By Heather McLean Wiederhoeft
Published in the March 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the facility management community was understandably anxious about what the law’s guidelines and parameters would be. In particular, they wondered how to ensure their facilities would be in compliance.
At that time, ideas such as universal design and accessibility were more of a rarity in the workplace environment. Before the ADA, these concepts were not typically key components of a facility master plan.
Fifteen years later, making a facility accessible for people with disabilities is no longer unusual. “The ADA and its architectural guidelines definitely now are a part of the fabric of U.S. facility management,” says Donald Young, vice president of communications for the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) based in Houston, TX.
“The ADA greatly increased the overall awareness of ensuring a facility is accessible to people with disabilities,” Young adds, “and most facility managers have integrated compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines (ADAAG) into their standard operating procedures.”
While facility professionals have learned the nuances of ADAAG that went into effect in 1992, many are now preparing for an overhaul to these guidelines. In July 2004, the U.S. Access Board, the independent federal agency that focuses on accessibility for people with disabilities, revised guidelines for both the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act for federal facilities. Facility professionals involved in the private sector or state and local governments may have to wait as long as two more years before the ADAAG revisions are finalized.
Due to extensive feedback from the design and disabilities communities (as well as real life applications of the guidelines), most experts agree that the revised guidelines will be more lenient than the original ones. The new guidelines also should be more in line with current model building codes.
“Though it may be a couple of years before we see the new finalized guidelines, I recommend to facility managers who are planning to renovate or begin construction on a new facility to reference both the existing and the proposed guidelines and go with whichever version is the more stringent,” says Jean Batchelder, CFM, president and owner of Access by Design, a facility management consulting firm that specializes in the ADA.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
While many facility managers have made great strides in creating barrier-free environments, there are still some common stumbling blocks when it comes to the ADA, particularly in relation to the ADAAG path of travel requirements.
“I’ve seen many examples of renovations wherein facility managers will ensure the updated facility or area of a facility meets with the ADAAG, but they fail to remove barriers along the path of travel, which can include numerous things such as parking structures, sidewalks, elevators, interior or exterior ramps, rest rooms, and drinking fountains,” explains Batchelder. “Any element serving the altered area of the facility needs to meet this path of travel provision, and it often just doesn’t happen.”
Another change for the facility community over the past 15 years has been in keeping accessibility issues in mind at all times. “Thinking about the ADA should not only occur when a facility manager is planning for a new building or a major renovation, but also for all areas that impact the workplace,” states Kathy Roper, assistant professor in the Building Construction Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“For instance, selecting furniture that can be modified by the individual user, such as being able to adjust desk height for a wheelchair, makes for an easy accommodation so the facility manager doesn’t have to purchase or budget for specialty furniture. As compared to what was available in 1990, facility managers have so many more options with regard to office furnishings that they can easily use to accommodate for the ADA,” Roper explains.
Even as the ADAAG may become more lenient, facility managers may not want to look at this as an opportunity to back away from the tenets of universal design. For example, one of the elements that is most likely to be less stringent in the revised guidelines relates to seating for stadiums and entertainment facilities.
“The basic idea is that the new guidelines are going to reduce the scoping requirements for ADA seating in stadiums from the 1% requirement that is currently in the ADAAG, which means that fewer accessible seats will be required,” states John Grady, J.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sports and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina.
“My thought for facility managers is that even if you don’t have to do something per the ADA, you still have to maintain an adequate level of accessibility in order to comply with the spirit of the law,” Grady continues. “The idea should be that the prudent facility manager will not only meet the ADA requirements but exceed them in order to enhance the experience at a facility for both employees and guests that have disabilities.”
Customer Service Aspect Of The ADA
There are potential benefits of adhering to the ADA that can impact positively on an organization’s bottom line. For the first time in business history, many workplaces now have employees from four distinct generations: Traditionalists (people born between 1925-1943), Baby Boomers (born between 1943-1964), Generation X (born between 1965-1980), and Generation Y (born after 1980).
Facility managers now must create a workplace that caters to an amazing age range of employees with a growing number of those workers being Baby Boomers or Traditionalists who may have age-related disabilities. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in March 2001 that one in five working age adults reported they have a disability. These reasons alone support the need for workplaces today to be as accessible as possible.
“In today’s reality, if you make your facility accessible for those who are disabled, it has a very wide impact,” Grady says. “The attitude I encourage for facility managers to take is that the ADA may have been designed to help people with disabilities, but by complying with it, they will benefit a wider scope of employees and customers.
“If you’re of the mindset that your company is going to do the bare minimum with regard to accessibility, then you’re going to be outpaced by leaps and bounds by your competitors,” Grady continues. “Your competitors can market their accessible facility and the customer service benefit that improved or enhanced accessibility will provide to all who use or visit the facility.”
Batchelder says, “In the end, the ADA really promotes using common sense in facility management. A few years ago I was working on a major hotel renovation project in downtown Denver, and the architect had specified an automatic door at the entrance of the hotel. The general manager didn’t want to have it and asked me if this type of door was required per the ADA. My answer was no, but why wouldn’t he want to have an automatic door? Common sense tells us that having this door could benefit all guests and employees, whether disabled or not, when entering the property.”
The ADA has come a long way in 15 years, and it has become much easier for facility managers to understand the law. And with understanding comes compliance—the ultimate goal for anyone charged with creating facilities that accommodate all.
McLean Wiederhoeft is a Houston, TX-based freelance writer who specializes in articles about facility management, energy, and the aviation industry. She can be reached at [email protected].