ADA Compliance in Our New Normal

Stephen G. Metzer, AICP, PWS

2020 will long be remembered for a variety of things, most of which we would just as soon forget! The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in changes to our normal way of life, both personally and professionally. The shutdown of many facilities early in the pandemic, both public and private, altered the way we shopped, worked, and interacted with friends and family. The essential workers in the private and public sector, some with health conditions of their own or with family members at home with health conditions, were not able to pivot to some of the changes others could. They had to go to work to serve others and we appreciate them all. Similarly, the operations of most governmental entities had to continue, with several local governments scrambling to figure out how to continue their operations safely and in compliance with open meeting laws that vary by state. Most used technology to hold online virtual meetings, which have a unique set of accessibility requirements to ensure persons with disabilities can participate in online meetings. In the midst of the pandemic, DLZ sponsored a webinar on ways to provide accessible online meetings. You can watch it here.

The 2020 General Election was also a notable event. All the rhetoric and reporting on various voting issues – from mail-in ballots to voter suppression allegations – have been all over the media. Yet very little attention was focused on ensuring voting access for the disabled. Nearly 20% of the U.S. population has one or more disabilities, many of which could impact their ability to access polling places that have engineering or architectural barriers. Most states have polling place checklists for accessibility to ensure that facilities that sponsor these one day events meet the minimum access needs for the disabled.

Simple issues that most of us take for granted, such as convenient parking, good sidewalks, and doors that are easy to open, can be a significant barrier to the disabled to even get into a facility that is being used for voting. There are stories following elections about disabled people that were denied their right to vote because they were not able to access the building for reasons that can easily be fixed, though at a cost. Election officials should understand the importance of their selection of polling locations, which are often churches, schools, and other non-municipal buildings, but also ensuring the accessibility of those facilities. This needs to be done well before an election so that accommodations or physical changes can be made to ensure accessibility for disabled voters. Expansion of absentee balloting is an excellent accommodation, but voters that want to personally visit the polling place and cast their ballot cannot be denied. It’s their right as an American.

Today, 30 years after the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many government entities have facilities that have various accessibility issues. These physical facility barriers can be identified through an ADA self-evaluation, which DLZ can assist you with by providing experienced professionals to perform inspections or train your staff on how to complete them. Government programs and the policies and procedures in place to implement them is an accessibility need often overlooked. Only through an evaluation of these potential non-physical barriers can a comprehensive ADA Transition Plan be developed to map out a strategy to ensure accessibility to all government programs.

As we see much more emphasis on the technology side of accessibility needs, including websites and access to the virtual meetings, I would anticipate this topic to be more prominent this year. As we settle into 2021, there will likely be new Federal guidance provided for access to technology for the disabled, especially websites, given the increase in use of the internet for so many of our normal day-to-day activities.

We urge all public and private entities out there to consider the accessibility needs of their customers before it becomes an issue and results in complaints, whether formal or not, or loss of business. Like most things, fixing something before it becomes an issue is typically much less costly than after it becomes a problem. We’re here when you need us. We can help you understand your accessibility obligations.