ARTICLE: Accessibility, Areas of Rescue Assistance, and the ADA

A briefing and marketing opportunity for Condo Owners, Developers, and Associations

 What is the ADA?

This article appeared in the September, 1999 issue of Condo Media Magazine.The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from all sorts of everyday activities. The law established requirements for businesses that provide goods and services to the public. Such businesses are defined by the ADA as “public accommodations.” If you own, operate, lease, or lease to a business that is identified by the ADA in any of the 12 categories of public accommodations you have certain obligations under the law to comply with.

 Does it apply to my building?

Residential buildings are typically not covered by the Act. However there are exceptions, two such being public housing and private residential buildings providing goods or services to the public covered under Title II and Title III respectively. However, as the country’s population ages condominium owners, developers and management associations have an opportunity to differentiate themselves within the marketplace by adopting many of the basic tenets defined in the ADA Act in advance of any future, yet to be defined, regulations.

Taking this proactive approach may open up new market segments for prospecting, facilitate sales or rentals, minimize turnover, and perhaps even provide for additional tax incentives (consult your own tax advisors). While it would be impossible to cover all of the guidelines for the ADA in this
article, I would like to share with you two areas of ADA guidelines, Accessibility and Emergency Communications, as outlined in the Act in order to provide you with a flavor of the law.

The following information has been extracted from the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG), as well as the Department of Justice’s “Title III Highlights” created by the Office on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Please note that this is not a complete reprint of all sections of the Act, and that the author does not make any such claim and is not responsible for any errors or omissions.


Have you ever examined what it would take to make access to or within your property or unit easier for a disabled person in a wheelchair or elderly person with a cane or walker? Many buildings have been built without features that make them readily usable by people with disabilities. There are all kinds of architectural barriers that may be in place, which limit building access or interior movement. Such barriers include but are not limited to:

  • Stairways without ramps
  • Round doorknobs (instead of levered handles)
  • Narrow doors and hallways (too small for wheelchairs)
  • Security gates (instead of telephone entry or large button intercom access control systems)
  • Lavatories without grab bars

The ADA Act identifies and defines “access and accessibility” as well as provide you with the specific information needed to address each architectural barrier. Ramp incline ratios, door and hallway widths, heights and types of door levers are all spelled out in the Act. One of the more appropriate definitions of the term “accessible route” as defined within the Act states:

“A continuous unobstructed path connecting all accessible elements and spaces of a building or facility. Interior accessible routes may include corridors, floors, ramps, elevators, lifts, and clear floor space at fixtures. Exterior accessible routes may include parking access aisles, curb ramps, crosswalks at vehicular ways, walks, ramps, and lifts.”

The answers are spelled out in the Act and its various appendixes, as well as a host of other periodicals and resources. When you are planning your next project, be it new construction or renovation, why not think about the ADA Act as a marketing opportunity instead of a federal regulation?

 Areas of Rescue Assistance

An “Area of Rescue Assistance” is defined as “an area, which has direct access to an exit, where people who are unable to use the stairs may remain temporarily in safety to wait further instructions or assistance during emergency evacuation.” The Act specifies that certain properties (there are exceptions) must have areas of rescue assistance and that each one be of a certain size, and be identified by a sign (in some cases illuminated) that says “Area of Rescue Assistance” in a specific size lettering.

The following examples of Areas of Rescue Assistance are taken directly from the ADA Act:

  • A vestibule located immediately adjacent to an exit enclosure and constructed to the same fire resistive standards as required for corridors and openings.
  • When approved by the appropriate local authority, an area or a room which is separated from other portions of the building by a smoke barrier. Smoke barriers shall have a fire-resistive rating of not less than one hour and shall completely enclose the area or room. Doors in the smoke barrier shall be tight-fitting smoke-and draft-control assemblies, have a fire-protection rating of not less than 20 minutes and shall be self-closing or automatic closing. The area or room shall be provided with an exit directly to an exit enclosure. Where the room or area exits into an exit enclosure which is required to be of more than one-hour fire-resistive construction, the room or area shall have the same fire-resistive construction, including the same opening protection, as required for the adjacent exit enclosure.

Buildings required to have areas of rescue assistance typically have an emergency two-way communications device located in each area so that audio and/or visual communications can be established with people taking refuge, in order to let them know that help is on the way.

A method of two-way communication, with both visible and audible signals, shall be provided between each area of rescue assistance and the primary entry. The fire department or appropriate local authority may approve a location other than the primary entry.

The Act states that “it is essential that emergency communications not be dependent on voice communications alone because the safety of people with hearing or speech impediments could be jeopardized.”

Ideally, emergency two-way communication systems should provide both voice and visual display intercommunication so that persons with hearing impairments and persons with vision impairments can receive information regarding the status of a rescue. A voice inter-communication system cannot be
the only means of communication because it is not accessible to people with speech and hearing impairments. While a voice intercommunication system is not required, at minimum, the system should provide both an audio and visual indication that a rescue is on the way.

Also noted is that devices requiring no handsets are easier to use by people that have reaching difficulties. If handsets are used, they are typically behind small doors that are not usable by people who have difficulty grasping. Keep in mind that, although not required in many instances, providing areas of rescue assistance and two-way emergency communications may help save a disabled persons life in extreme situations and in today’s litigious society show your good intentions by providing extra protection in your property.

Local Resources

This brief glimpse inside the American’s with Disabilities Act has hopefully piqued your interest and perhaps triggered a few new ideas regarding new market segments for property development. There is much published data on the ADA Act and many state and federal resources to seek assistance from.

For further reference, there is a great source for information located right here in Boston: The New England ADA Technical Assistance Center. The Center is staffed with employees who have a wealth of information regarding the ADA and will be able to either provide you with the answers you are looking for or guide you to the right resources. Call them toll-free at 1-800-949-4232.

This article appeared in the September, 1999 issue of Condo Media Magazine.