Getting from Here to There

A ramp is a ramp, a lift is a lift. Until college administrators start looking at these accessibility items through the eyes of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then they're lifesavers.

This federal document, which you can access at , lays out myriad rules on what public buildings must to do make their spaces accommodating to those with physical handicaps. Written in that special government language, the basic rules read like this:

(a) Ramps: Curb ramps and interior or exterior ramps to be constructed on sites or in existing buildings or facilities where space limitations prohibit the use of a 1:12 slope or less may have slopes and rises as follows: (i) A slope between 1:10 and 1:12 is allowed for a maximum rise of 6 in. (ii) A slope between 1:8 and 1:10 is allowed for a maximum rise of 3 in. A slope steeper than 1:8 is not allowed. (b) Stairs: Full extension of handrails at stairs shall not be required in alterations where such extensions would be hazardous or impossible due to plan configuration.

Here's the scary part: The Department of Justice may file lawsuits in federal court to enforce the ADA, and courts may order compensatory damages and back pay to remedy discrimination if the Department prevails. Under title III, the Department of Justice may also obtain civil penalties of up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for any subsequent violation.

"Obviously new construction builds in these requirements, but a lot of schools were constructed a long time ago, so they need ramping to get up any flights of stairs anywhere," points out Linda Burke, CEO of AlumiRamp in Quincy, Michigan.

The Ramp Report

Ramp. A walking surface which has a running slope greater than 1:20. (ADA)

On a building's exterior, ramps reign as the access choice. The good news: Ramps already in place throughout your campus are probably ADA-compliant by the fact that they exist. It's the places you don't offer ramps, yet that remain your vulnerable spots. "There was a case of the courthouse in Tennessee where a man who wanted to fight a traffic ticket couldn't get to the second floor, and he sued," Burke says. "There are still a lot of buildings across America that don't have any access."

Today's ramps offer two material choices: steel and aluminum. (Wood is available for the residential market, but fire hazards prevent this choice in the commercial public sector.) Burke comes down firmly on the aluminum side because the anodized version lasts forever, won't rust or rub off on users' hands. "I've had ramps out there for 20 years - you hose them off and they clean up very nicely to look new," she adds.

Of course, says Don Birdsall, director of marketing at Escalon, California-based Vertical Mobility Division of Hogan Mfg. Inc., this doesn't preclude those custodial duties of sweeping your ramps, shoveling them in inclement weather and de-icing the surface when temperatures plummet. Like any outdoor fixture, "maintenance free" is a long-term phrase, not a license to ignore it altogether. Burke recommends periodically scheduling an inspection to ensure that all bolts remain tight.

The good news, however, is that today's ramps are portable, which in the financial department translates to "reusable." Furthermore, most college maintenance crews can install them, so colleges needn't budget for additional front-end costs or special fees to set up temporary accessibility for events like graduation ceremonies or alumni conferences.

Portability looks even better in light of the fact that the average ramp price hovers in the $2,000-range - plan to spend more depending on how many steps you're covering. "Older universities have more steps with these bigger, grander building designs, so they have more need of longer ramps," Burke says. That's no doubt why few campuses choose to blanket the entire school at once, opting instead to prioritize their needs and add a few ramps each year.

Whatever your checkbook balance, avoid the temptation to save money by skirting the ADA guidelines for a slightly shorter ramp. "The way the lawsuit industry is going, everyone sues everybody, so I'd recommend the safest ramp, the best slope, everything at a higher grade for everyone's safety," she sums up.

The Latest on Lifts

These days, architects usually shoot for universal design, which means they slope the terrain and use gradual ramps wherever possible for an esthetically pleasing appearance. The trade-off is that these artistic ramps take so much space, Birdsall says: For every inch of rise of ramp, you must have one ft. of travel, so a three-ft. high stage demands a 36-ft. ramp with a five-ft. horizontal rest for a total of 41 ft.

Not to mention most schools struggle with yesterday's blueprints, where gradual elevations don't exist in the first place. Platform lifts (wheelchair lifts) can take the place of an elevator in these circumstances, says the ADA, (a) To provide an accessible route to a performing area in an assembly occupancy; (b) To comply with the wheelchair viewing position line-of-sight and dispersion requirements of 4.33.3; (c) To provide access to incidental occupiable spaces and rooms which are not open to the general public and which house no more than five persons, including, but not limited to, equipment control rooms and projection booths; and (d) To provide access where existing site constraints or other constraints make use of a ramp or an elevator infeasible.

In the real world, it means most universities turn to lifts when they need to transport someone less than a floor. Still, Birdsall understands why university administrators would be reluctant to dedicate a lot of space to such a contraption, particularly in the tight confines of a projection booth or orchestra pit. That's why market forces birthed the convertible ramp - a stairway that converts to a ramp at the push of a button.

(And, yes, they come with a security key so that university officials can determine which hours or events the stairway works to prevent college students from playing with this cool new toy unnecessarily.)

Thanks to the mechanical parts, you'll need - at minimum - an annual inspection just as you would for an elevator. On the flip side, because of its limited use these parts don't wear out rapidly. Basic cleanliness to keep debris and floor sweepings from jamming into the gears goes a long way.

Budget from $18,000 on the low end to the $30,000 range for these babies, depending on the height and how decorative you prefer the stair version. "It's like buying a car," Birdsall compares. "There are Yugos and Mercedes." With floor space now approaching $200 a sq. ft. - higher on the West Coast - the price may be right, after all.