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Accessibility Frequently Asked Questions

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What is "accessibility"?

"Accessibility" is the combination of various elements in a building or area which allows access, circulation, and the full use of the building and facilities by persons with disabilities.

What is the difference between "accessibility" and "universal design"?

"Universal design" is a broader, more comprehensive "design-for-all" approach to the development of architecture around human diversity. It recognizes the changing diversity of needs important to all types of people regardless of their varying age, ability, or condition, during an entire life. By comparison, "accessibility" has traditionally focused on addressing the needs of a few people with separate circumstances from those of the public at large, when in fact almost everyone is, over the course of their lifetime, quite able to benefit from barrier-free design, user-friendly architecture, and comfortable environments.

What is the purpose of the California accessibility requirements?

It is the intent of the California Legislature that the building standards published in the California Building Standards Code (Title 24) relating to accessibility by people with disabilities shall be used as minimum requirements to ensure that buildings, structures, and related facilities are accessible to, and functional for, every member of the public, so as to provide equal opportunity to access public accommodations. Access is to be provided to, through, and within the buildings, without loss of function, space, or facility where the general public is concerned.

Why are the California Building Standards Code (Title 24) requirements more stringent than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements?

The regulations in California were developed by the Division of the State Architect, Access Compliance, eight years before the United States Congress passed the ADA. The current California Building Standards Code was written to provide a single code which would meet all of the most stringent requirements of the original California Building Standards Code, as well as the 1991 Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.

Who is the building official?

The "building official" is the officer or other designated authority charged with the administration and enforcement of this code, or the building official's duly authorized representative in accordance with state law. Local cities and counties have building officials who regulate construction in their jurisdiction. State funded construction on state property is often regulated by a state agency, such as the Division of the State Architect. Sometimes public construction has more than one building official — each has separate jurisdictional oversight responsibilities.

Can I get a waiver from the access requirements?

The California Building Standards Code says that you must get a final determination from the local building official that your project has an unreasonable hardship. This is rarely granted for new construction. Existing buildings undergoing alteration are sometimes allowed to depart from the literal requirements of the building code only when equivalent facilitation is provided.

What is "equivalent facilitation"?

"Equivalent facilitation" is an alternate means of complying with the literal requirements of these standards and specifications that provides access in terms of the purpose of these standards and specifications. In determining equivalent facilitation, consideration shall be given to means that provide for the maximum independence of persons with disabilities while presenting the least risk of harm, injury, or other hazard to such persons or others.

Can DSA help me settle a dispute I am having with my local building inspector who says I must provide access to my restaurant?

No, because DSA is a separate jurisdiction. By law, only the local building authority can make a final determination as to code enforcement issues.

Do point-of-sale transaction counters require a lower checkwriting surface for people who use wheelchairs?

On state funded projects under DSA jurisdiction, DSA approves projects that provide a lower transaction counter which is minimally 36 inches in width and no more than 34 inches high above the finished floor. If your project is under a local jurisdiction, check with the local building official to see if the same enforcement policy is utilized.

Do all the living units in an apartment building need to be accessible?

Accessibility is required to all covered multifamily dwellings on the lowest floor in buildings without elevators. Certain exceptions apply to multistory units, or smaller buildings such as single or duplex units. In covered multifamily dwellings in buildings with elevators, all units are required to be located on an accessible route. Within the units, the requirements are for accessibility are allowed to be for adaptable dwelling units.

What is a "covered multifamily dwelling"?

"Covered multifamily dwellings" are all dwelling units in buildings consisting of three or more privately funded dwelling units if such buildings have one or more elevators; and all ground floor dwelling units in other buildings consisting of three or more dwelling units.

Is an elevator required in "covered multifamily dwellings"?

No, as long as the first dwelling level floor above grade is accessible. Some buildings have parking on the lower floor, and a ramp, wheelchair lift or elevator will be required to provide access to the lowest dwelling level floor above the parking.

What is an "adaptable dwelling unit"?

An "adaptable dwelling unit" is a dwelling unit in a building with a building entrance on an accessible route designed in such a manner that the public and common use areas are readily accessible to and usable by a person with a disability, and all doors are designed sufficiently wide to allow passage into and within all premises by persons who use wheelchairs as required by the building code.

