U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section
 Department of Justice seal


Project Civic Access


Cities and Counties:

First Steps Toward Solving Common ADA Problems


Through its Project Civic Access initiative, the Department has worked with over 100 State and local governments to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, in doing so, has observed certain common problems.  This publication describes how those problems affect people with disabilities and offers some suggestions for how to solve them.

The key goals of the ADA are to ensure that all people with disabilities have equality of opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, full participation in American life, and independent living.  All city and county governments, whether or not they receive federal financial assistance, are covered by the ADA as "public entities."  All of their activities, services, and programs are covered, including employment, public meetings, court activities, and programs of police, fire, voting, emergency management, and parks and recreation departments.  When services are provided on a web site, those services, too, must be made accessible.

New Construction and Alterations:  Facilities constructed or altered after January 26, 1992, must comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADA Standards), which are available online (www.ada.gov/stdspdf.htm), or the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS).  Because compliance with the ADA Standards or UFAS is a matter of federal law, they must be followed, even if local codes are more lenient.

Program Access in Existing Facilities: State and local government's services, programs, and activities, when viewed in their entirety, must be readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.  This standard, known as "program access," applies to all existing facilities of State and local governments.  Removing barriers to access in pre-ADA facilities or moving programs from pre-ADA facilities to newer and more accessible facilities or even providing those programs in alternate accessible ways will ensure full and independent opportunities to participate for people with disabilities while minimizing costs.  Governments do not have to take any action that would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs or result in an undue financial or administrative burden, taking into account all resources available for use by the program.

Common Problems with New Construction and Alterations

     It is very common for architects and contractors to follow only their local building codes, which may not provide the same degree of accessibility to persons with disabilities.  Compliance with local building codes does not ensure compliance with the ADA.





People who use wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, and other with mobility aids often find that both newer and older city and county facilities have parking, routes to and through buildings, high service counters, and restrooms that are not accessible.  Due to these physical barriers, some people with mobility impairments may have to rely on others to assist them when transacting their business, or they may not participate in activities in which they would otherwise be interested.

Office with accessible service counter
This lower service counter provides access for people who use wheelchairs.











People who are blind or who have low vision face some similar obstacles when going to or through facilities. 

Common Problem: Protruding Objects

     Objects such as pay telephones and drinking fountains can cause injury to people who are blind or who have low vision if the objects protrude into walkways and are positioned so they cannot be detected by someone using a cane.






Accessible water fountains which do not protrude into path of travel
In "high-low" drinking fountain configurations, the "high" fountain often protrudes into a walkway and is not detectable by someone who is blind and who uses a cane.  The fountains shown in this photograph are recessed into an alcove to avoid the potential for injury.















Common Problems with Signs

     Some signs such as permanent room signs are required to have Braille, high contrast, and raised lettering and must be located on the wall to the latch side of the appropriate door. If they do not have these features, then some people who are blind or who have low vision will be unable to independently navigate around facilities.






Toilet room signage incorrectly positioned on door   Toilet room signage correctly positioned on latch side of door
The sign in the photo on the left is mounted on the door. When signs are mounted directly on doors that open out, people who are blind or who have low vision must stand in the swing of the door to read the signs, causing a potential for injury. For that reason, room signs are always required to be placed on the wall on the latch side of the door, centered at 60 inches high. The photo on the right shows the correct placement.



Common Problems with Parking

     There are too few "accessible" spaces.

     There are no "van accessible" spaces.

     There are no access aisles, or access aisles are too narrow.

     There are built-up curb ramps in access aisles.

     There are no signs, or signs are placed so they can be obstructed by parked vehicles.

     Parking garages do not have adequate vertical clearance for vans.









   Fully accessible parking spaces, including one for vans
Fully accessible parking, including a space reserved for those who use vans, is provided.  Note the clear pavement markings, wide access aisles, and clear vertical signs.













Common Problems with Routes to Building Entrances

     The route has steps but no ramp.

     Ramps are too steep or go too long without level rest areas; handrails are not provided on both sides.





   Too-steep entrance ramp without handrails and edge protection
This ramp is extremely steep, it does not have handrails, and there is no edge protection.  It does not provide appropriate access to the building for people with disabilities.













Common Problems with Entrances and Doors

     Each leaf of a set of double doors is often too narrow to be used independently by someone who uses a wheelchair.

     Round doorknob hardware prevents someone who cannot grasp or turn a doorknob from entering.

     The door threshold is more than inch high, preventing some people who use wheelchairs from entering.








   Fully accessible entrance
This entrance is fully accessible, with a level landing, wide doors, and accessible hardware.














Common Problems with Toilet Rooms

While there are many elements of toilet rooms and often many problems here are some of the most common:

    The door is too narrow, or there is not enough maneuvering space immediately inside or outside the toilet room door for a person using a wheelchair to open and pass through the door.

     Coat hooks and paper towel, toilet paper, soap, and other dispensers are located so that persons who use wheelchairs cannot reach them.

     The "accessible" toilet is placed too close or too far from the wall or stall divider.

