Skip to content

New law aims to improve accessibility, simplify code for architects

    An overhauled state law designed to better mesh with federal accessibility standards should cut down on confusion on building requirements, an advocacy group for those with disabilities says.
    The amendments update the Illinois Environmental Barriers Act. That statute, enacted in 1985, authorizes the state Attorney General’s Office to enforce accessibility laws mandating that public buildings and multi-story housing units in Illinois be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.
    Some elements of the past law were at odds with federal standards, leaving many architects up in the air over codes or in some cases designing to a less stringent standard.
    “The Illinois Barriers Act predates the Americans With Disabilities Act and its accessibility requirements. Over the years there have been several updates of the ADA,” said Cathy Contarino, executive director of IMPACT CIL, an organization in Alton that serves Madison and several surrounding counties.
    Contarino served early on when a committee began looking at the state and federal laws for inconsistencies. The streamlining process eventually became part of the measure now signed into law. The effort has been under way for at least three years, she said.
    “I worked with the Capital Development Board when it first kicked off this effort. They did a comparison, an effort to combine everything,” she said.
    Architects and contractors now have to look at both laws and try to figure out which is more stringent. This will take the guesswork out of that equation.
    “For instance, in Illinois, (disabled) parking space requirements are more stringent because each parking space is required to be 16-feet wide. They have specific signage with defined size. ADA does not (have the same requirements),” Contarino said. Disabled parking spaces are designed to be van-accessible. Under ADA, two disabled parking spaces can share a single access aisle, but in Illinois they cannot, she said.
    “Each space has to have very specific markings, and they cannot share a space,” she said.
    The legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, is likely to have many changes that will prompt questions from the public and businesses as the date draws closer, she said.
    The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, at the urging of Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
    “Simplifying and streamlining codes makes it easier to comply with laws, and making accessibility laws easier to follow will help ensure equal access for people with disabilities who live in and visit our state,” Holmes said in a statement.
    Changes to the Environmental Barriers Act under this update include:
    – Updating definitions to conform with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design and corresponding updates to the Illinois Accessibility Code;
    – Replacing an outdated state standard for accessibility with an easier-to-use standard that mirrors the ADA;
    – Clarifying which version of the Barriers Act and the Illinois Accessibility Code applies to new construction and alterations; and
    – Updating the enforcement provisions to reflect the current emphasis on working with businesses to resolve issues and alleviate future barriers for individuals with disabilities.
    The legislation was Senate Bill 2956.
    The law updates the act to make sure it aligns with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act’s Standards for Accessible Design and to make it possible for architects working in Illinois to refer to one code in order to comply with both federal and state accessibility requirements.
    “I was proud to sponsor this measure because no one living in or visiting Illinois should be prevented from enjoying everything our communities have to offer, simply because they are unable to access businesses, schools, or housing,” Holmes said.
    Madigan’s office is working with the Capital Development Board to update the technical building regulations that correspond with the Environmental Barriers Act, known as the Illinois Accessibility Code.
    Architects were drawn into the discussions early in the process.
    “Our members are committed to designs that inspire and are accessible to all, and SB 2956 will help architects ensure that projects meet both state and federal accessibility laws and regulations,” said Dan Hohl, director of government affairs for the American Institute of Architects in Illinois. “The AIA appreciates the Attorney General’s efforts to support people with disabilities, which also improves access to good design for all Illinoisans.”  
    The Attorney General’s Office Disability Rights Bureau protects and advances the interests of people with disabilities in Illinois, and works with public and private entities seeking to comply with the disability rights laws. The bureau receives complaints regarding noncompliance with state and federal accessibility laws and works to bring facilities into compliance.
    State and federal officials have traditionally stressed working with businesses to eliminate barriers and offered some flexibility.
    In Illinois, owners of older public buildings have not been required to address accessibility until beginning a renovation. But under ADA there is a percentage of common space that must be accessible by individuals with disabilities.
    “The priority is first getting in the building; and then being able to access goods and services through the building; and then restrooms. Restrooms are probably the most complicated,” she said.
    Even though many small businesses do not have public restrooms, per se, they must be mindful of their own employees, who could suffer from their own disability.
    One of the purposes of the ADA is to open employment opportunities for all disabled citizens, she said.
    IMPACT, a nonprofit agency that like others has made cuts to staffing because of Illinois’ budget situation, welcomes opportunities to provide input for businesses regarding renovations to accommodate people, Contarino said.

Leave a Comment