Wheelchairs and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) recognizes the right of people with disabilities to participate in the life of the community. It gives people with disabilities equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications. Many of its provisions apply to wheelchair users.

Under the ADA, a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities. Places of employment and public places must make “reasonable accommodations” --- changes in the physical environment or in the way things are done --- in order to make them as accessible to people with disabilities as they are to people without disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are required if they can be made easily without great difficulty or expense.

Removing Barriers

The ADA includes requirements for removing barriers in order to make facilities accessible by disabled wheelchair users. ADA accessibility guidelines provide detailed design requirements for many of the following:

  1. Installing permanent ramps, lifts, or elevators
  2. Making curb cuts in sidewalks and entrances
  3. Lowering shelves in stores and places of employment
  4. Rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, display racks, and other furniture
  5. Ensuring that paths to entrances/exits and restrooms are accessible by wheelchair
  6. Moving telephones
  7. Widening doors and doorways
  8. Eliminating turnstiles or providing accessible alternatives
  9. Installing accessible door hardware
  10. Installing grab bars in toilet stalls and showers
  11. Rearranging toilet partitions to increase maneuvering space
  12. Removing seats to provide spaces for wheelchairs in public transportation and theatres
  13. Installing automatic door openers
  14. Modifying equipment
  15. Installing a raised toilet seat
  16. Installing a full-length bathroom mirror
  17. Insulating pipes under lavatory sinks to prevent burns from hot pipes
  18. Lowering the sink, paper towel dispenser, and soap dispenser in a bathroom
  19. Installing an accessible water fountain and paper cup dispenser
  20. Ensuring that carpeting is low pile and high density and is secured attached.
  21. Provide accessible passenger loading zone
  22. Installing vehicle hand controls
  23. Creating designated accessible parking spaces. The following chart shows the number of accessible parking spaces required in relation to the total lot size.
Total Number of Parking Spaces in Lot Required Minimum Number of Accessible Spaces
1 to 25 1
26 to 50 2
51 to 75 3
76 to 100 4
101 to 150 5
151 to 200 6
201 to 300 7
301 to 400 8
401 to 500 9
501 to 1000 2% of total
1001 and over 20, plus 1 for each 100 over 1000


Alternatives to Removing Barriers

The ADA provides that where barriers cannot be removed easily or without considerable difficulty or expense, facilities must be made equally accessible in other ways, if that can be readily done. Here are a few examples:

  1. Provide curb service or home delivery where wheelchair access can’t be accomplished.
  2. Retrieve items from inaccessible racks or shelves for wheelchair users.
  3. Relocate activities to accessible locations if the primary locations can’t be made accessible.
  4. Provide multi-screen cinemas. If it is not reasonably possible to make all the theatres in a multi-screen cinema wheelchair accessible, the cinema can have a film rotation schedule so wheelchair users can see any movie.
  5. Provide a portable seat for the wheelchair user’s companion so they can sit together in public places where seats cannot be readily removed.

Federal agencies are working to update their architectural and design guidelines to meet new standards set under the landmark civil rights law that granted people with disabilities equal access to government buildings and commercial facilities nearly two decades ago.

The Department of Transportation has revised its regulations for accessible facilities to reflect new rules set by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board – known as the Access Board – in 2004. The Department of Justice is working to do the same for State and local government buildings and public and commercial facilities.

The Access Board, whose members are people with disabilities and Federal agency representatives, made the revisions after a ten-year review of the original Accessibility Guidelines set under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The regulations apply to new construction and building alterations.

Federal agencies that ensure the accessibility of buildings constructed, designed, leased or modified with Federal funds under the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act must also incorporate the guidelines into their regulations. The Department of Defense, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Postal Service have updated their standards and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is in the process of doing so.

The revised standards include new specifications for building features including doorways, ramps and public restrooms.

The regulations require swinging doors to provide 32 inches of space with a 90-degree opening. Automatic double-doors and gates with backup power that are part of a building’s accessible exit routes and open to 30 inches each are exempt from that rule because their total opening space in an emergency would exceed 32 inches.

Doors and gates that are placed in succession must be at least 48 inches apart in addition to their swing space. The board will no longer specify the direction that the doors swing in order to achieve consistency with standards set by the American National Standards Institute, a non-profit organization that provides voluntary guidelines for businesses.

The force required to open exterior hinged doors will continue to be unregulated.
Many respondents asked the Access Board to limit the opening force of exterior doors or mandate that those requiring more than eight-and-a-half pounds of force to open be automatic or power-assisted.

The Access Board said it did not limit the opening force of exterior doors because their closing force is subject to uncontrollable factors including wind and temperature and such a rule would conflict with model building codes. The board renewed a five-pound maximum limit for the opening force of sliding, folding and interior hinged doors.

Ramp construction will be subject to the existing slope limitation of 1:12 or less with a maximum rise of 30 inches. However, ramps that are less than six inches high in areas with space limitations may have a 1:10 slope. Ramps that are up to three inches high may have a 1:8 slope.

Ramps that are not part of accessible routes in assembly rooms such as theaters and lecture halls will be exempt from the guidelines’ technical specifications for handrails, landings, slopes and drop-off protections.

A sentence from the original guidelines stating, “The least possible slope shall be used for any ramp,” was omitted from the updated version because the Access Board said it was too vague to enforce.

The Access Board clarified an existing requirement for 48 inches of clearance space at the bottom of diagonal or corner ramps to note that the space must be “outside active traffic lanes of the roadway.” Curb ramps and landings must be at least 36 inches wide.

Accessible public restrooms will be the same size but may be fewer in number.
The guidelines maintain the dimension requirements for restroom stalls, which must be 56 inches deep and 60 inches wide. Stalls with less than 60 inches of depth are required to have a toe clearance of nine inches on the front wall and one side wall. However, the new standards require only half the individual restrooms in a clustered space to be accessible, compared with 100 percent in the original document.

Rear grab bars must be at least 36 inches long unless an adjacent, recessed fixture reduces the available wall space, in which case the bar may be as short as 24 inches.

ATMs, vending machines and other objects reached from the side will be easier to touch with a height limit reduction from 54 to 48 inches. The 48-inch height limit for objects approached from the front will stay the same. There are exceptions for elevators with more than 16 buttons, gas pumps and washing machines.
The six Federal agencies charged with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines are gradually incorporating the 2004 standards into their regulatory structures. The impact of the new guidelines will be seen over time as construction and renovation projects emerge.