Why Architects Still Struggle With Disability Requirements 28 Years After Passage of the ADA
The recent death of President George H.W. Bush occasioned assessments of his administration’s legislative achievements, one of which was the far-ranging Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights act signed into law in 1990. The law included accommodations for people with disabilities in buildings. In the ensuing decades the ADA has had a significant impact on the design and construction of the built environment in the U.S. To gauge the impact of ADA, how it has evolved, common misconceptions about ADA, and its role in promoting social equity in architecture, I spoke with Peter Stratton, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Accessibility Services at Steven Winter Associates, who works with architects and others in the construction industry on the application of the ADA design standards. (I worked at the Connecticut-based Winter firm between 1996 and 2006; Stratton was a colleague.)
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
PS: Peter Stratton
The ADA was signed into law almost three decades ago. What is your perspective on accessibility in the built environment before ADA?
Although Federal disability laws existed before the ADA, they didn’t apply to many of the buildings that are such an important part of our communities across the country: privately owned buildings open to the public, primarily. As a result, people with many types of disabilities were shut out of community life because they were unable to enter and maneuver through inaccessible movie theaters, restaurants, grocery stores, private schools. Access to these facilities was challenging, if not impossible. Imagine going to a movie theater and having to be carried into the building because the entrance was accessible only by a flight of steps. Then, once you’re in the building, think about having to use the bathroom, but there isn’t one that you can enter or move around in.
How have standards evolved?
The original ADA referenced technical accessibility guidelines established in 1991. The problem was that the accessibility guidelines didn’t advance as quickly as technical standards referenced by building codes, so they became an outdated standard. The accessibility guidelines were replaced by the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which are more harmonized with other objective measures of accessibility, including the ICC A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, which are referenced by the current International Building Code. Now, the 2010 ADA Standards are up to date with current research and applications.
How has the ADA made architecture more accessible? What has been its biggest impact?
By making access to buildings a federal law, the ADA opened up the opportunity for millions of Americans to become an important and productive part of our communities. In terms of making the biggest impact, it worked in tandem with the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which made multifamily housing accessible. But people were confined to their homes because the public sphere remained inaccessible—it was very difficult for people with some disabilities to work or visit outside the home. Once the ADA became law and the technical standards came into effect, you as a person with a disability could leave your home and much of the built environment became accessible. The ADA connected public space to private space—a connection that’s vital for the functioning of community. It made the physical world so much bigger for people with disabilities. The public realm consequently benefited from the buying power of people with disabilities who could now engage the marketplace in ways that they couldn’t before. A more accessible public realm opened up work opportunities for people with disabilities. It lessened the reliance of people with disabilities on public assistance, because they could now be productive members of the community. These are the ripple effects of the ADA and how it has changed people’s lives.
Working with architects, builders, and developers, what are some of the criticisms of ADA that you’ve heard?
The criticism I’ve heard most often is that a building should be deemed compliant because it almost hits the mark. But, a building can’t be “almost” compliant—it either meets ADA or it doesn’t—there is no leeway or tolerance other than that which is specifically addressed in the standards. For example, if the location of a bathroom fixture is off by an inch, architects, contractors, or developers want to know what the leeway is, what’s the tolerance for variance? But the tolerance is established by the range permitted by the 2010 Standards; anything above or below the range is not compliant—it either meets the standard or it doesn’t. That’s the biggest complaint. Another common criticism is that there isn’t one technical standard for compliance. Depending on the building’s use, there are several: ADA, ANSI 117.1, and FHA standards, which can vary from state to state. Different standards respond to different building types and are promulgated by different agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Justice. There is an intention to shift to harmonizing these different standards, but we’re not quite there yet.
Who’s responsible for enforcing the ADA in the built environment?
The ADA is enforced by complaint. For example, the Department of Justice or other groups may investigate complaints and might file a lawsuit if it’s deemed necessary. But there are no ADA police, there’s no ADA certification, no real monitoring, other than compliance testing.
What’s the most common misunderstanding of the ADA standards by architects?
The most common misunderstanding is that compliance with the requirements of the local building code and its accessibility standards is enough to satisfy the ADA requirements. The accessible design and construction requirement of the code and of the ADA are mutually exclusive and must be considered separately. So it’s possible for a building to be in compliance with the local code, but not in compliance with ADA. Many architects, contractors, and developers don’t realize this.
What’s the biggest mistake that designers make in applying the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design?
One of the biggest mistakes made by designers is that they focus on the technical requirements without understanding the “scoping” provisions. Scoping is what is required to be accessible; the technical requirements state how accessibility is to be met. Scoping is the “what,” technical is the “how.” The scoping criteria must be understood and correctly applied. For example, designers might apply the technical requirements for an accessible building entrance to one entrance, without understanding that the scoping provision requires the application of the technical requirements to 60 percent of the building’s entrances.
Have you seen evidence that the ADA has been embraced by practitioners?
We’ve seen a significant and substantial concern for compliance over the last five years. Before then, owners relied heavily on architects to achieve ADA compliance, citing the design professionals as responsible for compliance. Owners now understand that they can’t rely entirely on architects to achieve compliance; architects don’t want the responsibility of compliance anyway. Design teams have learned that an ADA consultant is just as important as other consultants on the design team. And ADA compliance continues to drive the project through the construction process. For example, an ADA consultant might review a project after design development, but then the project goes through value engineering—which might change spacing and clearances that compromise ADA compliance. As the design changes through the life of a project it should continue to be reviewed for compliance. Every design decision should be examined during all phases of design and construction. Training for contractors–who are usually not involved in the design process—is often helpful so that they understand how field changes might make a building noncompliant. ADA consultants are typically solutions-driven to help designers achieve compliance. They don’t just identify non-compliant issues, but suggest how to remedy issues identified so that compliance can be achieved.
In the context of ADA, how can architects be champions for social equity in the built environment?
It’s important for architects to understand the meaningful impact that accessible design and construction has on everyone—not just on people with disabilities. I might not have a disability, but my child does, or my parent does—and that has an impact on me as well. It also makes a difference for people who might be temporarily disabled, as is often the case with people with broken bones or injuries. If architects focus on that—that access can make the built environment more equitable and thus more meaningful– instead of seeing it as a regulatory burden, it can highlight the ADA as part of an overarching social goal that accessible architecture can help achieve.
Featured image via Reuters.