What are the general requirements of the California Building Standards Code accessibility regulations?

Accessibility to buildings or portions of buildings shall be provided for all occupancy classifications except as specifically modified by the building code. Individual occupancy requirements in the code may modify the general requirements for accessibility, but never to the exclusion of them entirely — unless the requirements for an individual occupancy specifically overrides a general requirement. Multistory buildings must provide access by ramp or elevator, with elevator exceptions available for some buildings. Generally, two story office buildings are not required to have elevators, although all other accessible features are still required on upper floors.

Accessibility requirements can be difficult to understand. Can DSA help me determine what I must do in my construction project?

Construction law is quite difficult, and takes experienced professional expertise. The Division of the State Architect functions as a building oversight agency on state-funded construction projects, and can only direct you to general resources at your local building department. If DSA is the jurisdictional authority, our "California Access Compliance Reference Manual" has all of the building code accessibility regulations and policies used on projects under DSA approval authority. The Manual is available as a free download as an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file. The Manual is also available in hardcopy at technical bookstores throughout California.

What privately funded multistory buildings do not require a ramp or elevator?

The following types of privately funded multistory buildings do not require a ramp or elevator above and below the first floor:
Multistoried office buildings (other than the professional office of a health care provider) and passenger vehicle service stations less than three stories high or less than 3,000 square feet (279 m2 ) per story.

Any other privately funded multistoried building that is not a shopping center, shopping mall, or the professional office of a health care provider, and that is less than three stories high or less than 3,000 square feet (279 m2 ) per story if a reasonable portion of all facilities and accommodations normally sought and used by the public in such a building are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

Can I have all the accessible seating in the back or front row?

Accessible seating or accommodations in places of public amusement and resort, including theaters, concert halls and stadiums, but not including hotels and motels, shall be provided in a variety of locations so as to provide persons with disabilities a choice of admission prices otherwise available to members of the general public. When there are over 300 seats, dispersal is required, and when there are less, no dispersal is clearly indicated in the code. However, some trial courts have found that lack of dispersal creates a highlighted area — generally considered discriminatory. The building code does mention this, and further changes in the code to clarify this is quite likely.

Does a factory need to be accessible?

Yes, the following areas are required to be accessible:

  1. Major or principal floor areas shall be made accessible.
  2. Office areas shall be made accessible.
  3. Sanitary facilities serving these areas shall be made accessible.

What about access to hotels?

Hotels, motels, inns, dormitories, resorts, and similar places of transient lodging shall provide access for persons with disabilities in accordance with the provisions of the accessibility requirements of this California Building Code. Accessible guest rooms or suites shall be dispersed among the various classes of sleeping accommodations to provide a range of options applicable to room sizes, costs, amenities provided, and the number of beds provided.

Must I provide separate accessible toilet facilities?

The California Labor Code requires separate facilities whenever there are more than four employees. Where separate facilities are provided for nondisabled persons of each sex, separate facilities shall be provided for persons with disabilities of each sex also. Where unisex facilities are provided for persons without disabilities, at least one unisex facility shall be provided for persons with disabilities within close proximity to the non-accessible facility.

What accessible routes are required on a site?

When a building, or portion of a building, is required to be accessible or adaptable, an accessible route of travel shall be provided to all portions of the building, to accessible building entrances and between the building and the public way. Except within an individual dwelling unit, an accessible route of travel shall not pass though kitchens, storage rooms, restrooms, closets or other spaces used for similar purposes.

At least one accessible route within the boundary of the site shall be provided from public transportation stops, accessible parking and accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks, to the accessible building entrance they serve. The accessible route shall, to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public. At least one accessible route shall connect accessible buildings, facilities, elements and spaces that are on the same site.

At least one accessible route shall connect accessible building or facility entrances with all accessible spaces and elements and with all accessible dwelling units within the building or facility. An accessible route shall connect at least one accessible entrance of each accessible dwelling unit with those exterior and interior spaces and facilities that serve the accessible dwelling unit.