November 10, 1998
The Honorable Max Sandlin
Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Sulphur Springs District Office
P.O. Box 538
Sulphur Springs, Texas 75483
Dear Congressman Sandlin:
I am responding to your inquiry on behalf of your constituent, xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx, concerning businesses that display the International Symbol of Accessibility or handicapped signs but do not have accessible facilities. Her letter arose from a recent incident where she and other members of her family stopped at a gas station that displayed the International Symbol of Accessibility on the side of its building, and were told by a clerk that the facility did not have any restrooms for the public or for people with disabilities.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by places of public accommodation, such as gas stations. Title III does not, however, require any place of public accommodation to fundamentally alter the nature of its business to provide different services, even if those services might better meet the needs of people with disabilities. If a gas station does not provide any restroom facilities for customers, then the gas station does not have to alter the nature of its business by providing restrooms facilities for customers with disabilities. If the gas station clerk's statement was accurate, then the station was not required to provide accessible restroom facilities because it chose not to provide toilet facilities to any of its customers.
In a situation where a gas station does provide restroom facilities for customers, the ADA imposes different requirements depending on whether the restroom has been recently constructed or altered, or whether it is an existing facility. The Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design establish strict architectural accessibility requirements for new construction and alterations, including specifications for accessible toilet rooms. With few exceptions, the new construction requirements apply to facilities, including gas stations, first occupied after January 26, 1993. The requirements also apply to alterations (i.e., any change that affects usability such as remodeling, renovation, rearrangements in structural parts, and changes or rearrangements of walls and full height partitions) begun after January 26, 1992. New construction and alterations must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities in accordance with the Standards. Please see the enclosed title III technical assistance manual, at pages 45-56, for more information on the accessibility requirements for new construction and alterations. See page 62 for specific information on the requirements for accessible bathrooms in newly constructed or altered facilities.
If a gas station has neither been constructed nor altered since the effective dates explained above, then accessibility requirements are less stringent. The ADA requires existing gas stations that are not otherwise being altered to remove architectural barriers to the extent that it is readily achievable to remove them. Readily achievable means easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. Determining if barrier removal is readily achievable is necessarily a case-by-case judgment that involves the analysis of many different factors and circumstances. The Department's title III regulation contains a list of 21 examples of modifications that may be readily achievable, including: widening doors, installing offset hinges to widen doorways, rearranging toilet partitions to increase maneuvering space, and installing a raised toilet seat. The list is intended to be illustrative. Each of these modifications will be readily achievable in many instances, but not in all. Please see the title III technical assistance manual, at pages 31-38, for more information on barrier removal in existing facilities.
The Department's title III regulation recommends priorities for removing barriers in existing facilities. Because the resources available for barrier removal may not be adequate to remove all existing barriers at any given time, the regulation suggests a way to determine which barriers should be mitigated or eliminated first. A public accommodation's first priority should be to enable individuals with disabilities to physically enter its facility. Based on xxxx xxxxxxxx letter, it appears that the gas station at issue had accomplished this first priority by installing a ramp at the facility entrance. The second priority is for measures that provide access to those areas of a place of public accommodation where goods and services are made available to the public. Again, based on xxxx xxxxxxxx letter, the gas station may have accomplished this priority as well. Xxx xxxxxx, a person with an unspecified disability, was able to utilize the gas pumps. It is unclear whether xxxx xxxxxxxx daughter, who uses a wheelchair, was able to maneuver in the gas station store area. More facts are needed before a determination could be made whether the regulation's second priority for barrier removal was met.
The third priority for barrier removal should be providing access to restrooms, if restrooms are provided for use by customers or clients. If the gas station clerk's statement that they don't have any restrooms for the public means that the station does not provide restroom facilities to customers, then the gas station does not have any obligation under the ADA to provide restroom facilities to individuals with disabilities. However, if the gas station does provide restroom facilities to customers and those facilities are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, then the gas station may be in violation of the ADA if it is readily achievable to make the restrooms accessible. As explained above, we cannot make this determination without more facts.
I can understand xxxx xxxxxxxx frustration that the gas station displayed the International Symbol of Accessibility, but did not have an accessible restroom. However, the Department's title III regulation requires the use of the symbol in some situations where a facility is not fully accessible. For example, the symbol must be displayed at a facility's accessible entrance when not all of its entrances are accessible. This requirement is irrespective of whether or not the public accommodation has accessible toilet facilities. Please see Section 4.1.2(7), at pages 497-498 of the enclosed title III regulation, and Section 4.30.7, at pages 544-545 of the regulation, for more information on signage requirements.
I hope this information is helpful to you in responding to your constituent. Please do not hesitate to contact the Department if we can be of assistance in other matters.
Bill Lann Lee
Civil Rights Division