The Architectural Barriers Act is the ADA’s Powerful Parent

Above image courtesy of Azmanjaka/Getty Disability Collection.

  • Did you know that post offices and all other federally-owned buildings are covered by the Architectural Barriers Act, and not the Americans with Disabilities Act?
  • This means complaints about the building itself go to the U.S. Access Board rather than the Department of Justice.
  • Our ADA Expert Marsha Mazz — who is also an ABA Expert — breaks it down for us.

A few weeks ago, one of our United Spinal Association members told me they filed an “ADA” complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. The complaint was filed against a U.S. Post Office that had no accessible parking and no accessible entrance.

Having not heard back from DOJ, our member was pretty ticked off. My reply didn’t make them feel any better.

Post offices and all other federally owned buildings and facilities, from national parks to research laboratories, are covered under the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, not ADA.

In fact, any buildings designed, constructed, or altered with federal construction dollars, including some privately owned or owned by state and local governments and those leased by federal agencies (after August 12, 1968), are ABA covered.

Who enforces the ABA?

The U.S. Access Board enforces the ABA. You may file a complaint online.

Although the Architectural Barriers Act may have the same effect as a civil rights law, it isn’t one. The ABA operates more like a building code than other laws concerning the rights of individuals with disabilities.

So, your complaint must focus on the built environment, not policies, practices, or procedures that may discriminate against people with disabilities. Civil rights laws, such as Sections 501, 503, and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are appropriate for most such complaints. Here’s a quick and easy to use Guide for Disability Rights Laws.

I know the DOJ does not accept every ADA case. What’s the Access Board’s policy?

The Access Board follows up on every ABA complaint!

The Board first determines if it has jurisdiction over the matter. If it lacks jurisdiction, it will, with your permission, forward your complaint to the appropriate agency. If it has jurisdiction, it will work with the responsible federal agency to determine if a violation has occurred.

When there is a violation, Board staff works with the agency to resolve the matter. It is a simple process that is carefully tracked from intake to resolution, and Board staff is extremely responsive and respectful of all the parties involved.

I work for the federal agency I’m complaining about. Won’t filing a complaint put me at risk?

We all know the answer should be “no.” However, there is no way to guarantee that there won’t be fallout.You have two things going for you. First, when you file an ABA complaint, the Access Board does everything possible to protect your privacy. It doesn’t share your name with the agency against which you complained. In fact, Board staff won’t share your name internally with staff who do not need to know.

Second, the federal government has laws protecting whistleblowers and individuals who assert their disability and employee rights. Here’s a useful page from the Office of Personnel Management about some of those protections. If you’re still in doubt, call the Access Board to discuss your concerns before filing a complaint with them.

What accessibility standards apply under the ABA?

Like the ADA, the Access Board develops guidelines that become enforceable standards once adopted. Under the ABA, these four standard-setting agencies adopt the Board’s guidelines: U.S. Department of Defense for military facilities, the U.S. Postal Service for post offices, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all non-military housing, and the General Services Administration for everything else.

The ABA Standards are very similar to the ADA Standards but differ in several important ways. Here are some of the major differences. First, most employee work areas must be fully accessible, including workstations, laboratories, and kitchens. Second, nearly all multi-story buildings must have elevators or, in some cases, a platform lift. Lastly, unlike the ADA, the process for granting an exception or using alternate methods of compliance requires a paper trail and involves review by the responsible agency and the Access Board.

Where can I find the ABA Standards?

The ABA Standards are on the Access Board’s website.

What do I get if my complaint is resolved in my favor?

If your complaint is successful, you get access and nothing else but the satisfaction of knowing that you fixed a problem for yourself and others. There are no payoffs and no attorney’s fees.

In the interest of transparency . . .

Marsha Mazz is an Access Board retiree who is still a big fan of this little agency. The Access Board was created 50 years ago. Its original mission was to develop accessibility guidelines and enforce the ABA.

The Board’s responsibilities now include the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment under the ADA and ABA, public rights-of-way, recreational facilities, information and communications technology, medical diagnostic equipment, transportation vehicles, and passenger vessels. Yet, it is still an accessibility boutique with about 30 employees who focus solely on making the world more accessible.