Home Consumer Protection The Legal Requirements for Ensuring Accessibility in Construction Projects in MA

The Legal Requirements for Ensuring Accessibility in Construction Projects in MA

muccilegal April 15, 2024

Accessibility in construction projects is a legal requirement in Massachusetts. Both state and federal legislation ensures that any new buildings and facilities they provide, or modifications to existing buildings, are accessible to all, regardless of their physical disability. Ensuring accessibility means setting standards for things like bathrooms, doorways, parking spaces, ramps and signage so that disabled users are able to move around as comfortably and as easily as possible.

Regulations that are designed to ensure accessibility in construction projects are based on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and equivalent state laws that operate in tandem with this act.

Accessibility legislation affects both designers and users of facilities in Massachusetts. Disabled users of facilities have the right to use facilities comfortably and with dignity and have the right to take legal action against the owners of facilities that do not meet legal guidelines.

What does accessibility mean in terms of designing facilities?

Facilities that may address accessibility compliance in a public building could include any combination of the following:

  • Parking and drop off points: parking spaces should be as close as possible to the entrance to the buildings. Pathways between parking spaces and building entrances should be wide enough for mobility challenging users to navigate. The distance between parking spaces and the building entrances should take into account access by wheelchair friendly vans and other vehicles.
  • Building entrances and exits: these should be designed so that users with a variety of mobility aids such as walkers and wheelchairs can gain access, including provision of ramps and automated doors.
  • Lifts and elevators: these devices are an essential component of buildings that are multi-storey. They need to be designed to be spacious enough to accommodate mobility devices and allow for multiple information pathways to accommodate both visually impaired and auditory impaired users. Maintenance schedules should be such that accessibility does not become a constraint.
  • Internal lighting installation: this must take into account accessibility needs by the visually impaired. Adequate levels of lighting and color contrasting can help the visually impaired recognize different levels in a multi level building and navigate safely along corridors and between rooms.
  • Restroom facilities: these should be available on each floor and provide special facilities for the physically disabled such as grab bars, accessible sinks, adequate clear signage and sufficient space to allow safe movement.
  • Indoor navigation: accessibility for the visually impaired can be facilitated by providing audio directions and apps that help in navigating within the building. Navigation tools that are digitally available can help wheelchair users navigate their way around without having to use stairs and other obstacles to safe movement.
  • Waiting areas: these should provide comfortable seating and waiting accommodation for disabled users such as the use of armrests or other structures to cater for diverse needs.
  • Surfaces of pathways and flooring design: ideally this should be designed so that it minimizes the risk of slipping and tripping and is as even as possible so that those who are physically impaired can move along them as safely as possible.
  • Staff training and awareness: staff members who manage the building should be trained to be aware of the needs of disabled users and how to operate any facilities that have been incorporated into the design to improve accessibility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ensuring accessibility in the workplace

Rest room facilities designed for disabled workers

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and its amendments was established to ensure that any American with a physical or mental disability does not suffer discrimination because of their disability. ADA’s coverage extends beyond the requirement for building and design to accommodate accessibility as it also requires employers to provide accommodation for disabled employees within a place of employment so that they can continue to work in an environment which does not discriminate against them.

Workplace design is as much a target of the federal legislation as provision for members of the public in any publicly accessible building when it comes to ensuring accessibility. Disabled employees who experience discrimination against them because such accessible facilities are not provided for them are able to use ADA to file a complaint with the federal anti-discrimination body, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

Massachusetts state legislation as it applies to protecting disabled employees

Massachusetts’ own anti discrimination legislation, which protects disabled employees from discrimination in the workplace, is Massachusetts General Law Chapter 151B. This law is basically the same as the federal equivalent but it applies to smaller workplaces. ADA applies to workplaces with 15 or more employees, while 151B applies to workplaces of 6 or more employees.

Both 151B and ADA require employees to provide “accommodation” which allows disabled employees to carry out their work in the same way as other employees and to enjoy the same benefits and privileges as other employees. Employers do not have to do so if the cost of ensuring accessibility is considered to impose “undue hardship” in financial or administrative terms on the operations of the employer.

The role of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board

The Architectural Access Board (AAB) was set up in 1975 and enforces and helps to update the state’s regulations on accessibility access in public buildings for the disabled. The regulations are contained in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations 521 CMR 1.0. These regulations are meant to guide building designers, construction contractors, property owners, and building inspectors so that anyone with a disability can use the facilities in a public building fully, freely and safely.

The legislation enforced by the AAB is designed to ensure that all building alterations, remodeling, construction or reconstruction conform with the regulations. There are quite severe penalties for willful ignorance and actions which disregard the regulations.

Despite its remit, the AAB does not have any authority over enforcing accessibility provisions in workplaces. Disabled employees who believe they are experiencing discrimination against them in their workplace because their employer refuses to provide facilities for them in defiance of federal or state law should consider contacting an employment law attorney who can advise them on their legal options.

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