Universal Furniture

There's no law that says college administrators must take the disabled student population into consideration when purchasing common area furniture.

That's because this isn't a topic where people need persuasion to do the right thing - after all, the inclusion doesn't require dollars as much as common sense. "You can't accommodate everyone all the time. Sometimes the different groups of disabled people have conflicting needs," admits Camilla Ryhl, Ph.D., an architect and Ed Roberts Postdoctoral Fellow in the Disability Studies Program at University of California-Berkeley, "But if you keep to logic and simplicity, you're pretty far ahead."

And that goes for the athlete who broke his ankle and is on crutches for six weeks, the young mother with a baby stroller and the grandmother who can't walk so fast these days - all constituents on a college campus.

Everyday Furniture - Extraordinary Results

The cornerstone begins with creating space. The Americans with Disabilities Act does extend guidelines for things like desk heights, but it's merely a nudge to get you started. "When you get into this business, you quickly realize there are individuals in wheelchairs who are five ft., and individuals who are six ft., seven in.," laughs Jeff Vernooy, director of the Wright State University's Office of Disability Services.

As a rule of thumb, Ryhl recommends looking at tables between 28 and 34 in. high - if it's a surface that invites long-term work, gravitate toward the lower heights. On the other hand, manufacturers have begun to make wheelchairs taller, so the bulk of your purchases should measure at least 30 in. in height to stand the test of time.

"It would be a bummer to go shopping again in two years for this same furniture," Ryhl notes. In both cases, make sure the tables offer a minimum of 27 in. of open knees space underneath for users to place their legs.

Vernooy also finds easily adjustable pieces fill the bill, particularly when it comes to computer desks. This Dayton, Ohio campus' cyber café features two workstations that are counter-balanced so that a disabled student can push a button and, with minimal effort, raise the surface from a standing position at one extreme to a spot below their knees at the other.

For cafeterias and similar sections with communal tables, lean toward versions with a center leg rather than ones that have support at all four corners. This provides maximum freedom. Of course, sometimes stability tips the scales in favor of the traditional construction. In that case, at least shun the legs with half-in. claws at the bottom. "They really complicate things for a wheelchair," Ryhl points out. If your floor plan calls for booths, keep in mind their fixed nature makes it very difficult for disabled folks to join the party. In this case, center-legged tables light enough to scoot up to the end of the booth solve the problem in a snap.

"Basically the rule is to offer options," Vernooy says. "If you offer only one kind, eventually you'll find somebody that won't be able to use it." And that goes for a campus where just 550 of the enrolled 16,000 students - roughly three percent - officially fall under the disability office's attention.

Don't forget the visually impaired, either. Selecting contrasting colors for the tables and chairs helps these students to get acquainted with their surroundings. Skip glossy surfaces on the tabletops, too. "Glare is an annoyance factor, so that's an easy one to fix," says Ryhl.

As for materials, give priority to fabrics such as polished cotton or a material mixed with nylon or silk - surfaces that are durable, but offer little friction. The heavy tweeds or corduroys don't slide quite as easily and hamper those with limited strength as they attempt to sit and rise.

Finally, make sure you arrange these furniture pieces to allow someone to maneuver a 36-in.-wide wheelchair from one end of the room to the other without creating an obstacle course.

But Does It Work?

When in doubt, Vernooy finds the ADA guidelines create more questions than answers. For instance, when it comes to things like light switches and fire alarms, the law declares anything between 18 and 54 in. on the wall legal. "So where does that leave you?" he asks. At Wright State, it means administrators turn directly to the disabled student population for input. Vernooy actually sets up trials for students to show off what they can, and can't, do. In the case of the light switches, his tests showed even the most severely disabled student could reach the joystick on her power chair - setting the height at 27 in.

He asked his group to test drive the sofas as well to label them "too soft," "too hard" or "just right." in the quest to determine workable seat heights, arm positions and back cushion supports that require little effort to use. "As a bonus, when we find a line of furniture that meets all the needs, everybody on campus can use it.

"But that doesn't mean what works today will work tomorrow," he cautions. "We need to regularly monitor and keep our ear to the ground with this population in order to stay in touch."