     The toilet flush mechanism is positioned on the wrong side of the toilet so that a person sitting in a wheelchair cannot reach it.

     Grab bars are missing or too short.

     The maneuvering space at the "accessible" toilet is too narrow.

     The sink counter is too high, or there is insufficient knee clearance.

     The sink has exposed hot water and drain pipes, which can cause serious burns.















   Fully accessible toilet with grab bars
All features of this toilet room comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.











   Inaccessible toilet room door at end of long narrow hallway
The door is centered at the end of a narrow hallway. People using wheelchairs are unable to open this door, as once they are close enough to reach the handle, their wheelchair will block the door from opening. Additional maneuvering clearance is required to the "latch" side of the door (in this photo, more maneuvering space is required to the right of the door handle).














   Toilet room in which door swings into lavatory's clear floor space
A person using this sink might be hit by someone else trying to enter the room. Doors may not swing into the clear floor space required at toilet room fixtures, such as sinks and toilets.











   Sinks with unwrapped hot water and drain pipes
The hot water and drain pipes under the sinks are not wrapped, so people who use wheelchairs and who have little heat sensation in their legs may burn themselves.










Common Problems with Courtrooms

     Doors are too heavy to open.

     No assistive listening systems are provided for people who are hard of hearing.

     Fixed seats or benches for courtroom spectators are positioned to leave little room for people who use wheelchairs; wheelchair placement in aisles can violate fire codes.

     Jury toilet rooms are not accessible.

     Jury boxes and witness stands can only be accessed by climbing a step.









   Accessible jury seatingAccessible courtroom with ramp to witness stand

This courtroom is designed so everyone can use it. The jury box has space for a juror who uses a wheelchair.

Common Problems with Access to Programs, Generally

     Perhaps the most common form of discrimination faced by people with disabilities is when others assume that they will not be able to, or want to, participate in civic programs and activities, and build facilities or design programs without thinking through the accessibility obstacles that may arise.

     Employment and volunteer opportunities may be limited by others' assumptions about the talents, abilities, and interests of persons with disabilities.








  • When designing your facilities, programs, services, and activities, assume that people with disabilities can and will want to use them just as much as others.




   Accessible pier / dock
This city has extreme tidal changes. At high tide, the pedestrian walkway leading to this fishing platform is almost level; at low tide, it is very steep. Realizing that it would be difficult to keep the slope of the pedestrian walkway gentle enough to be usable by people with disabilities, the city reinforced the walkway and moved its accessible parking out to the fishing platform. Now, people with disabilities drive down the walkway and transfer in and out of their vehicles on the fishing platform. The floating platform is always level, regardless of tide.


















  • Recognize that rules, policies, and procedures that apply to the public as a whole can create barriers to participation by persons with disabilities.

  • Upon request, you should grant reasonable modifications to your rules, policies, and procedures when necessary to ensure equal access and participation for people with disabilities. You are not required to take actions that would fundamentally alter the nature of a program, service, or activity.

  • Maintain the accessibility of the features you are providing through regular maintenance, testing, and appropriate policies.







   Accessible parking space blocked by delivery truck
The only available accessible parking space is being used as a delivery area, so no additional spaces are available to visitors with disabilities.












Accessibility is often overlooked in programs such as voting, emergency planning, and sidewalks.

Emergency planning:

  • Survey your emergency shelters for accessibility.

  • Make sure that policies are in place so persons with disabilities are not separated from service animals, even if pets are not allowed in shelters.

  • Ensure that at least one shelter in your community has a back-up generator and a way to keep medications cool; inform the community about the location of this shelter.















   Accessible sidewalk and curb cut with raised platform
A city provides access to its sidewalks for persons with disabilities, while also adding a raised paved area as a "traffic calming" measure.











Common Problems with Websites

     When websites depend exclusively on graphics for content or navigation, then those who are blind and who use "talking" screen-reader technology may not be able to use them, as screen readers cannot interpret graphics.





  • Have your web master and staff read the Department's technical assistance document, "Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities" (www.ada.gov/websites2.htm).

  • Establish, implement, and post online a policy that web pages will be accessible and create a process for implementation:

    • Ensure that all new and modified web pages and content are accessible.

    • Develop and implement a plan for making existing web content more accessible.

    • Provide a way for online visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or e-mail address on its home page.

    • Periodically (at least annually) enlist people with disabilities to test test your pages for ease of use.










Common Problems with Communication

     Information is often available in only standard print format.

     Public meetings are often held without audio amplification or sign language interpreters, real-time transcription services, etc. As a result, those who are deaf or hard of hearing may not be able to participate fully in live presentations or interactive discussions, such as county commissioner meetings.

     9-1-1 systems are not equipped with TTY's (teletypewriters) or equivalent technology at each call-taking station, or operators do not consistently query all silent calls to determine if they are TTY calls.









Local governments must ensure that the way they communicate with the public is as effective for people with disabilities as with others, unless doing do would impose an undue burden or cause a fundamental alteration.