Wheelchair Ramps: Legal Requirements of Commercial Property Owners

The basics of the legal protections and requirements for wheelchair ramps.

Many people with mobility disabilities are unable to climb steps or stairs. People who use crutches, walkers, or other mobility aids may find it difficult to climb stairs, particularly if the steps are steep or numerous. In addition, persons who have heart or breathing disabilities often have significant difficulty climbing stairs. People who use wheelchairs generally cannot climb stairs at all. Are those individuals out of luck if they need to access a business located upstairs? No, fortunately, people with mobility disabilities can generally use ramps to travel vertical distances.

Legal Protections

Laws such as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and similar state and local laws ensure people with mobility disabilities are able to access goods, services, programs, and housing. The premise behind those laws is that people with disabilities should be able to participate in community life just like everyone else. One way that the ADA and similar laws make sure people with mobility disabilities can access goods, services, and programs is by requiring property owners and operators to provide ramps in many situations.

Ramp Requirements

A ramp is a sloped device that connects one flat surface to another flat surface across a vertical distance. In order to be usable by people with disabilities, ramps must generally be built to certain specifications. For example, many ramps have a 1:12 slope. That means a ramp is twelve inches long for every one inch of height. Typically, all but very short ramps have handrails to increase their usability by people with disabilities.

Unless one of a few limited exceptions apply, the ADA requires that business and government buildings built for first occupancy after January 26, 1992 and first occupied after January 26, 1993 be accessible to people with mobility disabilities. That means, in part, that those buildings must have accessible entrances that are either level with the street or reachable by a ramp instead of by climbing stairs. The FHA has similar requirements for the entrances of "covered multifamily dwellings" designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991.

Owners and operators of buildings that were constructed after the ADA and FHA new construction dates discussed above may still have to provide ramps if it is feasible for them to do so. The ADA requires preexisting buildings (those constructed prior to the dates above) to have ramps if it is "readily achievable" for the owner to install them.

In some circumstances, the FHA requires housing providers to install a ramp if necessary for people with disabilities to use and enjoy their housing. In others, the FHA requires housing providers to allow a person with a disability to install a ramp at his or her own expense.

In addition, many transportation providers, such as taxi and bus companies, are required to provide people with mobility disabilities access to their services. This often means providing a ramp or lift to enable entry to some of the vehicles in their fleet.

Local governments, such as cities or counties, are often required to provide small ramps called curb cuts to allow people with disabilities to access sidewalks.

Other Accessibility Requirements

Even when a specific business, government program, housing provider, or transportation entity is not required to provide a ramp, that entity is generally required to provide a way for people with mobility disabilities to access their services. In some instances, this may mean offering the service in a different way or location. For example, a restaurant located on the 8th floor of a preexisting building that only has stairs may decide to offer takeout service to people with mobility disabilities even if it does not offer that service to others.

Ramps and similar features allow people with disabilities to fully participate in community life. Awareness of the law's accessibility requirements can help people with disabilities educate providers of business, housing, government, and transportation services in order to obtain the level of access to which they are entitled.

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