Left: ADA compliance may include changing curb ramp configuration to add truncated domes and a slope, such as in this sidewalk in Columbus, Ohio. Above: Inspecting the final construction work is key to ensuring that all requirements are met. Engineers will measure for pitch and width, along with other parameters specific to a curb ramp location. Photos: H.R. Gray

Editor's note:While cities are working to make sidewalks more accessible, many are learning that their curb ramps don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This article, the first in a three-part series, explains what the law requires and why. Parts two and three will cover product selection and real-world examples, respectively.

Crossing the street, entering a building, using the restroom—most of us don't give a second thought to these daily activities. For people with physical disabilities, however, these tasks present unique challenges.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 15 years ago to ensure that everyone, regardless of physical limitation, has equal access to public facilities and programs. Since then, designated parking spaces, curb ramps, and accessible restrooms have become standard in government buildings. Also, any alteration made after Jan. 26, 1992, to a place of public accommodation or commercial facility should ensure that the altered portions of the facility are easily accessible to the disabled whenever possible.

Title II of the ADA addresses public entities, which are defined as “any state or local government and any of its departments, agencies, or other instrumentalities.” The law applies to all the activities of state and local governments regardless of whether they receive federal funds, and does not exempt small municipalities.

Public entities with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from record-keeping requirements such as maintaining self-evaluations for three years and designing a grievance procedure for ADA complaints, but there is no general exemption. All public entities, regardless of size, must comply with Title II's requirements.

There's no grandfathering in, either—although the law is open to interpretation. Cities aren't required to take any action that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity, or that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens. If an action would result in such an alteration or such burdens, a city government must take any other action that it can to ensure that people with disabilities receive the benefits and services of the program or activity. An example of an alternative method would be relocating activities to accessible locations.

This determination can be made only by the head of the public entity or a designee and must be accompanied by a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion. The determination that undue burden would result must be based on all resources available for use in a program.

Cities must provide services in an integrated setting unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity. Requirements that tend to screen out individuals with disabilities, such as requiring a driver's license as the only acceptable means of identification, also are prohibited.

The ADA's goal is to make services accessible for everyone, not just a particular group, so projects must be designed accordingly. A ramp that can be navigated by wheelchairs presents a different problem for the blind—and vice versa.

Therefore, enlisting the aid of qualified consultants or local advocacy groups can be invaluable to a project's success. Experts can help define “reasonable accommodations,” assisting all parties in coming to a satisfactory resolution.

Attempting to make decisions without this input can and probably will result in a misguided direction of budget and resources.

— Sexton is construction manager with H.R. Gray, Columbus, Ohio.