Feds to redefine ADA accessibility rules
In May, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey approved several proposed changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that, if approved, will affect designs of new government buildings and might force local governments to alter existing buildings. Now, cities and counties are waiting for the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) and the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to clarify the changes, which may cost communities millions of dollars at a time when budgets are very tight. “This could be absolutely some of the worst timing that local governments have ever seen for new regulations,” says Jackie Byers, research director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo).
The proposed changes could make it easier for disabled people to use local government services and facilities. They include a broader definition of who is considered disabled; new restrictions on service animals; the inclusion of videophones and some other new devices as video interpreting services; a revision of where wheelchair access must be provided; and the inclusion of Segway Personal Transporters — the two-wheeled, one-person vehicles — as mobility devices for people with disabilities.
The proposed changes include a Safe Harbor Provision that would exempt any public entity already in compliance with earlier versions of the Americans with Disabilities Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) from having to retrofit buildings to comply with further, small changes to the ADAAG. However, NACo, along with numerous other public associations and private parties, submitted public comments to USDOJ about the changes, voicing concerns for how a local government could acquire Safe Harbor status and what documentation would be required. “What documentation is the federal government going to ask governments to produce, or at least have available, to sustain a Safe Harbor request?” Byers says. “Where do counties have to meet the regulations, when do they have to meet [them], which sets do they have to meet? It’s not clear.”
Defining Segways as mobility devices also presents a problem for NACo members. “That would mean [residents using Segways would] have access to the same pathways [as] wheelchairs. [Segways’] speed is about 40 mph. A normal wheelchair goes somewhere between 6 and 10 [mph],” Byers says.
Vance County, N.C., officials are tracking the proposed changes closely, says County Manager Jerry Ayscue. “Vance County is a small, rural, low-wealth county, and so costs are always of concern to us. At the same time, we balance that with the need to be socially responsible.”
Ayscue wants to know what the new regulations require before the county begins any new renovation and construction projects. “If we know ahead of time, we can do a much better job of planning and incorporating any proposed regulations into our plans,” he says.
As of early this month, USDOJ was still reviewing public comments before sending the proposed regulations to OMB for a cost/benefit review, says USDOJ spokesman Scot Montrey. He could not say when the rules would be sent to OMB.
The public comments, including NACo’s, can be viewed at www.regulations.gov by searching for “ADA Local Government Services.” To follow the progress of the regulations through the OIRA review, go to www.reginfo.gov. OMB could not provide a completion date for the OIRA review, but Byers says the new rules could take effect by next year.