ADA For Everyone

Do we really need the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) anymore? Seems like most architects and contractors have so thoroughly absorbed its requirements that applying ADA has become second nature.

Take the state of Texas, for example. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation reviews the work of architects with an eye to ensuring that their designs meet the state’s accessibility regulations, which observers say are stricter than the federal ADA statute or the regulations written to define it.

“It isn’t just stricter,” says Mark Reuschle, vice president and studio leader with the Austin, TX-based offices of the SHW Group, LLP.“Since ADA is a federal statute, no one would know whether a building lacked accessibility features unless a person with a disability complained. But in Texas, it’s a building requirement. You won’t get a building permit until you satisfy accessibility requirements. Accessibility is so ingrained in us that it has for practical purposes become part of the code.”

According to Reuschle, only a handful of states have implemented ADA is this fashion.

While architects agree that enforcement regimens from other states do tend to be less hands-on, they point out that their states approach ADA in ways that also integrate accessible designs into routines. For a number of years in Kansas, for example, the state architect focused on reviewing ADA accessibility features for K-12 school designs, says Kevin Greischar, K-12 leader in the Overland Park, KS office of the DLR Group.

Because of that, Greischar, like Reuschle, thinks about ADA regulations just as he thinks about building codes. “I don’t even have to discuss urinal and toilet heights with mechanical engineers doing the plumbing,” he says. “They know the rules so well that they just apply them — like they apply building codes.”

Accessibility For Everyone

During the 17 years since the enactment of the ADA, accessibility design requirements seem to have transmuted themselves from rules for ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities into rules that ensure access for everyone — with and without disabilities.

In restrooms, for example, tall people have come to favor the higher ADA toilets. Short men as well as kids prefer low-mounted urinals. In elevators, placing buttons at wheel chair height poses no real problem for tall people, so it is done as a matter of course. Even if ADA weren’t around to require it, it would still be done.

“In Texas, if you provide drinking fountains at the low accessible height, you also have to provide one at the regular height so that someone taller that might have trouble bending over has access,” says Reuschle.

Most people don’t even recognize certain design elements as something that the ADA requires. Take the door handles that have by and large replaced doorknobs in schools. ADA prohibits doorknobs. Compared to handles knobs are difficult to use. Some people with weak hands and everyone with no hands can’t use doorknobs. Everyone can use handles, though.

The same is true of doors. It is virtually impossible to find a door in a commercial, institutional, or school environment that doesn’t conform to ADA requirements. Does anyone ever think about that anymore?

Another example is the area beneath rest room sinks. Years ago, some sinks were closed underneath to hide the pipes. But for the last 17 years, the areas under restroom sinks have been open. If you think that it is a sink design idea, you’re right, but it is a sink design idea tailored to comply with ADA, which requires an opening under the sink tall enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

Integrating ADA Designs

In a recent elementary school designed by the DLR Group, the administrative offices sit within a circular architectural floor form. An attractive curved slope running slightly up hill leads people to and from the offices.

It looks playful, and it is. But it is also an ADA compliant response to a design problem. Originally, the design was conventional. During site excavation, however, the heavy equipment ran into solid rock right where the offices were supposed to be. “The administrative area ended up about 18 in. higher than the two areas on either side,” Greischar says. “Instead of using steps and a ramp, we created these curving forms that move uphill and downhill on a one- to 20-degree slope — the ADA requirement for wheelchair access.”

It may be surprising to discover how many wheelchair ramps are disguised as designer slopes today. Greischar does it all the time. Corridors on the first floor in many school buildings end up on a landing with several steps leading down the exterior doors. “Today, we might make the entire corridor slope to avoid the steps,” he says. “Sometimes, we’ll make the corridor running past the auditorium slope up in the direction of the stage. At stage level, we’ll install a door, providing wheelchair access directly to stage level.”

It’s an ADA compliant wheelchair slope designed so that no one notices it.

Do we need ADA anymore? Of course we do. It’s a rhetorical question. But the time may be coming when it isn’t rhetorical. ADA requirements have become commonplace for architects that practice what is known as Universal Design. “The term accessibility calls to mind ADA requirements for people with disabilities,” says Greischar. Universal Design is a non-exclusive term. It applies to everyone, and it has to do with designs that are accessible by everyone.

“One day, when I’m old and gray, young architects will include what we call ADA compliance within what they simply call design. If someone brings up ADA, they may not know what the acronym stands for.”

Maybe they won’t have too.