By Zoe Gaik,
Architectural Forensic Associate
RGA Design Forensics
Working in architectural law is tricky if you don’t have a good grasp on what design code/standard applies to what occurrence. If you work in the industry like I do, I’m sure you’ve come across both of these pieces of legislation before, and chances are high that you’re confused as hell. So, I’m here to guide you and give you a run-down of the differences and similarities of both the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design (ADA) and the Florida Accessibility Code (FAC). Mistakenly citing the wrong code as a lawyer can cause you to lose credibility and could even cause you to become stricken by the court.
Let’s begin with the ADA. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, and in the following year a book of standards was set in place by the Department of Justice. This became the standard we now know as the 1991 ADA Standards for Accessible design, which set forth guidelines for commercial facilities that are open to the public to provide accommodations for people who are physically impaired.
The ADA Standards existed 10 years before the first Florida Building Code (FBC) was enacted in 2001. When the very first FBC was being written, Florida Legislature decided to incorporate the 1991 ADA into their code. Thus, the Florida Accessibility Code was born, and lives within the Florida Building Code as chapter 11. In this way, the ADA was adopted into State Law. However, the ADA itself does not constitute State Law. It is a Federal design standard.
The largest similarity between the ADA and FAC is that they share almost all of the same provisions. So usually, when a facility is in compliance with the FAC, it is in compliance with the ADA as well. Both the ADA and FAC exist for the sole purpose of making public commercial facilities handicap-accessible.
The biggest difference between the ADA and FAC is the way they can be used in premises liability lawsuits. The FAC is a building code, whereas the ADA is a design standard. Codes hold more weight than standards, being that codes are a part of Florida Law. For instance, the ADA can be cited in discrimination lawsuits, and the FAC can be cited in design errors and omissions lawsuits. But they cannot be cited vice versa.
Every provision within the most recent version of the Florida Accessibility Code must be adhered to during new construction or significant alteration to a public commercial facility. But facilities are not required to be in compliance with this code around the clock; look at the FAC as a one-time thing.
On the other hand, the ADA does require facilities to adhere to it at all times, which can be done by removing barriers that are readily achievable and not structurally impracticable. But it is not required for a facility to adhere to every single provision of the ADA, essentially just the provisions that can be done easily. A simple example of this would be lowering the paper towel holders in your restrooms down to 48 inches above the floor, to enable people in wheelchairs to reach the paper towels. A not-so-simple example of this would be adding a chair lift to each of your swimming pools, to enable people in wheelchairs to independently enter and exit the pool as they choose.
A long-winded definition of readily achievable can be found here.
“The phrase ‘structurally impracticable’ means that unique characteristics of the land prevent the incorporation of accessibility features in a facility. In such a case, the new construction requirements apply, except where the private entity can demonstrate that it is structurally impracticable to meet those requirements. This exception is very narrow and should not be used in cases of merely hilly terrain. The Department expects that it will be used in only rare and unusual circumstances” (link). An example of structural impracticability would be adding a wheelchair entrance to a facility that is built on stilts due to being within a marshland. However, if wheelchair access proves to be structurally impracticable, the facility owner is then required to remove barriers to accommodate other disabilities such as blindness.
In summary, the Florida Accessibility Code and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design are very similar in that they share almost all of the same provisions. However, they are very different in that the FAC is a code, whereas the ADA is a standard. It is not against the law to be in noncompliance with ADA provisions, however that doesn’t mean you won’t get sued for discrimination for having not removed readily achievable barriers to handicap accessibility. It is against the law to be in noncompliance with FAC provisions at the time of construction/alteration, and can cause an architect’s license to be revoked. The bottom line is: the ADA is a guideline, and the FAC is law.