Lesley Walker is Deputy General Counsel with the National Association of REALTORS®. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is Your Office Accessible?
Assess your place of business to make sure it complies with the rules outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
March 1, 2011
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Board of Directors at its annual meeting last November approved an action to make its bylaws consistent with the rules under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring state and local associations to make sure their facilities are accessible to persons with disabilities.
Associations—like all entities that operate public facilities—have been required by law since 1990 to maintain accessible facilities. NAR’s action simply codified that legal requirement into its bylaws.
Yet this action by the Board of Directors serves as an important reminder to all NAR members, especially broker-owners, to take stock of your offices, meeting rooms, training rooms, and other facilities to make sure they’re ADA compliant.
What If You Don’t Comply?
If your place of business doesn’t meet ADA requirements, a lawsuit can be brought by either a private litigant (a disabled person who can’t access your office, for example) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Not only are such lawsuits expensive to manage, but an action can damage your reputation and distract you from your business. What’s more, if a court finds you in violation of the ADA, it can levy civil penalties and require you to modify your premises or provide auxiliary services to make your business accessible. (An auxiliary service might be having a greeter to help disabled persons navigate your office.)
Look at your place of business with an eye toward any structural barriers to the disabled—such as doors that are too narrow or carpet that’s too thick for a person who travels with the aid of a wheelchair or motorized scooter.
If you come across an accessibility impediment in your office or other facilities, you’re required to make "readily achievable" alterations to your space, if making them won’t cause you undue hardship. As it is, there are many simple and relatively inexpensive steps that you can take to meet the "readily achievable" standard. They include:
- Installing curb ramps
- Rearranging tables, chairs, vending machines, and other furniture
- Lowering the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom
- Removing high-pile, low-density carpeting
- Widening doorways
- Creating and designating handicapped parking spaces
- Installing grab bars in toilet stalls
If you legitimately believe that alterations to your office space are not readily achievable, you are not legally required to make them, but you need to be prepared to defend that decision in the event an action is taken against you.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are also two exemptions that might apply to you. The first requires you to demonstrate that the physical structure of your office makes it impracticable for you to meet the accessibility requirements. Here, your responsibility is to proactively demonstrate to the federal government that you can’t make the changes. The second exemption applies to facilities that are designated as historic under state or local law and where the removal of barriers would compromise or destroy the historic significance of the building.
But even in these instances, the accessibility requirement is not eliminated. You would still be required to make your goods, services, facilities, or accommodations available through other readily achievable means—such as by having a designated person who can come to the door to meet or assist a disabled person.
The ADA has been around for more than 20 years, but it never hurts to periodically assess your place of business for its accessibility. Besides providing good service to customers who have disabilities, you also will be taking steps to avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits against your company.