Q. My wife and I enjoy visiting a variety of parks, but last year we had a frustrating experience at a rustic park lodge. I use an electric scooter, so when making reservations for lodging I always ask questions about accessibility. We knew that this particular facility had been built early in the last century, but we really wanted to stay there.
There was limited accessibility in the main lodge, a log structure. Access was only provided to reach the restaurant and a restroom adjacent to it. There were no accessible guest rooms in the lodge. Our reserved room was located in a nearby cabin that was reached via a boardwalk that also led into the park. A leisurely “stroll” around the park was impossible, as there were stairs on the route. When asked why the entire facility was not accessible, the manager said that it was a historic property, so they didn’t have to make such improvements.
Something similar happened a couple of months later at a history museum located in a former county courthouse. It was not possible to enter with my scooter — every entrance had steps. The volunteer at the information desk said the museum was exempt from the ADA because the courthouse was on a roster of historic buildings. Later, at home, I visited the National Park Service website and found the National Register of Historic Places. The park lodge was listed there, but the courthouse was not. Even if it had been, aren’t there requirements that these historic properties be made accessible to people with disabilities? What more could I have done?
— Locked out
A. The status granted to historical facilities was not intended to be a blanket excuse to avoid providing necessary accessibility. Instead, historical properties are required to comply with the applicable accessibility guidelines to the maximum extent possible. If such improvements would threaten or destroy the fundamental historical significance of a property or cause undue financial hardship, the owners or operators must still find a way to provide alternate means of access for disabled visitors.
However, facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places or similar state and local registries are allowed to use some alternative standards that may result in a reduced level of access, such as creating an accessible entrance somewhere other than the main entrance; using a steeper ramp than is normally allowed; requiring accessible routes only on the level of the accessible entrance; and getting by with only one accessible restroom. Alterations to the facility must also be accessible per the applicable architectural guidelines to the extent possible, even if the property is historical in nature.
When you are given the excuse that some place is exempt, it can be confirmed by checking with the State Historic Preservation Office, as those offices are responsible for approving applications that are submitted for inclusion on the national registry. If a property is not approved for the national registry, the state office may still have a record if it is on a local or state registry.
You took an important step by questioning the lack of access, and the reasoning for why those properties were not accessible. Once that is determined, it can be useful to have someone to consult with regarding access requirements and possible violations of federal or state laws. There are ADA Technical Assistance Centers assigned to each region of the country; they can help determine what regulations cover a particular property, and whether potential violations have occurred.
If the facility does not comply with applicable laws, it may help to have someone knowledgeable to serve as a representative if you want to file an ADA complaint with the Department of Justice or a state civil rights agency (for violation of state laws). Each state or territory also has an assigned Protection & Advocacy agency to protect the rights of people with all types of disabilities. There is no charge for their services. And depending on the situation, private law firms may also be interested in handling such cases through the judicial system.
Thanks for your help in assuring that historical properties will be accessible for all of us when we want to visit.
- National Register of Historic Places: www.nps.gov/nr/research
- State Historic Preservation Offices: www. nps.gov/nr/shpolist.htm
- ADA Standards for Accessible Design: www.ada.gov/2010ADAstandards_ index.htm
- ADA Title II Primer: www.ada.gov/regs2010/titleII_2010/title_ii_primer.html
- ADA National Network (for technical assistance): adata.org/national-network
- Protection & Advocacy agency network: ndrn.org/en/about/paacap-network.html