Achieving ADA Accessibility: Understanding Your Obligations and the Importance of a Comprehensive Plan

Feb 28 2023

By: Amy Spruill, NVIDQ, LEED AP

Man in wheelchair

On July 26, 1990, President H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This landmark decision has played a critical role in prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and mandates that all spaces open to the public be accessible. This includes government, municipal, commercial, workplaces, and entertainment facilities.

More than 30 years later, the ADA has reshaped American architecture and the way that designers think about disability rights and the built environment. Implementing accessible design features such as entry ramps, braille signage, widened public toilets and stalls, and including large elevators in multistory buildings are just a few accessible features that are commonplace in most modern commercial spaces.

Since it was first signed into law, the ADA has undergone multiple revisions and amendments. The most recent update to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design was made in 2010. It is vital that when renovating a space or designing a new building the most recent ADA standards for accessible design are implemented.

Hiring an architect to conduct an ADA assessment is one of the first steps a company or organization can take to ensure that their spaces are widely accessible to all user groups.

What Makes a Space Accessible?

Public spaces play a significant role in our daily lives and should be accessible for everyone to use and enjoy independently. Accessibility goes beyond being able to ensure that people of all levels of mobility can move through space, it seeks to make every space inclusive for all people to experience and enjoy the space.

As defined by the US Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights “accessible” means that a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with equivalent ease of use.’’  

It is important to note that the ADA covers a wide range of disabilities; however, the ADA assessment being discussed in this article primarily focuses on making facilities accessible for those with physical disabilities.

Why Should You Hire an Architect to Conduct an ADA Assessment?

ADA assessments can be performed by architects, engineers, and accessibility consultants. While using an accessibility consultant to conduct your ADA study may seem like a more cost-effective choice, it may cause you to allocate more of your project’s budget towards making your facility ADA compliant than originally planned.

Architects take a comprehensive approach to assessing and designing a space that not only looks at individual problems, but sees each element of a building as an interconnected system that works together to create a whole building.

When performing an assessment, architects can do more than note ADA violations; they can also provide solutions that responsibly incorporate ADA guidelines into the design of the entire space. As an architectural firm, not only are we reviewing specific areas for ADA compliancy during an assessment, but also related NC Building Code items and how corrective measures can cover both deficiencies.

“We recommend hiring an architect because we not only survey the physical barriers based on the ADA Guidelines, but we also survey with the building code in mind. Architects have the ability to look at an area or space holistically to determine how changing one element could impact others, allowing them to provide comprehensive solutions through the assessment process.”
— Amber Idol, MHAworks ADA Specialist & Project Manager

A Brief Breakdown of our ADA Assessment Process

MHAworks has been contracted to perform accessibility studies in efforts to assist multiple public and private entities including school campuses, workplaces, government, and municipal buildings with meeting ADA requirements. We developed our process to ensure that every space we assess is carefully analyzed and that we develop the best design solutions that meet accessibility requirements and the needs and goals of the client and their stakeholders.

1. Listen

Every ADA assessment we are hired to perform begins by discussing the future needs and goals of the project with the owner and their stakeholders. This first meeting presents an opportunity for the owner and their stakeholders to voice existing concerns, project priorities, and ask any questions that they may have. The input our team gathers at this first meeting will help guide them through the process and help the design team develop project deliverables

2. Understand

Following the first conversation with the client, our team collects all existing drawings and documentation of the facilities being assessed. The existing documentation will provide a foundation for the assessment process while we note any deficiencies found within the survey process.

3. Plan

We will develop a detailed work plan that will outline each day of surveying including estimated time for each building and travel times between each site. Our timeline for each building is based on numerous factors including building size, age, current use, and construction type.

4. Mobilize

Once a plan of action has been developed, multiple survey teams will be deployed to the site. Survey teams are typically comprised of licensed architects, professional design staff, and engineering consultants.

5. Assess

We assess each facility from the perspective of the different user groups that will occupy the space. Each member of the survey team will bring a camera, tablet, 24” slope meter, tape measure, laser measuring device, door pressure gauge, the floor plan of the area being surveyed, and most importantly, the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal by the Institute for Human Centered Design and the ADA National Network. These tools will help the design team accurately assess the space.

6. Analyze

Once the assessment has been completed, our team will compile and analyze all findings from each location surveyed to create an ADA transition plan to share with the client. The information compiled will include prioritized building deficiencies and violations, cost estimates, the building index, and much more information.

7. Document

Final deliverables will be put in a written report and an editable spreadsheet for the client to view. Both documents will identify all deficiencies and violations and will include a defined priority level for each deficiency. Each deficiency and violation will be paired with a floor plan that will identify where the deficiency is located and will include images of the deficiency. Design solutions to fix deficiencies and violations, and their estimated costs, will also be included in these documents.

8. Brief

After viewing the ADA transition plan documents, we recommend a debriefing session to go over specific problems areas as identified by the Owner and to devise a plan to renovate prioritized areas within their specified budget.

What is an ADA Transition Plan?

An ADA transition plan is a living document that details all ADA violations discovered during the ADA assessment of your building or campus. Creating this plan is the first step that an entity can take to ensure that its spaces are accessible and meet all the latest ADA guidelines.

