Issue VIII
ADA Accessibility and Main Street
posted by: Joe Lawniczak
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1992, owners of existing/historic buildings that are occupied by “public accommodations” have an obligation to make their buildings more accessible whenever it is “readily achievable” to do so, even if they aren’t doing any other remodeling work. Most building owners aren’t aware of this. Most believe they only have to worry about ADA when doing renovation work or when the work results in a “change of use”.
A “public accommodation” is any business that provides goods and services to the public. These include hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, private schools, banks, doctor’s offices, laundromats, museums, etc. “Change of use” means that the space was changed from one use, like office space, to another use, like retail or residential.
The “readily achievable” rule applies to existing buildings, even when no other work is being done, as long as it can be done without much difficulty or expense. This means that if doing the work will cause considerable loss of profit or would destroy historic elements, or is structurally infeasible, then it doesn’t 
need to be done if no other renovation work is being done. Examples of things that are often considered readily achievable include installing full height mirrors and lowering paper towel dispensers in restrooms, installing offset hinges to make doorways wider, replacing door knobs with lever handles, installing visual alarms, etc. Other things that in some instances may be readily achievable include installing ramps, widening doorways, installing accessible toilets and partitions, etc.
A Long Term Goal
From the beginning, ADA legislation was never meant to make everything compliant in a certain amount of time. It was meant to head in the direction of eventually making a more accessible country. The original lawmakers realized that there would be obstacles that couldn’t be overcome, such as an owner’s financial constraints and structural or historical barriers in existing buildings. 
For business owners, when removal of barriers to accessibility is not readily achievable, other alternative measures may be used to provide people with disabilities access to the business’s goods and services. For instance, if a business provides the same type of services at accessible portions of a building as at non-accessible portions, such as a restaurant with two levels, this may suffice until such time as it is readily achievable to make the space accessible, if ever. Examples of alternative measures include providing curb s
ervice or home delivery, or having an employee retrieve goods from non-accessible shelves. Other examples include keeping the path of travel in stores or hallways free of debris or equipment, educating employees about ADA regulations and what to do if a person with disabilities needs assistance, and making alley or side 
entrances accessible if possible in the event the front entrance cannot be retrofitted for accessibility.
The federal ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) were originally established in 1991, and were updated in 2004 and again in 2010. These guidelines apply to alterations to existing buildings and to new construction. Keep in mind that any new construction must comply fully with the ADA. But for existing buildings, there may be instances where certain accessible elements may be technically infeasible to construct. When a portion of an existing building is being altered, everything along the accessible route to that altered space must comply, unless the cost is dispro
portionate to the overall cost of the alteration. 
This “disproportionality rule” is an important rule for building owners. It states that when renovating an existing space, an owner only n
eeds to spend 20 percent of the total alteration cost on providing an accessible route to the altered area. For example, in many cases the cost of installing an elevator would be more than the 20 percent, so installing an elevator would not be required. In this case, other accessible features and elements must be installed to make up the 20 percent. Following is the list of steps to be taken in order of priority until 20 percent of to
tal project cost has been reached:
1. Accessible entrance (including ramps, etc.)
2. Accessible rou
 (including eleva
tors, etc.)
3. Accessible restrooms
4. Accessible telephones
5. Accessible drinking fountains
6. Accessible parking, storage or alarms
One of the most important things a small business/building owner can do is fill out and continually update a checklist which identifies ADA-related deficiencies in the building and lays out a plan for correcting the ones that are readily achievable. This can help immensely if the owners end up being sued for non-compliance. This checklist can be used to show that they are making a good faith effort to make such improvements when resources allow. This checklist can be found at 
There are both federal tax credits and tax deductions available to property and business owners to help defray some of the cost of making readily achievable improvements. The first is the Architectural/Transportation Tax Deduction. This allows any business to deduct up to 
$15,000 per year for expenses incurred to remove accessibility barriers. Eligible expenses include providing accessible ramps, curb cuts, parking spaces, restrooms, telephones, drinking fountains, etc., as well as widening entrances and routes. This deduction cannot be used for new construction or for accessibility work already required as part of a renovation. 
There is also a Disabled Access Tax Credit. This tax credit is available to businesses with less than $1 million in gross receipts in the previous year, or businesses with 30 or fewer full-time employees. Eligible expenses are the same as the tax deduction, but also included are sign language interpreters, assistance for the blind, consultant services, Braille, etc.  The tax credit cannot be used for new construction or for accessibility work already required as part of a renovation. The credit is 50 percent of expenditures over $250, but not to exceed $10,250, for a maximum credit of $5,000 per year.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) did a study on the costs of barrier removal improvements associated with the ADA Guidelines when they were revised in 2004. View the full report here. The most informative parts of the report from a cost determinations standpoint are the appendices.
Lastly, the Great Lakes ADA Center is a great resource for accessibility-related information and technical assistance in the upper Midwest, including Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin Main Street Awards April 8 Marshfield Registration Link

Rural Summit Wisconsin Rural Partners April 20-21 Potawatomi Carter Casino & Conference Center Wabeno Registration Link

Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions Annual Meeting and Conference April 22-23 Heritage Hill State Historical Park Green Bay Registration Link

Human Capital: Effective Strategies for Recruiting & Retaining a Rural Workforce 7 Rivers Alliance April 28 Rushford, MN Registration Link

Webinar: Event Management Tools, Tricks and Tips May 12 noon - 1 Registration Link

Downtown Open House May 14 Various locations around WI Event Website

Main Street NOW National Main Streets Conference May 23-25 Milwaukee Registration Link

Stay Connected

LinkedIn Twitter Vimeo

New Case Study Research Opportunity

WEDC  and UW-Extension, are working together to identify creative uses for vacant downtown buildings in small towns. The purpose of this project is to provide Wisconsin’s small communities with research and case studies highlighting different ways to meaningfully occupy vacant properties. They are looking for examples that showcase how underutilized real estate can be put to new commercial or nonprofit use.  Please send your creative examples to or 
This message was sent by: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation 201 W. Washington Avenue Madison, WI 53703 Privacy Policy
Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Google