By Jillian Ruffino
Published in the March 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990. On this day, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” By outlawing discrimination based on disability, this act has changed the American workforce and therefore has altered the design of, and requirements placed on, public facilities.
The ADA is typically viewed as affecting employers, but it also impacts the actions of the facility manager. The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) monitor the condition and accessibility of physical places. In 2004, the United States Access Board, an independent federal agency tasked with ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities, finalized a revised version of the ADAAG. Facility managers now face a dilemma; because these guidelines are not enforceable (as they have not yet been adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice), it is unclear how to proceed.
Some aspects of following the law are intuitive. People with disabilities are always people first, and employers and facility professionals alike should remain cognizant of this distinction and act accordingly. Specific regulations and requirements, however, must be carefully monitored and properly fulfilled in order to remain in compliance with the ADA.
Today, the types of disabilities affecting commercial and institutional facility design are shifting. Robert Stuthridge is the senior health ergonomist with Integrated Ergonomics LLC, based in Indiana. “Many people,” he claims, “have a narrow, stereotyped view of disabilities that might include blindness, deafness, missing limbs, walking impairment, or severe mental incapacity.” And yet, the ADA also has an eye on the types of disabilities that occur when workers age.
This new outlook on the ADA will become increasingly important to facility managers in the years to come.
A Different View Of Disabilities
Long before the conception of the ADA, the United States experienced a serious increase in birth rates after World War II that is now known as the Baby Boom. Today, there are more Baby Boomers alive than Americans of any other generation, and they are remaining in the workforce far longer than those that came before them. This aging group will have a large effect on facilities and the facility manager’s view of accessibility.
Stuthridge explains, “The capacity for lifting everyday objects (one potential determinant of whether one is disabled or not) is reduced by the normal degenerative changes in our spine as the body ages. Similarly, our ability to prepare meals or do the laundry can be affected by osteoarthritis as well as by overuse injuries that may be work related but are more prevalent in older workers. The ADA provides a broad, non-work definition of disability that will bring a growing number of Americans within its aegis, simply because our population is aging.”
Pat Going, project director of the Rocky Mountain DBTAC (ADA Center) of Colorado Springs, CO, adds, “Fully 50% of the 50 million people in the U.S. with disabilities are deaf or hard of hearing. This percentage will increase as the population ages.”
While the number of people with disabilities is expanding, the standards upon which the law was originally based are being updated.
“When the ADA Accessibility Guidelines were written in the early 1990s, they were actually predicated on the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), which were developed in 1978,” says Joan Stein, president and CEO of Pittsburgh, PA-based ADA, Inc. “They were also developed using a 6′ tall man with paraplegia and good upper body strength as a standard. People have changed; wheelchairs have changed; technology has changed.”
How do the proposed ADAAG respond to these changes? Stein continues: “If the new ADAAG are adopted by the Justice Department, the changes will be significant in the number of technicalities (location heights and placement) of accessibility requirements. These range from toilet seat centerlines to reach ranges for fixtures and to the number of accessible seats in entertainment and sports venues.”
The ADAAG address multiple aspects of a facility, from the height of carpeting to the typeface used on signage. The recommendations include 10 chapters that address scoping and building requirements, accessibility, parking, plumbing elements, communication systems, special rooms, and built in furnishings. They are very specific and focus on nearly every physical aspect of facilities.
Preparing For Compliance
Although compliance with the new guidelines is not yet legally required, it makes sense for facility managers to make today’s decisions and purchases with them in mind. As Ronald E. Ratell, global strategic business unit manager (automated openings) for LCN, Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies of Carmel, IN, warns, “Anybody who finds a public facility to be inaccessible can file a complaint and even move to a lawsuit very quickly. Although the proposed guidelines are not yet official, it would be wise for facility managers to become familiar with the changes and implement them before they become mandatory.”
It is crucial to pay close attention to the language and finer points of the ADAAG. For example, when it comes to door hardware, they read, “Controls and operating mechanisms shall be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. The force required to activate controls and operating mechanisms shall be 5 lb (22.2N) maximum.” (Section 309.4) It is with this level of specificity that facility managers must make purchasing decisions.
When searching for ADA-compliant products, Going advises facility managers to be skeptical. He explains, “There is no official endorsement that anyone can legitimately cite to claim something is ADA compliant. Companies may say that a product ‘complies with ADAAG 4.13.9,’ for example, or ‘meets ADA requirements for roll-in showers.’ But that loosely phrased ‘ADA compliant’ is a red flag that merits scrutiny.”
Going’s organization has created a regularly updated search portal to help managers determine if a product is compliant or if a company has made false claims. He also recommends the 10 disability and business technical assistance centers funded by the Department of Education for further information.
Stein suggests managers obtain an ADA audit to help determine a facility’s needs. “Facility managers should be sure to know what they have before making any changes.”
When making purchasing decisions, facility professionals are also advised to keep in mind that the accommodations required by the ADA cannot possibly cover all of a facility or organization’s needs. Every person has individual issues that can never be served completely by any law. Solutions must be customized.
Stuthridge offers this reminder: “Facilities managers will best be served by grasping very firmly to the concept of ‘human variability.’ There is a tendency—for understandable reasons—to standardize workplaces with one type of lighting, one type of keyboard, mouse, etc. This approach is designed to meet the needs of a theoretical average person.”
There was a time when people with disabilities were thought of as constituting only a small percentage of the workforce. However, as facility managers begin to have a better understanding of disabilities, it will no longer be safe to assume that a one size fits all approach is sufficient. Stuthridge explains, “The workforce is not only varied in terms of gender, size, and personality, but it will change with time. This may be a long time—as with age related changes, or a short time—as when someone is seriously injured in an accident or suffers a stroke.”
Beyond The Law
Properly managing a facility involves protecting it from possible legal action by ensuring that it is in accordance will all relevant building codes and legal requirements. Compliance with the ADA and the new ADAAGs, however, can also yield positive results that transcend legal issues.
For restaurants, retail facilities, or any building that regularly welcomes customers, ADA compliance may be a financially wise decision.“In addition to serving the needs of a significant segment of the population,” says Ratell, “the results of ADA compliance can be profitable for businesses and suppliers alike.”
Stein adds: “The large and growing market of people with disabilities has $175 billion in discretionary spending, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.” She also points out that people with disabilities spent $35 billion in restaurants in 2003, according to the Open Doors Organization. And AARP reports that people over the age of 50 spent $400 billion in 2003.
“While they may not think of themselves as having disabilities, people in this age group often seek out businesses that accommodate age-related changes,” Stein adds.
Remaining in compliance with the ADA and preparing for the ADAAG to become law are smart practices for a facility for legal and financial reasons. With the number of people with disabilities increasing, accessibility for all people will not only be legally mandatory, it will be necessary for smooth operations.
This article was based on interviews with Going, Ratell, Stein, and Stuthridge.