a need for a sign language interpreter to effectively communicate, if that is the person’s usual means of communication.
How could my need for a sign language interpreter cause a “fundamental alteration” of a government program?
It rarely would. But if, for example, a city operates a planetarium, and you request that the lights be left on so that you can see the sign language interpreter that would require a fundamental alteration of the program since it’s essential that the planetarium is dark so that participants can see the display of lights. Just because the planetarium doesn’t have to leave all the lights on, though, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to try to provide effective communication. Maybe the sign language interpreter could be illuminated by a flash light in a small part of the space without fundamentally altering the program or the planetarium could offer a transcript of what is being said.
Does the government have to provide extra services to a person with a disability? I have a disability and I cannot shovel the snow on my sidewalks or driveway. Does the city or state have to do that for me?
No, this service would not have to be provided. Unless the government entity clears everybody’s sidewalks or driveways, they do not have to clear them for people with disabilities.
Does the state have to provide printed materials in large print if I have low vision?
Yes. Printed materials that it provides to other citizens must be made available in other formats so that people who are blind or have low vision can access them. These alternate formats might include large print, Braille, or materials in electronic format. Remember, though, that you may have to request the materials in the format that you need. Allow time for creating the material in the alternate format you need.
I went to a county-owned museum and the staff refused to allow me to take the tour because I’m blind. They have a separate tour once a week for people who are blind. I would probably like that, but I wanted to go on the tour right then with my friends. Is it legal for them to have a separate tour for people who are blind?
Yes, they can offer a separate tour for people who are blind. Sometimes museums do this so that they can allow visitors a chance to touch specific items that are not generally available for museum visitors to touch. However, the museum cannot deny you access to the general tour just because they have the special tour available. You can go on either tour, although the museum does not have to allow you to handle objects that the general public is not allowed to handle on the general tour, even if it allows that on the special tour.
I wanted to join a city basketball league, but when I turned in my application, I had to use my asthma inhaler. The person in charge said that I would have to have a physical exam before participating in the league, even though that wasn’t required of anyone else. Can the city require me to get a physical just because I have asthma?
No, the city cannot require a person with a disability to have a medical examination unless it requires that of all participants.
Because of my disability, I have a note taker for my classes at the county community college. Is it all right for the college to charge a surcharge to recover part of the cost of the note taker?
No, the entity is not allowed to place a surcharge on a person with a disability, even when there is a cost to the entity for providing the service.
Do state and local police have obligations under the ADA?
Yes. The ADA covers everything that officers, sheriff’s deputies, and other law enforcement personnel do – receiving citizen complaints, interrogating witnesses, arresting, booking and holding suspects, operating emergency call centers, providing emergency medical services, and enforcing laws.
Do state and local governments have to provide help to people with disabilities during weather emergencies and evacuations?
Yes. Notification systems, as well as evacuation plans, must take into account how individuals with disabilities will be accommodated. Different kinds of disabilities require different strategies. A “one size fits all” plan for people with disabilities will always be inadequate. For example, a notification system that depends on warning sirens will be inadequate for an individual who is deaf. An evacuation plan that depends on people gathering at specific public locations will be inadequate if the location is not wheelchair accessible. An emergency shelter that is completely accessible to wheelchairs will be inadequate if it refuses to allow service animals to accompany handlers with disabilities.
I’m still a little confused about the modifications that state and local governments might have to make. Can you give some examples of modifications they might have to make and ones they might not have to make?
Let’s use driver’s licenses as an example. Persons applying for a license to drive are usually required to demonstrate the ability of the person to drive safely, to do various maneuvers with the vehicle (such as parking, making turns, backing the car down a street), and to know the rules of traffic safety. If a person with mobility impairment applies for a license, then it would be a reasonable modification to allow the person to demonstrate these things in his/her own modified vehicle, such as a vehicle that uses hand controls, rather than foot pedals. But the entity does not have to change its standards for getting a license to drive. If it requires certain visual acuity as an essential eligibility requirement to obtain a license, it does not have to modify that standard. It would also be a reasonable modification to allow a person who has severe dyslexia to take an oral exam, rather than a written one, as long as the questions are the same.
If no people who use wheelchairs live in a town, then is the town relieved of its obligation to make programs accessible?
No. The absence of individuals with disabilities living in an area cannot be used as the test of whether programs and activities must be accessible. As an example, a town’s administrative offices are located on the second floor of a two-story building that has no elevator. The mayor says that there are no people in the small town who use wheelchairs so there is no need to make the services of the administrative offices accessible. People, however, who currently do not have a disability, may become individuals with disabilities through accident or disease. Individuals with a disability may move into the town. So the apparent lack of people who use wheelchairs for mobility does not excuse the town from taking the necessary measures to make its programs, services, and activities accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Can back doors and freight elevators be used to satisfy the program accessibility requirement?
Yes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, but only as a last resort and only if such an arrangement provides accessibility comparable to that provided to persons without disabilities, who generally use front doors and passenger elevators. For example, a back door is acceptable if it is kept unlocked during the same hours the front door remains unlocked; the passageway to and from the floor is accessible, well-lit, neat and clean; and the individual with a mobility impairment does not have to travel excessive distances or through nonpublic areas such as kitchens and storerooms to gain access. A freight elevator would be acceptable if it were upgraded so as to be usable by passengers generally and if the passageways leading to and from the elevator are well-lit, neat and clean, and excessive travel distances or travel through non-public areas are not required.
Are there any limitations on the program accessibility requirement?
Yes. A public entity does not have to take any action if it can show that it would cause a fundamental alteration in the nature of its program or activity or an undue financial and administrative burden. This determination can only be made by the head of the public entity, or someone s/he designates, and must be accompanied by a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion. The determination that undue burdens would result must be based on all resources available for use in the program. If an action would result in such an alteration or such burdens, the public entity must take any other action that would not result in such an alteration or such burdens, but would still have to make sure that individuals with disabilities receive the benefits and services of the program or activity.