ADA Trends: Accessibility For All

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By Jillian Ruffino
Published in the March 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

there are more ways than ever for facilities to provide accessibilit. Photo: ISTOCKPHOTO®

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), like many other civil rightslaws, 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 rightto live and work in all American communities. It is because of thededication and hard work of these activists that advancements have beenmade to improve society as a whole by providing access for all members.

Lastyear, TFM reported that the new Americans With Disabilities ActAccessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) had been approved, but they were notyet being enforced by the Department of Justice. These guidelinesinclude many improvements to the Act’s original verbiage and alsofollow some of the most current thinking in accessibility.

LoisL.Thibault, coordinator of research for the U.S. Access Board, locatedin Washington, DC, offers this update: “They’re still not enforceable,but the Justice Department has made some progress. They’ve got thedraft notice of proposed rule making under review at the office ofmanagement and budget. That’s the step before they can publish thenotice of proposed rule making.”

In the meantime, manyfacilities have already taken heed of the guidelines. Says Thibault, “Alot of forward looking people are now adopting those practices thatrepresent an advancement.”

For example, some governmentfacilities 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, andthe Department of Transportation have put the new ADAAG into action.The private sector and state and local government owned facilities arecovered by the Department of Justice; their rule of enforcement has notyet been issued. No one seems to know for sure when it will beenforceable.”

It’s important to use common sense when adoptingthe ADAAG; it may by unwise to follow these recommendations at alltimes. For example, if the guidelines state that, in larger arenas suchas sports stadiums, fewer seats are required for people withdisabilities, it makes little sense to reduce the space dedicated topeople with disabilities when space has already been allocated and isin use.

In Their Shoes

For people who do nothave disabilities, it can be hard to imagine some of the barriers ordifficulties experienced in facilities by people who do. Yet, this isexactly what facility managers (fms) must do in their facilities—try togain multiple ways of understanding their buildings and the variousobstacles to accessibility.

Michele S. Ohmes is an author,consultant, trainer, and keynote and motivational speaker from KansasCity, MO who is very familiar with all aspects of the ADA. Shesuggests, “Fms must put themselves in the shoes of people withdisabilities. For example, experience what it is like to be someone whois blind by walking through the facility wearing a blindfold. Or, havea complete stranger see how well the signage in the building works.”


Shealso suggests getting a folding chair and setting it up in variousparts of the facility. Fms should sit in this chair and try to reachfor different components and equipment. “But try to reach everythingfrom your elbow, not from your long reach,” Ohmes says. This is becausesome people with disabilities may not be the same size as the averagefm. These types of exercises could provide a new view of facilities andalso 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 areproducing signs that have separate visual and tactile characters. Thecharacteristics that make signs legible for the tactile reader arequite different than for the visual reader.”

Ohmes is offeringan information sheet entitled, “Common ADA Mistakes—Top 10,” which maybe helpful for some fms involved in space planning. It can be locatedon her Web site,, and includes a compilation ofthe oversights often found in facilities.

Some examplesinclude improper restroom size, incorrect toilet stall size and design,and unsuitable fixtures that have not been installed in accordance withthe ADA. Curb ramps or walks on the route from streets, bus stops, andcrosswalks to buildings are other good examples.

Ohmes’ Website also includes the “Top Five Planning and Design Mistakes.” In thislist, she recommends fms include an accessibility expert in the design,planning, and construction process. She also warns fms not to trustthat design architects and engineers understand accesibility. Visit theWeb site for the full list.

Purchasing Problems

Howdo fms know if the components they are purchasing are ADA compliant?Because there are products that are labeled as such, fms may believethere is some authority behind these claims. Unfortunately, this is notthe case.

This fact is a source of frustration for those whoare dedicated to the cause of accessibility. Ohmes says, “If there isany major gripe I have it is that the Department of Justice will not goafter the manufacturers [who advertise their products as ADAcompliant].”

Thibault reiterates that there is nocertification process. “I recently got a call,” she recounts, “from astate code official who was looking at accessible picnic tables anddidn’t feel comfortable with one that was submitted that claimed to beADA compliant. It turned out it wasn’t, even though that phrase wasused in the advertising.”

ADA compliant Photo: Courtesy of Michele Ohmes

It’s important for fms to be familiar with the aspects ofthe ADA and the ADAAG that affect different facilities. This may beparticularly true for fms who are closely involved with space planning.For those who are not as knowledgeable of this issue, it may be a smartto contact specialists in this field, such as architects, interiordesigners, and product consultants. “These people can advise the fm onaccessibility issues and recommend appropriate products for theirapplications,” says Thibault.

Also, facilities may choose tofollow various standards, such as the ones set forth by the AmericanNational Standards Institute and International Code Council (ANSI/ICC).They include different safety, electric, plumbing, or other complexsubjects. In some areas, these overlap with the ADA. For example, thesize of plumbing pipe would be specified under a plumbing code, but theheight of drinking fountains, or the distance of the toilet from thewall, although they are still plumbing, would fall under thejurisdiction of the ADA.

The ADA is the only federal authorityon these types of issues. Ohmes explains, “Everything goes upwards.Starting with local, county, state, and federal authorities, each oneusurps the other. Local cannot undermine county, county cannotundermine state, and state cannot undermine federal. And the ADArepresents this federal authority.”

Virtual Accessibility

Improvedaccessibility in public facilities has helped many people withdisabilities to work or continue to be employed. As a result, anincreasingly diverse work force is emerging, and more availability ofinformation technology is necessary. This is considered by some ADAexperts to be the next step in creating a world that is more accessibleto people with disabilities.

For many people today, computersare necessary for daily life and the Internet an indispensablecommunications medium. This is no less true for people with varioustypes of disabilities which could restrict the ability to access publiccomputers.

Thibault explains, “Accessible informationtechnologies permit people with low vision to adjust the size of texton a screen, and help people who are blind to employ screen readersthat voice the text on the screen. If a person has hearing loss or isdeaf, some of the sound prompts can be rendered visually.”

Telephonyis the newest breakthrough in this type of technology. This allowsusers to access American Sign Language interpretation through a remotesite. The user on the receiving end views the interpretation throughthe screen. This may make it possible for deaf people to understandwhat is happening in a courtroom, corporate office, classroom, orduring a sales call without the need for an interpreter physically inthe room.

Just as each individual has his or her ownabilities, each facility will have different needs when it comes tocreating accessibility. The ADA may be a good jumping-off point for fmsto start the journey toward providing access for all people.

AsThibault concludes, “The ADA ensures that there are no barriers toparticipation, so everybody can work and shop and enjoy recreation.It’s all about diversity and integration and getting the best mix ofpeople.”

To learn more about the ADA, Thibault recommends fmsvisit the United States Access Board’s Web site at, readers can keep up to date with the ADAAG as well as otherimportant developments in accessibility.

This article was based on interviews with Cox, Ohmes, and Thibault.

To discuss some of your experiences in real time, come to FacilityBlog; to comment on this article, send an e-mail to

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