Architecture and the ADA: One Size Does Not Fit All

Negotiating college spaces in a wheelchair is not an easy task, especially at Ohio’s first university, established in 1804, where hills, brick streets, and buildings designed years ago provide daily challenges. College Green is the oldest part of the campus. Its buildings and historic sites — and even the brick walkways and trees — all are part of an educational tradition that covers more than two centuries and includes many fascinating people and events.

Ohio University in Athens is a special place, with beautiful facilities and friendly people. But it also has barriers that prevent easy access to a number of areas and buildings. The University is dedicated to change — not only to address the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but to also exhibit the spirit of the Act that not only responds to the law, but makes spaces practical and user-friendly. How is Ohio University accomplishing that goal in a cost-effective way?

Advisory Committee on Disability
Making a commitment to change, Dr. Roderick J. McDavis, Ohio University’s 20th president, established an advisory committee on disability made up of faculty, staff, and students — persons with disabilities or those who have knowledge of disability issues — to scan the University’s physical and climatic environment and to examine programmatic concerns to make the campus more open and accessible.

According to President McDavis, the committee is charged to “review, analyze, prioritize, and recommend such actions which are necessary and appropriate to maintain Ohio University’s compliance with both the letter and spirit of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The committee will ensure that the University develops and carries out all policies of program accessibility.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation which may include, but is not limited to, making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

The Code and Standards
Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor. Following surgery and rehabilitation, using a wheelchair became part of my daily routine. Seeing the world from a different point of view, I am dismayed at how the ADA standards and buildings code imply that one size fits all. “The code does not fit everyone,” said Richard Schultz, Ohio University’s director of planning and implementation. The code makes it difficult for architects, designers, and contractors to keep end-users, with varying degrees of disability, in mind. Some in the commercial real estate industry equate “end-user” to mean tenant and/or someone who is or will be occupying the space they will develop, design, and/or build. The end-user, in this case, is a person with disabilities who requires that the space being designed and constructed is accessible with ease of use.

The code perpetuates the theme that that one size fits all — design it for every person with a disability and everyone can use it. It is obvious, however, that not all wheelchairs are the same size. Moreover, before buildings and spaces are completed, those who actually have used wheelchairs for a length of time should test out the facilities.

Baker University Center
To illustrate, a new building was completed on Ohio University’s campus without automatic door openers for the restrooms. The bathroom sinks were unreachable, as well as the soap dispensers. In addition, the theater did not have space carved out for wheelchair attendees. Because the code has certain specifications and end-users were not consulted during the design phase, change orders cost the University additional dollars. “Some things we learn from experience,” noted Schultz. “I do agree that I personally learned from Dr. Lewis by our working together after the building was complete, which is not the correct way of designing the best facility. It is a better process if the user is involved at the beginning of the design phase.” Ohio University now knows there is value in engaging persons with disabilities early in the process due to the personal knowledge we bring to the table.

Lessons Learned
There were lessons learned. Now, renovations are in the design phase for Cutler Hall, the oldest building on campus (and the administrative building), which does not have ramp access, and for the College Green, which does not have access from the front portal. Other buildings, grounds, and spaces are being evaluated for wheelchair entry. The difference this time is that members of the President’s Advisory Committee on Disability have been working with the design team to ensure the changes are not only what the ADA requires (architects know that), but what they frequently do not know is what will make it work, in practice, for persons who must use wheelchairs on a daily basis.

“We are putting the final touches on a campus-wide map that is available online which indicates wheelchair access to buildings and grounds,” said Joe Fabiny, Ohio University’s director of standards and support services. “We want persons with disabilities to be clear on the easiest way to get from place to place.”

What colleges and universities should avoid is building new buildings or renovating old ones that will not function for the end-user once they are completed. “From an Institutional Equity perspective, we want to vigorously pursue the elimination of architectural, programmatic, academic, and climatic barriers,” said Jesse Raney, Ohio University’s director of disability services. “What appears to be a ramp that works, and constructed according to ADA specifications is, at times, one that has too steep of a grade that makes the ramp challenging, if not impossible for the user to navigate.”

The bottom line, and to avoid allocating dollars for unusable spaces and facilities, is involve wheelchair users from concept to completion. What works for one person with a disability, might not work for all, depending on the degree of the illness or the injury. Developers, designers, architects, engineers, and contractors should apply simple, common sense solutions to address accessibility issues at colleges and universities. Common sense is not making assumptions about what will or will not work. Ask. Involve the users. One size does not fit all.

Carolyn Bailey Lewis, Ph.D., is director and general manager of the WOUB Center for Public Media at Ohio University and uses a wheelchair. She is an ADA consultant with the Cornerstone Heritage Group, LLC, a public relations, business development, and ADA consulting firm. She can be reached at [email protected]