* Note: This article deals primarily with issues in the state of California; however, much of the information found in this piece can be very helpful for those of you in other areas of the country.

For more details on the following, please contact Tom Shields of T.L. Shield & Associates, Inc. at (818) 509-8228


Schools and their districts are finding the finite amount of land available to them decreasing, due to the constant construction/installation of additional classrooms. This seemingly endless need for additional classrooms, stems from population density increasing, class size reduction becoming reality, and various other influencing factors coming into play. Hence, the introduction of the modular two-story classroom solution.

With this new concept, comes new challenges and various issues. One of which is accessibility, and most notably, accessibility to the upper story. Society appears to have accepted that accessibility to the second story is a forgone conclusion; however, there is some question as to the appropriate means to provide the accessibility. The question revolves around elevators versus wheelchair lifts. While both devices, provide ‘accessibility’, are both devices equally allowed by State and Federal law? The purpose of this document is help districts and individuals answer this question and understand, State and Federal law, and what the responsibilities of the districts are, and their potential liabilities.

Questions and their Answers

Question: Do two-story classrooms all have to be made accessible?
Answer: Yes. State regulations, Uniform Building Code, and the Federal ADA all stipulate that, publicly funded buildings be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Sections 4450 and 4451 of the State Government Code states that these facilities must be accessible. (See Blue Attachment 35.151 – Red Attachment 101.17.11(1) – Green Attachment 4450.a) The districts are of course also tied to Federal law as is the state, and the state, states that all state regulations must meet or exceed those standards as set out in Federal code. (See Green Attachment 44.50.b , 4451.d)

Question: Does it matter if the building is ‘modular or relocatable’? Do they still have to be made accessible?
Answer: Yes. State regulations mandate that portable buildings must all be accessible. Relocatability is not an excuse to not provide accessibility in any way. (See Green Attachment 4457)

Access Analysis for Two-Story Classrooms

Question: Can a vertical wheelchair lift be legally used in lieu of an elevator?
No. State and Federal law stipulates that ramps and or elevators must be used to provide access (See Attachment Red 1103B), and that wheelchair lifts can only be considered in certain exceptions. (See Red Attachment 3008 – Yellow Attachment 4.1.3(5) Exception 4) There are only a few exceptions, and the only one that could be applied, is if it were ‘technically infeasible to provide an elevator’. (See Yellow Attachment 4.1.3(5) Exception 4(d) – Red Attachment 3008.1.4 Exception 1) In this case, technically infeasible is recognized as conditions such as: having a water level within one foot of the surface, or being on solid bed rock; hence, making an elevator technically infeasible, due to the required pit. Some people will ask, ‘What about the 3000 square foot rule’. Elevators can be exempted in buildings where the second story has 3000 square feet or less! This only applies to certain types of privately owned facilities. This does not apply, nor can it be applied to publicly funded buildings. This is the case in both State and Federal law. (See Yellow Attachment 4.1.3(5) Exception 1 – Gray Attachment 36.401(d)(ii)(B)(2))

Question: Is there any instance where a wheelchair lift can be used in lieu of an elevator to access the second story of a two story building?
Answer: Only under the exception which allows a wheelchair lift when it is ‘technically infeasible’ to install an elevator. There is no language that allows the installation of wheelchair lifts in these situations. There is only language that would allow ramps or elevators. (See Attachment Red 1103B)

Question: Because the inherent design of the modular two-story buildings, and their ability to be relocated, can wheelchair lifts and elevators be relocated?
Answer: Virtually all types of wheelchair lifts can be relocated; however, typical conventionally built elevators would be quite difficult to relocate, yet could be. However, new types of modular elevators are craned into place as one preassembled structure. Relocation would be done in virtually the same manner. Wheelchair lifts are no more relocatable than modular preassembled elevators. (See Attached Brochures)

Question: Are there any benefits to using a wheelchair lift rather than an elevator, and visaversa?
Answer: Wheelchair lifts are approximately 40% the cost of an elevator and have typically shorter manufacturing lead times; however, historically are not nearly as reliable, and typically require service more frequently. Wheelchair lifts can only be used for the transporting of disabled individuals, and only one at a time. Elevators can transport several individuals at a time, and can be used to transport materials as needed. Depending on the number of individuals on the upper floor, one wheelchair lift may not be adequate to serve all those that need access. Elevators are also historically much, much faster than wheelchair lifts.

Question: Does the point of access have to be within a certain number of feet of all classrooms?
Answer: State and Federal law does not address this issue; however, there may be some civil rights implications, if there is closer access for the average non-disabled individual.

