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An important aspect of promoting independence for people with disabilities is physical access to public buildings.  In Massachusetts, the Architectural Access Board (AAB) develops and enforces regulations designed to make public buildings accessible to, functional for, and safe for use by persons with disabilities.

Section 521 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR), enforced by the AAB, is the state building code that outlines the requirements for accessibility in buildings that are open to the public.  521 CMR also establishes a process  for members of the public who wish to file a complaint about a noncompliant building. There is also process for building owners who seek permission to vary from the code requirement; this is known as a “variance.”

The AAB makes determinations on variance applications and complaints.  In cases of willful noncompliance, the AAB has the authority to issue fines for violations, up to $1,000 per violation, per day, and to take other action until the violation is resolved.   Both the Board and AAB Staff are made up of subject matter experts that possess particular knowledge about state building codes and architectural design standards.

When the AAB receives a complaint, the staff reviews it to determine whether a violation of 521 CMR has been alleged and that the Board has jurisdiction. If so, a First Notice of Violation is sent to the owner of the building.  If a building owner believes that the item cited complies, they can provide proof to the Board to resolve the complaint.  If the building owner fails to respond, the Board will issue a Second Notice and eventually schedule a hearing if there continues to be no response.  Once a building owner has provided a plan to correct the violation, the Board can enter a Stipulated Order establishing a deadline for completion of the work.  A building owner also has the right to request a variance in the face of a complaint if they believe they can prove compliance is impracticable (as defined in 521 CMR 5).  Generally speaking, complaints are not closed until photographs showing proof of compliance are provided.  In all cases, the complainant is copied on all correspondence sent and received by the Board.

An interesting comparison to our state process to that of the federal process for architectural access complaints is that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its corresponding ADA Design Standards, a complainant would have to sue a building owner in federal court.  A distinct benefit to people in Massachusetts is that the AAB offers a state-level process that is much more expedient and easily available when compared to a federal court filing.

The Commonwealth helped pioneer access for people with disabilities.  In fact, the first version of 521CMR was published in 1967—23 years before the ADA.  Also, many of the concepts found in both the ADA and its Design Standards are similar to those first contained within 521CMR.  To learn more about these processes visit the AAB website.


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