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Equal Access Understanding the Finer Points of ADA Compliance

For some New Englanders, planning daily errands and activities can be as tricky as mountaineering. These folks live with disabilities, are elderly, or have had their mobility compromised by illness or injury—even temporarily. For them, getting into or out of their own buildings can seem a monumental task...like climbing a mountain.

Fortunately, there are laws in place intended to provide protection and help make daily life a little bit easier for those living with disabilities. Two in particular—Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA)—were designed to compel owners of certain buildings to ensure that people with disabilities have access equal or similar to that available to the general public.

Serious Business

According to attorney Joseph Saurino of Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, PC in Braintree, Massachusetts, a resident requesting accommodation for a disability is not something that should ever be taken lightly. “Every claim by a resident that he or she needs a special accommodation in connection with a condominium’s rules, policies, or services due to an alleged handicap—whether physical or emotional—must be taken very seriously,” he says. “The failure to respond appropriately in these situations may expose even well-intentioned boards and their property managers to harsh consequences of applicable state or federal anti-discrimination laws, or both.”

‘Reasonable accommodation‘ under the ADA or FHAA can be structural, such as putting in a ramp at the primary entrance to provide wheelchair/walker access, or installing grab-bars in public/community bathrooms. It can also involve policy or rule changes, such as permitting a disabled tenant to have a service or companion animal despite a building’s ‘no pets’ policy, or allowing them—sometimes at their own expense—to make certain structural alterations to allow or improve accessibility. The laws provide guidance in assessing requests for reasonable accommodation, taking into account the nature and cost of the proposed accommodation and the financial resources of the landlord or building.

Interpretation of the Law

As with many laws however, deciphering the language of accessibility can be complicated, and misinterpretation can result in accidental non-compliance. For example, in some cases, managers and trustees in older or historic buildings may believe incorrectly that they are exempt from accessibility requirements. Others may be baffled by the technical requirements of these laws, and still others are resistant to accessibility issues because they assume they automatically imply huge capital expenditures.

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