by Christine Griffin and Carol R. Steinberg
At last year’s benefit for the Disability Law Center, we cried as a video of President George H. W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was shown in honor of the law’s 25th anniversary.
On July 26, 2016, we will celebrate again on the law’s 26th anniversary. The ADA insured that people with disabilities would have fuller lives than they did before. It prohibited discrimination against us in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. Places of employment, housing, and other facilities must now make accommodations to allow our participation.
But like many laws which leave work to be done, there are gaps in the inclusion of people with disabilities 26 years after the ADA was signed into law.
A bill presently before the Massachusetts Legislature would, if enacted, help fill those holes by greatly increasing housing and employment opportunities for people with disabilities in this state. It must finally become law to help fulfill the promise of the ADA.
The bill is Senate Bill 1323, An Act Relative to the Architectural Access Board. Disability advocates have been trying to get this bill passed for nine legislative cycles. Right now it is poised for success as it has passed through the Senate and is before the House Ways and Means Committee. But it must come out of the Ways and Means committee and be passed by the full House by the end of this month in order to finally become law.
More than two decades before the federal ADA was enacted, Massachusetts law required that buildings open to the public be accessible. Since 1968 we have had the Architectural Access Board (AAB) which was “designed to provide full and free use of buildings and facilities so that persons with disabilities may have the education, employment, living and recreational opportunities necessary to be as self-sufficient as possible and to assume full responsibilities as citizens.”
The AAB’s regulations are much more effectively implemented than the ADA. While the ADA requires a time-consuming civil rights lawsuit brought after an inaccessible building is already built or renovated when the barriers are difficult and expensive to undo, the AAB regulations are part of the Massachusetts building code, and are enforced by local building inspectors when the building is first constructed or remodeled.
But the AAB’s jurisdiction has flaws. It is not aligned with the ADA in important respects. This incongruence, which would be fixed by Senate Bill 1323, is unfair and confusing not only to people with disabilities, but also to architects, developers, building owners, and businesses.
First, although there has been much renovation of beautiful old mill buildings into housing, this boom does little to meet the vast housing needs of people with disabilities. Buildings occupied before September 1, 1991 which are converted into multiple dwellings, unlike newly constructed housing, need not have units that can be modified and made accessible as needed. This would be corrected by Senate Bill 1323 and the supply of accessible housing would grow.
Secondly, the AAB does not govern places where people work unless those places are open to the public. This means the Board has to allow offices and factories to be places that physically disabled persons cannot be employed. This is outrageous.
As an example, the Board had to allow a large building on the Boston waterfront undergoing a huge renovation to retain stairs through its offices that were for employees only.
And the Board couldn’t require a major university spending 7 million dollars renovating a historic building to put in an elevator leading to employee offices on the fourth floor—including the office of the Diversity Officer-- because the areas were only for university employees.
Every time the Access Board meets, two times each month, it has to allow inaccessible employee spaces to stay that way. As a result, people with disabilities are barred from employment in those offices- in the waterfront building, in the university, and all over the Commonwealth-- forever.
Senate Bill 1323 will require employee spaces over which the board has jurisdiction—i.e. those in newly constructed or substantially renovated buildings-- to be accessible. It will directly impact thousands of people with disabilities who cannot work now because those spaces are not accessible-- like an unemployed scientist we know that has multiple sclerosis and has been unable to take jobs or even go for interviews because labs are on the second floor in buildings without elevators and she has trouble with stairs.
26 years after the signing of the ADA, we must make sure that a law that greatly improves housing and employment, for people with disabilities is enacted in Massachusetts.
Christine Griffin is the Executive Director of the Disability Law Center (DLC), the Protection and Advocacy agency for Massachusetts and a private, non-profit organization responsible for providing protection and advocacy for the rights of Massachusetts residents with disabilities.
Carol R. Steinberg is an attorney, has been a member of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, past president of the Board of the Disability Law Center, and a member of the Government Relations Committee of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Greater New England Chapter.