Question: The Division of the State Architect, Access Compliance, has come out with a policy, that wheelchair lifts can be used under certain conditions. (See Orange Attachment) Can they make such policy?
Answer: The Access Compliance Division, can write policy as it pertains to State Building Codes, and as specifically stated in the policy that they came out with, is says ‘This policy will be enforced on a case by case basis; however, the Division of the State Architect will consider the following as acceptable compliance with the California Building Code regulations.’ ‘Each school district choosing to utilize two-story modular, relocatable classrooms must submit in writing to this office, a request for a waiver to use wheelchair lifts in lieu of full commercial elevators on a site by site basis…’ Note that the Division only references ‘California Building Code’ they do not reference State statutory regulations or the Federal ADA. The Department of the State Architect, does not have the authority to grant variances or exceptions from State statutory regulations, civil code, or the Federal ADA. Most everything referenced in this package is State statutory regulations and from the ADA. It is also important to note that in the DSA’s Policy statement they also state, ‘Two-story relocatable classrooms are considered new construction and require full-size commercial elevators for accessibility.’

Question: If a variance were granted by the Access Compliance Program, Department of the State Architect, are there any stipulations that a district should be concerned with?
Answer: They seem to use the 3000 square foot rule, that only applies to private facilities; however, in private construction any structure that would have less than 3000 square feet on the second story would not have to be accessible at all. The DSA appears to be using this breaking point as a measuring stick where a wheelchair lift would be considered in lieu of an elevator. One must bear in mind however, if a two-story classroom structure with less than 3000 square were constructed, and a wheelchair lift were used for access, and then the structure were expanded, either the wheelchair lift would have to be removed and replaced with an elevator, or an elevator would have to be added in addition to the existing wheelchair lift. (See Orange Attachment) No more than one wheelchair lift can be installed in any one school facility; hence, if you build two structures with less than 3000 square feet in each, only one could have a wheelchair lift and the other would have to have an elevator. (See Orange Attachment) The district must also have a funded ADA transition plan, for the school applying for the variance, and must submit the plan to the State. This transition plan must be signed by the superintendent or assistant superintendent, of the district applying. (See Orange Attachment) Only, after meeting all the above, would a variance be considered. It is important to bear in mind, this variance condition was derived from the consideration that these structures were ‘relocatable’. If it is not the intent of the district to relocate the structure in the foreseeable future, then it becomes permanent in nature, and the districts exposure to liability may increase substantially if a wheelchair lift is used.

Question: Does a variance eliminate the districts liability and exposure to litigation as result of using a wheelchair lift in lieu of an elevator?
Answer: Not at all. The district still has exposure to civil litigation under state statutory regulations, civil code and the Federal ADA. (See Green Attachment 54(c) & 54.1(d)) One could bring an action in either, or both, State and Federal court. California is also the only state that someone can sue in state court for violations of Federal law. This is only important in that, California allows for treble damages, and attorney fee compensation. (See Green Attachment 54.3(a)) Liability does not potentially stop with the district. The Justice Department has also looked to architects and more recently to general contractors as also having some liability for ADA violations.

Question: Have wheelchair lifts been approved by the Department of the State Architect, Structural Division? Do any wheelchair lift manufacturers have, or do they even need structural approval?
Answer: The Department of the State Architect have accepted and allowed low rise (2′ – 5′) wheelchair lifts for many years, however say that tall lifts (10′ – 12′) most definitely will have to be reviewed for their structural integrity. No wheelchair lift manufacturer has had a tall lift reviewed nor approved, by the DSA. Conclusion Publicly funded schools are held to a different standard than privately owned and funded facilities. State standards, the Uniform Building Code and the Federal ADA, all very clearly stipulate that wheelchair lifts would not be allowed in new construction, temporary, or modular/portable construction. Even though a school may be able to program around the needs of a student with a disability, they can not program around the disabled family member or friend of the student. In addition to some of the technical questions above, each district must also consider:

How will a school politically handle a parent that complains that their child must use a wheelchair lift, whereas another student in the same district, or even another district, gets to use an elevator?

How is a school going to be able to stay on top of the maintenance and vandalism of a wheelchair lift compared the much more reliable and durable elevator?

Will the Department of the State Architect, Structural Engineers, structurally sign off on a ten or twelve foot wheelchair lift and its engineering?

Will the lifts have to be structurally reinforced to be accepted by the DSA, and what would the cost ramifications be?

Considering all of the above, coupled with the potential liability, districts should only consider a wheelchair lift after careful, through, and legal consideration.