Once an ADA assessment is completed, the discoveries from that assessment are included in the ADA transition plan. The ADA transition plan documents will include design solutions and estimated costs of construction or repairs. In this document, each violation is prioritized so that the entity can better choose which violations to fix first based on its budget. However, entities should strive to implement all changes noted in the ADA transition plan as quickly as possible.

How are Violations Prioritized in the ADA Transition Plan?

Once an ADA assessment has been completed, the design team will send over a document containing each of the violations and deficiencies prioritized into four distinct categories.

1. Accessible approach and entrance

This includes accessible, unobstructed routes inside and outside of the building. Accessible parking, ramps, pathways, elevators, and lifts are just a few common ways to make entering the building more accessible for those with physical disabilities and mobility issues.

2. Access to goods and services

Ensuring that all building users have access to the goods and services within the facility is the objective for public entities. Items preventing users from being able to participate in, or access goods and services, are considered accessibility issues. For example, holding a class on the second floor with no elevator access would be considered a lack of access to that service but could easily be solved by moving the class to an accessible space on the ground floor or another facility.

3. Access to public restrooms

Where restrooms are provided, they must also meet accessibility code requirements. Providing a “unisex” or single-user restroom, is one solution giving more inclusive access for wheelchair users and any attendants, especially when attendants are of the opposite sex. Since these facilities have proven so useful, it is often considered advantageous to install a “unisex” toilet room in new facilities in addition to making the multi-stall restrooms accessible, especially in shopping malls, large auditoriums, and convention centers. Going above and beyond code requirements can create a more universal design.

4. Additional access to other items

These additional items include accessible drinking fountains, public telephones, and fire alarm systems that have both flashing lights and audible signals.

ADA in Municipal and Government Buildings

All municipal and government buildings have a responsibility to provide accessible buildings with necessary accessible features to ensure that all community members and visitors can use their facilities. If a municipal or government facility is not compliant with current ADA standards and does not have an exemption, the entity could be penalized.

To reach compliance, state and municipal governments must formulate an approach that best suits their communities’ needs. There are seven steps that public entities can take to form an action plan to comply with ADA guidelines:

1. Start implementing a plan and choosing an ADA team

To begin the process of becoming ADA compliant, an entity must develop a team to assist them during the process. This includes appointing an ADA coordinator and choosing a design team to conduct an ADA assessment for the building(s) or area under review. If an entity is interested in hiring an architectural firm to conduct an ADA assessment, they need to put out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or reach out to a trusted firm directly. In some states, including North Carolina, professional services such as architecture and engineering, must be procured through a qualification-based process, which means potential cost would not be discussed until after the architect is awarded the project and negotiates fees with the owner based on desired scope of services.

2. Appoint an ADA coordinator

If a public entity has 50 employees or more, they are required to appoint one staff member to coordinate ADA compliance. This individual is responsible for coordinating efforts to ensure ADA compliance is being upheld and is a key individual for the public to contact with any ADA complaints or questions.

3. Provide public notice

All public entities must provide information to the public about ADA and how it applied to the public entity. There are several methods that entities can utilize to inform the public of ADA in their space including: a statement on their website, a social media statement, an article in the newspaper, and posting a notice or sign at the facility.

4. Adopt a grievance procedure

Public entities with 50 or more employees must have a grievance procedure. A grievance procedure is a formal opportunity for those with disabilities or those with family members with a disability to file a grievance against the organization if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their disability.

5. Conduct an evaluation

Conducting a review of all programs, activities, and services offered by the entity. A public entity can hire an architectural firm to complete an ADA assessment of any of their facilities to identify any violations regarding physical barriers. Other entities can be hired as well to assist in reviewing web sites, services, activities etc. All these evaluations are then collated to create the overall transition plan.

6. Develop a transition plan

This transition plan will create a timeline for the entity to address any ADA violations with a list of prioritized fixes, different methods to fix these violations, approximated costs, and a schedule for completing construction or repairs.

7. Create an action plan

Once an ADA assessment has been completed and a transition plan has been developed, it is important for public entities to also make a separate action plan to address all other ADA issues that are not structural and may be resolved internally or at no cost. This may include creating an accessible website, changing policies, and moving meetings to ensure they are accessible.

Project Spotlights

Ayden Parks & Recreation ADA Assessment

MHAworks was hired by the Town of Ayden to perform ADA assessments and renovations to the Parks and Recreation Center. The ADA assessment evaluated the recreation center’s compliance with federal, state, and local accessibility regulations. The results of the assessment provided the client with a list of alterations that would need to be made to meet these requirements.

Once the ADA assessment was complete, the facility was altered to meet accessibility requirements. The scope of work included alterations to the exterior and interior of the building’s ramps, stairs, handrails, elevators, and drinking fountains.


NCDOT Statewide ADA Study

MHAworks was hired by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to help them prepare a statewide ADA study to take inventory of their facilities’ ADA compliance. The design team completed more than 500 ADA assessments for various departments including the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Department of Highways (DOH), and Ferry and Global Transpark buildings across North Carolina. Field notes and photos were compiled into a report that NCDOT used to prioritize budget, requisition funding, and maintain an updated account of remaining items requiring attention.