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For The Disabled, Office Accessibility Is Often A Dealbreaker — But It Doesn't Have To Be

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(Giu Vicente/Unsplash)

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Massachusetts law does not require all workplaces to be accessible to people with mobility impairments. It’s a problem advocates like me have been trying, unsuccessfully, to address for 18 years.

The Massachusetts Architectural Board (AAB) is the state board tasked with ensuring that spaces are accessible. A bill that would expand the power of the AAB, to cover employee spaces, has repeatedly gotten stuck in the Massachusetts legislature.

In the last legislative session, disability rights advocates finally learned the origin of our opposition: big business and real estate interests.

Perhaps these interests are motivated by a concern for their profits or a perception of costs associated with making employee spaces accessible. But this position is short-sighted in light of the economic benefit of providing more people with disabilities with the opportunity to work and pay taxes, and get off of public benefits. It’s also a fact that the effect of their work is to deny equal access to employment, which is a civil right.

Anyone could land in a wheelchair — because of an accident, an assault, disease or the aging process. What happens to those people if they can no longer work, because state law doesn’t require that they are able to access workspaces?

Interests blocking Mass. legislation that would require workplaces be accessible are denying equal access to employment, which is a civil right.

Massachusetts used to be way ahead of other states where people with physical disabilities are concerned. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, but 22 years earlier, in 1968, Massachusetts created the AAB. Its regulations were “designed to provide full and free use of buildings and facilities so that persons with disabilities may have the education, employment, living and recreational opportunities necessary to be as self-sufficient as possible and to assume full responsibilities as citizens.”

Enforcement of the AAB regulations is actually much more effective than enforcement of the ADA. The federal ADA requires a costly and lengthy civil rights lawsuit brought after a building is already built or renovated, when the barriers to accessibility are often difficult and expensive to undo.

Because the AAB regulations are part of the building code, they are enforced by local building inspectors up front. The inspectors can’t grant an occupancy permit unless the building either complies with the regulations or the AAB grants an exception from the rules, also known as a variance. According to officials at the AAB, variances are granted 93 percent of the time when infeasibility or excessive cost without benefit is proven.

But the AAB’s power has some important limitations — primarily that it has no authority over workplaces, unless they are open to the public. The bill that keeps getting stuck in the legislature, An Act Relative to the Architectural Access Board, would finally change that. (It would also expand adaptability requirements to older housing, and align state law with federal law, something that is undoubtedly good for business.)

My heart broke as we had to make countless jobs unattainable each session because [the AAB] had no authority over employee-only spaces.

I am an attorney who uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. I was on the Architectural Access Board from 2008 through 2017. Members include architects, building inspectors, state officials and representatives of the disability and senior citizen communities. Every other week, the mostly volunteer members of the Board spend the day working with developers, businesses and architects to make places that are newly constructed or substantially renovated welcoming to people with mobility impairments.

I have been advocating for the proposed legislation for eight years because of what I witnessed at every AAB meeting throughout the years I served. My heart broke as we had to make countless jobs unattainable each session because we had no authority over employee-only spaces. For example:

A local university spent $7 million to rehabilitate a beautiful old building. They resisted installing an elevator to offices on the upper floors. The president swore that these were workplaces not open to the public, thus we could not require access, making it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to work in those offices.

On Nantucket, a lodging house for hotel employees which had entrance steps and only upper floor rooms was being completely renovated. We couldn’t insist that these barriers to the mobility impaired be removed as part of the work.

A building on the Boston waterfront undergoing a major renovation had to be allowed to retain stairs throughout its offices, rendering hundreds of office jobs off-limits for people with mobility impairments.

What a waste. Capable, qualified professionals unable to work, because they can’t access an office.

According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey compiled by the University of New Hampshire only 37.7 percent of people with disabilities are employed in Massachusetts, compared to 80.2 percent of people without disabilities --  a gap of 42.5 percentage points (which is slightly higher than the national gap of 40.2 percentage points). It places us 40th out of 50 states.

Our employment gap regarding people with ambulatory difficulties puts us behind 40 percent of the country. More than 70 percent of the 159,780 working-age people in Massachusetts with ambulatory disabilities are unemployed and not paying taxes each year.

Of course, Massachusetts’ poor performance on disability employment is not due solely to the limits on the AAB’s authority. But it is safe to assume that a person who can’t get into or around a workplace is not going to be able to work there, and that our record is influenced by the existing laws.

It is shameful that Massachusetts lags behind much of the country, when a potential remedy is readily available. Organizations including the Disability Policy Consortium and the Metro-West Center for Independent Living are important resources. People can also contact their legislators and the governor’s office and tell them this bill must pass next legislative session.

Let’s make sure people with disabilities can get to work.

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Carol Steinberg Cognoscenti contributor
Carol Steinberg is an attorney in Boston, a wheelchair-user, disability activist and accessibility consultant.

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