By Jillian Ruffino
Published in the March 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), like many other civil rights laws, was created by the very people it now benefits—those in the U.S.with disabilities. Long before the Act was signed into law in 1990, people with disabilities organized in groups and fought for the right to live and work in all American communities. It is because of the dedication and hard work of these activists that advancements have been made to improve society as a whole by providing access for all members.
Last year, TFM reported that the new Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) had been approved, but they were not yet being enforced by the Department of Justice. These guidelines include many improvements to the Act’s original verbiage and also follow some of the most current thinking in accessibility.
Lois L. Thibault, coordinator of research for the U.S. Access Board, located in Washington, DC, offers this update: “They’re still not enforceable, but the Justice Department has made some progress. They’ve got the draft notice of proposed rule making under review at the office of management and budget. That’s the step before they can publish the notice of proposed rule making.”
In the meantime, many facilities have already taken heed of the guidelines. Says Thibault, “A lot of forward looking people are now adopting those practices that represent an advancement.”
For example, some government facilities are operating under the new guidelines. Teresa Cox, president of Atlanta, GA-based APCO Sign Systems, explains, “To date, the U.S. General Services Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Department of Transportation have put the new ADAAG into action. The private sector and state and local government owned facilities are covered by the Department of Justice; their rule of enforcement has not yet been issued. No one seems to know for sure when it will been forceable.”
It’s important to use common sense when adopting the ADAAG; it may by unwise to follow these recommendations at all times. For example, if the guidelines state that, in larger arenas such as sports stadiums, fewer seats are required for people with disabilities, it makes little sense to reduce the space dedicated to people with disabilities when space has already been allocated and is in use.
In Their Shoes
For people who do not have disabilities, it can be hard to imagine some of the barriers or difficulties experienced in facilities by people who do. Yet, this is exactly what facility managers (fms) must do in their facilities—try to gain multiple ways of understanding their buildings and the various obstacles to accessibility.
Michele S. Ohmes is an author, consultant, trainer, and keynote and motivational speaker from Kansas City, MO who is very familiar with all aspects of the ADA. She suggests, “Fms must put themselves in the shoes of people with disabilities. For example, experience what it is like to be someone who is blind by walking through the facility wearing a blindfold. Or, have a complete stranger see how well the signage in the building works.”
She also suggests getting a folding chair and setting it up in various parts of the facility. Fms should sit in this chair and try to reachfor different components and equipment. “But try to reach everything from your elbow, not from your long reach,” Ohmes says. This is because some people with disabilities may not be the same size as the average fm. These types of exercises could provide a new view of facilities and also help fms to understand the need for some of the seemingly smaller, more specific details that characterize the ADA and ADAAG.
For example, says Cox, “In response to the new generation ofaccessibility codes, many sign designers and manufacturers are producing signs that have separate visual and tactile characters. The characteristics that make signs legible for the tactile reader are quite different than for the visual reader.”
Ohmes is offering an information sheet entitled, “Common ADA Mistakes—Top 10,” which maybe helpful for some fms involved in space planning. It can be located on her Web site, www.michele-able.com , and includes a compilation of the oversights often found in facilities.
Some examples include improper restroom size, incorrect toilet stall size and design,and unsuitable fixtures that have not been installed in accordance with the ADA. Curb ramps or walks on the route from streets, bus stops, and crosswalks to buildings are other good examples.
Ohmes’ Website also includes the “Top Five Planning and Design Mistakes.” In this list, she recommends fms include an accessibility expert in the design, planning, and construction process. She also warns fms not to trust that design architects and engineers understand accessibility. Visit the Web site for the full list.
How do fms know if the components they are purchasing are ADA compliant? Because there are products that are labeled as such, fms may believe there is some authority behind these claims. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
This fact is a source of frustration for those whoare dedicated to the cause of accessibility. Ohmes says, “If there is any major gripe I have it is that the Department of Justice will not go after the manufacturers [who advertise their products as ADA compliant].”
Thibault reiterates that there is no certification process. “I recently got a call,” she recounts, “from a state code official who was looking at accessible picnic tables and didn’t feel comfortable with one that was submitted that claimed to be ADA compliant. It turned out it wasn’t, even though that phrase was used in the advertising.”
It’s important for fms to be familiar with the aspects of the ADA and the ADAAG that affect different facilities. This may be particularly true for fms who are closely involved with space planning. For those who are not as knowledgeable of this issue, it may be a smart to contact specialists in this field, such as architects, interior designers, and product consultants. “These people can advise the fm on accessibility issues and recommend appropriate products for their applications,” says Thibault.
Also, facilities may choose to follow various standards, such as the ones set forth by the American National Standards Institute and International Code Council (ANSI/ICC). They include different safety, electric, plumbing, or other complex subjects. In some areas, these overlap with the ADA. For example, the size of plumbing pipe would be specified under a plumbing code, but the height of drinking fountains, or the distance of the toilet from the wall, although they are still plumbing, would fall under the jurisdiction of the ADA.
The ADA is the only federal authority on these types of issues. Ohmes explains, “Everything goes upwards. Starting with local, county, state, and federal authorities, each one usurps the other. Local cannot undermine county, county cannot undermine state, and state cannot undermine federal. And the ADA represents this federal authority.”
Improved accessibility in public facilities has helped many people with disabilities to work or continue to be employed. As a result, an increasingly diverse work force is emerging, and more availability of information technology is necessary. This is considered by some ADA experts to be the next step in creating a world that is more accessible to people with disabilities.
For many people today, computers are necessary for daily life and the Internet an indispensable communications medium. This is no less true for people with various types of disabilities which could restrict the ability to access public computers.
Thibault explains, “Accessible information technologies permit people with low vision to adjust the size of text on a screen, and help people who are blind to employ screen readers that voice the text on the screen. If a person has hearing loss or is deaf, some of the sound prompts can be rendered visually.”
Telephony is the newest breakthrough in this type of technology. This allows users to access American Sign Language interpretation through a remote site. The user on the receiving end views the interpretation through the screen. This may make it possible for deaf people to understand what is happening in a courtroom, corporate office, classroom, or during a sales call without the need for an interpreter physically in the room.
Just as each individual has his or her own abilities, each facility will have different needs when it comes to creating accessibility. The ADA may be a good jumping-off point for fms to start the journey toward providing access for all people.
As Thibault concludes, “The ADA ensures that there are no barriers to participation, so everybody can work and shop and enjoy recreation. It’s all about diversity and integration and getting the best mix of people.”
To learn more about the ADA, Thibault recommends fms visit the United States Access Board’s Web site at www.accessboard.gov. There, readers can keep up to date with the ADAAG as well as other important developments in accessibility.
This article was based on interviews with Cox, Ohmes, and Thibault.