Understanding ADA Compliance for Commercial Properties

by | Feb 7, 2024

When discussing commercial properties, one cannot overlook the importance of adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Enacted in 1990, the ADA is a landmark piece of legislation designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to public spaces, services, and opportunities. Our real estate attorneys often work with clients who have questions about ADA compliance and the implications for their commercial properties. This article seeks to shed light on the key points every property owner should understand.

What is ADA Compliance?

At its core, ADA compliance means ensuring that commercial spaces are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. This involves a range of modifications from wheelchair ramps to Braille signs. Non-compliance can not only lead to exclusionary practices but also to potential lawsuits and significant penalties. Commercial properties that fall under the “public accommodation” category need to be ADA compliant. This includes (but is not limited to) retail stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, private schools, convention centers, doctors’ offices, and homeless shelters. Essentially, if a property is open to the public or offers services to the public, it likely needs to comply with ADA standards.

However, note that there are exceptions. For example, religious organizations and private clubs, unless they’re open to the public, are not typically required to adhere to ADA guidelines.

What Does Compliance Entail?

ADA compliance can involve a myriad of factors, but here are some of the key areas that often need to be addressed:



Accessible parking spaces should be provided. The number required depends on the total number of parking spaces available. These spots should be closest to the entrance and marked with appropriate signage.



All primary entrances must be accessible. This often requires the addition of ramps, automatic doors, or levered door handles.


Internal Mobility

Wide aisles (at least 36 inches wide) and accessible pathways should be maintained. Elevators or lifts are necessary for buildings with multiple stories.



Public restrooms should be equipped to accommodate individuals with disabilities. This might mean adding grab bars, widening stalls, or ensuring sink and mirror heights are appropriate.



Signs should be clear and, where necessary, provided in Braille. This is particularly important for key areas such as restrooms and exits.


Service Counters

If a counter, like those in banks or restaurants, is too high for a person in a wheelchair, a portion of the counter or an auxiliary counter should be of accessible height.

Remember, the aim is not just to meet regulations, but to ensure that individuals with disabilities can access and utilize the space as easily as anyone else.

Potential Exceptions and Safe Harbors

While the ADA requires compliance, it also understands that certain structures, especially older buildings, might pose challenges. The ADA doesn’t demand changes that are “structurally impracticable.” For buildings that existed before the ADA’s enactment in 1990, only “readily achievable” alterations are mandated. “Readily achievable” is defined as easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense. What qualifies can vary based on the business’s resources.

If a particular area of a commercial property is not open to the public, it may not need to be ADA compliant. However, areas used by employees must still adhere to different sets of ADA guidelines.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

The Department of Justice (DOJ) can impose fines on businesses that violate the ADA. These fines can be up to $75,000 for the first violation and $150,000 for subsequent violations. Moreover, private parties can also file lawsuits against non-compliant businesses. These lawsuits can lead to costly settlements, not to mention the damage to a business’s reputation.

Ensuring that commercial properties are ADA compliant is not just about avoiding penalties; it’s about creating inclusive spaces where every individual can have equal access to services and opportunities. As a real estate attorney, my advice to property owners is always to be proactive. Regularly assess your property, consult with professionals, and make the necessary modifications. Inclusivity and accessibility are not only the law, but they also make good business sense.

For additional assistance on this or other real estate issues, trust the real estate law experts at Sayer, Regan & Thayer. Please contact us for your free initial consultation.

These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.