ADA Design Feature: Accessibility And Facilities

You have the power! Facility managers can ask the right questions to work toward ADA compliance.

By Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA
From the April 2021 Issue

Finding ways to make a direct difference in the world can be a challenge, but it’s within the daily reach of every facility manager. As an architect and a person with a disability, I’ve seen what happens when built environment professionals come to view accessibility regulations as less a burden and more an opportunity to create beautiful spaces that allow all people to live a full life.

Without a doubt, being able to “live a full life” was the primary rationale behind the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a fact that often gets lost in the maze of access code specificity. Far from coming into existence through awareness on the part of the design (or civic) community, the ADA was the result of people and families impacted by disability taking direct action.

ADA compliance
(Photo: by Chona Kasinger / courtesy of disabled and here)

Yes, access has improved since ADA was passed in 1990, but it’s far from perfect. Today, the goals of ADA are still a work in progress. The comprehensive civil rights law that bans discrimination in areas of employment, transportation, and buildings requires ongoing commitment by property owners to fix barriers.

We’re a really big minority. People with disabilities may be a minority, but we’re a really big minority. In the U.S., one out of four people have a disability. That’s some 61 million adults, and that doesn’t include children under the age of 18. That number represents people with mobility issues, as well as blindness/low vision, deafness/hard-of-hearing and cognitive/neuro diverse disabilities. And, this doesn’t account for parents pushing strollers, people with temporary injuries, or emerging needs of an aging population—it’s fair to say the number of people who count on some sort of access on a daily basis is much greater than 61 million.

That’s where facility executives come in. Keeping regular watch on access features is good business—and an act in support of more than 61 million people.

Why do regulations get revised? Changes to existing regulations drive many built environment pros to distraction, but chances are that would be less so if the reasons behind updates was clear. One big factor driving updates is expanded options in wheelchair design. Happily, for those of us who use a chair (or other mobility device) to get around, it’s no longer a one-size-fits-all world. That reality often requires updates to existing buildings because—yes—some of us need the clearance for our customized, motorized chair.

When it comes to accessibility, your real power as a facility executive comes with the ability to ask questions. First, cover the basics: What requirements under the ADA affect this particular building type? Has an assessment of current barriers been created for this building? Is our team willing to look for creative (and code compliant) solutions?

When working with a tenant improvement design team. Do you have an accessibility consultant on the design team? How are you engaging future users in the design process? Do you plan to reach out for public/community input?

As a manager, how can I help staff prioritize accessibility? What ongoing ADA regulation training are we providing staff? What training might help staff recognize existing barriers? Is routine and quarterly accessible maintenance a priority?

When you step outside, look around the facility site. Can everyone of any ability safely access this site? Arrival by walkway, transit, ride-share, garage, elevator: all accessible? Parking: code compliant accessible parking for cars and vans? Entrances: simple, safe for people with different needs?

As a facility manager charged with efficient (and effective) delivery of support services, coming to view access regulations as less a burden and more an opportunity to create spaces that allow all people to live a full life is a good thing. Yes, you have the power!

ADA compliance
The author on an interior bridge at the Seattle City Hall, a project for which Studio Pacifica acted as an accessibility consultant.

Braitmayer, FAIA, is the founding principal of Studio Pacifica, an accessibility consulting, education, and training firm in Seattle, WA. She is a national speaker on issues related to equity and full inclusion for persons with disabilities. In 2019, Braitmayer was chosen as the national winner of the AIA Whitney M. Young, Jr. award, given to an architect who “embodies social responsibility and actively addresses a relevant issue”. She was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Access Board, a position she retains today.

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Click here to read more about the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and facility management.