September 16, 1998
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator
Washington, DC 20510-0504
Dear Senator Feinstein:
This letter responds to your most recent inquiry on behalf of your constituent, Ms. xxxxxxxxxxxxx. Ms. xxxxx requested your support in repealing or modifying the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) based on her concerns that certain historic facilities or noteworthy parts of those facilities were being closed to the public because of ADA requirements. Specifically, Ms. xxxxx was concerned that visitors were no longer able to view the second story of a house at the Duke Tobacco Homestead in North Carolina because the second story was not accessible to people with mobility impairments. Ms. xxxxx had been told by a docent that people with disabilities would be discriminated against if able bodied people were permitted to visit the second story of the house. Please excuse the delay in our response.
First of all, let me assure you that the ADA is a flexible law that does not require a private entity to close part or all of a historic house museum. The ADA provides a balance between the rights of people with disabilities and the importance of the preservation and use of historic facilities.
Historic museums such as the Duke Homestead are considered "public accommodations" under the ADA, and, therefore, have ongoing obligations under title III of the statute. Title III requires private entities, including private museums, to provide people with disabilities "full and equal enjoyment" of their programs and services and may require a private entity to modify its policies, practices or procedures; provide necessary auxiliary aids and services; and remove barriers to access in existing facilities when such removal is readily achievable. Please see the enclosed title III regulation at sections 36.201, and 36.301-36.305 (pages 471, and 474-477) for further discussion.
The ADA provisions for qualified historic facilities exist to achieve the goals of the ADA while protecting the significant characteristics of America's historic resources. These provisions may be used when an alteration to a qualified historic facility, including modifications done for barrier removal, would threaten or destroy its historic significance. Section 4.1.7 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (Standards), 28 C.F.R. part 36, Appendix A (page 504-505), specifically addresses alterations to historic buildings. Please see the enclosed Title III regulation for more information.
When it is not possible to remove certain barriers to accessibility because it is not readily achievable to do so or because the alteration would threaten or destroy the historic significance of the qualified historic facility, the ADA requires the use of alternative methods to provide access to the goods or services, if it is readily achievable to do so. For example, if the second floor of a historic house museum can only be reached by climbing stairs, it may be appropriate for a docent to show a set of photographs or a video that depicts the items, space and information shown on the second floor to a person who is unable to climb the stairs. The photographs or video would have to be shown in an accessible location. This would permit people with a mobility disability to obtain information about the items and space on the upper level that others obtain who are able to climb the stairs.
A copy of the Title III Technical Assistance Manual is included to provide additional guidance on barrier removal requirements and the requirements for historic preservation (see pages 39 - 40 and 55 - 56).
I hope this information will assist you in responding to your constituent. As you requested, I am responding in duplicate.
Bill Lann Lee
Civil Rights Division