November 16, 1999
The Honorable George W. Gekas
Member, U.S. House of Representatives
108 B Municipal Building
400 South 8th Street
Lebanon, Pennsylvania 17042-6794
Dear Congressman Gekas:
This is in response to your letter requesting information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on behalf of your constituent, Mr. Ross W. Watts, Mayor of the Borough of Palmyra, Pennsylvania.
You have asked about your constituent's request for a variance or exemption from requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Borough of Palmyra is concerned that modifications to handrails to create extensions of the gripping surface at the bottom of several stairs at the Palmyra Area Middle School create a hazard to pedestrians.
In response to your question, while there is not a procedure for exemption or waiver of ADA requirements, the ADA Standards do make allowance for existing conditions that may make it very difficult or impossible to fully comply with the alteration provisions. In those situations, an entity is required to comply to the greatest extent feasible taking into account existing conditions.
In altering a facility covered by the ADA, the alterations must be done to meet the minimum requirements of the ADA Standards and must not create a hazard for people who are blind or visually impaired. It appears from the photographs that were included with your letter that the handrail extensions do not fully comply with the handrail requirements in the ADA Standards. Section 4.9.4(6) Handrails, states that "ends of handrails shall be either rounded or returned smoothly to floor, wall or post." Although the handrail extensions shown do return to the post, they are a protruding object because the bottom of the extension is more than 27 inches above the sidewalk. Figure 19 (c) and (d) of the ADA Standards provide guidance on how the handrail may return to the post or ground and not be a protruding object hazard. If the handrail extensions are modified to comply with Figure 19, then the railings will not be a hazard to pedestrians.
Your constituent expressed particular concern about one stair that leads to the stage area of the middle school auditorium. To address this concern, the Borough of Palmyra should first determine whether the stair is required to have handrail extensions. The ADA Standards set minimum requirements for new construction and for the alteration of buildings and facilities and include both scoping and technical requirements. The scoping provisions determine the location and number of accessible elements and spaces and the technical provisions set requirements for the basic design. In Section 4.1.3(4) of the ADA Standards, it states that the requirements for stairs only apply when an elevator, ramp or other means of vertical access does not provide access to a level served by the stair. If an accessible route is provided to the Middle School auditorium stage using a ramp or lift, then the ADA Standards would not apply to the exterior stair. However, if the stair serves a level not served by a ramp, elevator or other means of vertical access, then the stair and handrail requirements would apply when the facility is altered.
I have enclosed a copy of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design which are part of the title III regulations and have marked the sections that apply to handrails for your use and for the use of your constituent. If the Mayor or other officials of the Borough of Palmyra would like further information on this matter, they should call the Division's toll-free ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TTY). Members of the Disability Rights Section staff are available to answer questions on the information line on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Eastern time. On Thursday, the information line is staffed from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
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