New Accessibility Rule Could Impact Employees with Disabilities

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales August 16, 2023

​The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) issued a final rule on Aug. 8 that provides guidelines for the accessibility of pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way—which, workplace experts say, could support the needs of employees with disabilities.

Once adopted, these guidelines will inform federal, state and local government agencies on how to make their pedestrian facilities—such as sidewalks, crosswalks, shared-use paths and on-street parking—more accessible to people with disabilities.

The rule goes into effect on Sept. 7.

The Access Board, an independent federal agency, "is proud to issue these guidelines as a critical step toward equal access to the public right-of-way for people with disabilities in America," Executive Director Sachin Pavithran said in a statement. "Equal access to pedestrian facilities is crucial because pedestrian travel is the principal means of independent transportation for many people with disabilities."

The Access Board said these guidelines cover "the minimum scoping and technical requirements" for various spaces in the public right-of-way, such as pedestrian access routes, which ensure the accessibility of sidewalks and include alternate access routes when a main route is closed for maintenance or construction.

Other highlights in the requirements relate to:

  • Pedestrian signals.
  • Curb ramps and blended transitions.
  • Detectable warning surfaces.
  • Crosswalks at roundabouts.
  • On-street parking.
  • Transit stops.
  • Street furniture.

Kenneth Shiotani, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, said the guidelines will provide state and local governments, as well as other entities that design streets and sidewalks, with important guidance on how to make these facilities accessible to all.

"That should ultimately help people with disabilities be able to leave their homes with fewer barriers when going to school, work, shopping, visiting friends and doing all the activities that everyone should be able to enjoy," he said.

Rule Aims to Make Getting to and from Work Easier

Pedestrians with disabilities have experienced significant difficulties with travel because many sidewalks, crosswalks and other pedestrian facilities are inaccessible, hurting their ability to go to work and sustain employment.

In the past, there had not been clear standards for on-street parallel, angled and perpendicular parking spots that provide accessibility for drivers with disabilities who need accessible features to get in and out of their vehicles and to get from the street to sidewalks. Shiotani said the Access Board's rule eliminates such ambiguity.

He added that the standards also address accessible pedestrian signals that use sounds and vibrations to indicate the "walk" interval so a pedestrian who is blind or has low vision will know when to cross the street.

"The guidelines provide standards for what features accessible pedestrian signals need to have and how they need to be located," Shiotani said. "An issue that the guideline does not address is when they need to be installed."

Susan Lessack, an attorney in the Philadelphia and Berwyn, Pa., offices of Troutman Pepper, said the rule could lead to more people with disabilities landing jobs. While the employment rate for individuals with disabilities is rising, it still lags far behind that of people without a disability.

"It's possible that the increase in accessibility may encourage people with mobility impairments to apply for jobs that they previously avoided because they were concerned about safety issues caused by commuting to the workplace," she said. "If so, that could expand the applicant pool for open positions."

Will New Rule Impact Reasonable Accommodations?

Lessack said some employees with mobility limitations may request an accommodation—such as working remotely or asking for a delayed start time—to address their difficulty in getting to work. In such a case, employers might consider the accessibility improvements implemented as a result of the Access Board rule when engaging in the interactive process with the employee.

"If the sidewalks on which the employee travels on their route to work have been improved by the changes implemented as a result of the rule, the employee may face a more difficult task in establishing the need for a reasonable accommodation of working remotely," Lessack explained.

Research has shown that remote work has helped many people with disabilities find jobs by allowing them to avoid the physical barriers that often come with traveling to the office.

Considering the interactive process often focuses on whether an accommodation request is medically necessary, employers might consider whether an employee's commute has improved sufficiently enough to travel that route, Lessack added.

"As a practical matter, if an employer has been permitting an employee with a mobility impairment to work remotely, this rule seems unlikely to change the employer's approach," she said. "Note that courts have differed on whether an employer is even required to provide a reasonable accommodation related to an employee's commute."



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