Automatic Door Openers--When Program Access Requirements Exceed New Construction Accessibility Stand

Ed Zwilling April 6, 2015

The interplay between the new construction accessibility standards applicable to both Title II and Title III of the ADA and the program access requirements applicable only to Title II, is fascinating--if you're an accessibility nerd like me--and can result in greater overall accessibility in Title II facilities. The best example, and one I've used often in the past, is powered automatic door openers. Over the past thirteen years that I've been advocating for people with disabilities, I've met countless independent, active, employed, people with disabilities who cannot open a door, no matter how compliant with new construction standards that door may be.

The 2010 ADA Standards, which includes the 2004 ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), includes guidelines for the operation of automatic and power-assisted doors and gates in section 404.3. However, there is no requirement to equip any door with powered or automatic openers anywhere in the guidelines. Rather, there are only guidelines for how they are to operate if they are employed. What does this mean for the many people with disabilities who lack the ability to open a door, regardless of how "compliant" it is with ADA standards, unless it is also either automatic or power-assisted? Does it mean those people are excluded and relegated to reliance on the chivalry of others to open doors for them?

With regard to public accommodations under Title III, unfortunately the answer is yes. However, this is not so with regard to the programs, services and activities of a public entity subject to Title II of the ADA. Remember, program access can mandate relocation of programs, services and activities to an accessible location, in lieu of barrier removal to an existing facility. Programs, services and activities must be readily accessible and usable to individuals with disabilities per Title II. Clearly, if a person with a disability lacks the ability to open a door, then that door must either be removed or powered for any program, service or activity located behind it to be accessible and usable to her.

For this reason, I've helped many people with disabilities advocate for powered or automatic doors to be installed on several university campuses and other facilities servicing government programs and services, such as courthouses and municipal buildings.