ADA & Universal Design

One of the largest cinema chains in the country, AMC Theatres, recently lost a major court decision for failing to follow the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for equal wheelchair seating. The court found that only providing wheelchair seating in the first row does not meet the standard of comparable sight lines. Now, in addition to extensive legal fees, AMC faces considerable fines, and will probably be required to make expensive modifications to their theatres.

ADA is federal civil rights legislation, the most powerful form of law in the United States. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, that enforces the ADA, takes it very seriously. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by the Justice Department to enforce ADA. Suits have been brought against commercial facilities of all types, including entertainment facilities. If a complaint is filed, not only does the Justice Department check out the possible violation, they will usually conduct a full ADA compliance audit of the facility. So even if the complaint has no merit, they may find other violations. Individuals can also file lawsuits claiming discrimination under ADA.

All public and commercial facilities are subject to Title III of the ADA Act that deals with the public's right of access. Based upon some recent court rulings, the owner of the property or the tenant is liable for violations, not the designer.

ADA is very complex. It deals with much more than building design. It deals with the accessibility and usability of all aspects and components of commercial and public facilities. This includes restrooms, water fountains, parking, seating, play equipment, rides, signage, miniature golf courses, counters, sports facilities, aquatic features and recreation components. It doesn't matter whether they are indoors or outdoors.

When we design facilities for our clients, we try to go further than ADA, which are only minimum standards. We follow the principals of universal design. Universal design is an approach to the design of products and environments so they can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design is an inclusive design approach that extends the benefits of use to many groups of people who are not necessarily classified as having a disability under ADA, but who regularly encounter functional obstacles. This can include short people (including children), tall people, large people, frail people, pregnant women, people who can't read the native language (foreigners and young children), people carrying packages, parents carrying children or with children in strollers and people with orientation difficulties, including some senior citizens.

We find that universal design makes location-based leisure facilities usable and attractive to the largest number of people. That's just good business.