July 26 is the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal legislation that opened the door for people with disabilities. Or maybe it would be better to say it provided a ramp for them.
Among the mandates of ADA laws are such things as requiring ramps to make it possible for people who use wheelchairs to enter public buildings.
The ADA is an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped level the playing field for racial minorities, women and others. The ADA has done the same for people with disabilities.
But there is a difference between enacting legislation and ensuring that it is enforced as it was intended. A few people may try to evade the regulations required by the ADA, but in most cases violations are a result of confusion about what is required, or just not being “tuned in” to the needs of people who require accommodations.
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The nonprofit agency where I work, Independent Living Resource Center, has as its mission to help people with disabilities be full participants in the communities in which they live. ILRC has been responding to inquiries about ADA requirements and complaints about noncompliance since it became law in 1990. We’ve been looking into accessibility problems and offering advice about cost-effective solutions to help local businesses and other organizations make their buildings and surrounding properties more accessible.
In the past several months, we’ve decided to do ADA consulting in a more formal way. We have the experience, and we recognize the need for affordable services. We want to help organizations get it right, not catch them doing something wrong. We do an initial consultation at no charge, and then bid the entire job.
Our full evaluation starts with an on-site survey. We measure door openings and evaluate how much pressure is required to open doors. We look at signage on doors, water fountain heights, and the height of grab bars in restroom stalls. We evaluate accessibility from the standpoint of mobility, visual and hearing issues. We inspect and photograph all areas of an organization’s building, as well as parking lots and other adjacent areas.
When our evaluation is completed, we provide a written report of our findings and a digital copy of the report with photos. We complete the survey with a face-to-face meeting to discuss our findings and recommendations. And we provide ongoing consultation related to the original survey.
Some of the most common violations we run across are in parking lots, where building owners think parking spaces are accessible but users find that they aren’t. Another common problem is that accessibility features once in place have been removed or are in need of repair. Service counters, racks for brochures and vending machine buttons can be too high to be reached by people using wheelchairs, but not apparent to people who don’t.
An issue that often leads to confusion is which ADA standards apply in which cases. Structures built after 1990 must comply with that year’s standards. Structures built or modified after the 2010 revised standards went into effect must comply with the later standards. Our consultants can help determine which standards apply.
They also offer suggestions on how to make appropriate accommodations, the various options available, and those that will be most economical. An ADA evaluation can save money by preventing costly mistakes and avoiding lawsuits for noncompliance. In addition, buildings and parking lots that are accessible to everyone increase customer traffic and enhance a company’s image, even among those who don’t have a disability.
Accessibility is also important when hiring and retaining employees. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations for employees and bars discrimination based on disability. Our services explain employer/employee rights and responsibilities, and can answer questions about the use of service animals.
Accessible architecture doesn’t mean weird-looking architecture. Accessible architecture works for everyone. Doors wide enough to accommodate a manual wheelchair don’t look much different from other doors, and the cost of this kind of accommodation is not nearly what some people anticipate.
Many accessible features work for a lot of people, not just people with disabilities. Power-assisted doors – the ones that open when a button is pushed – are helpful to customers pushing children in strollers and vendors making deliveries. Not every entrance needs to be fitted with a power-assisted door, but just one makes life easier for many.
Businesses and other public places should comply with ADA not because of fear of lawsuits, but because it’s the right thing to do. Accessibility accommodations don’t give people with disabilities special rights; they provide equal access and equal accommodations to afford everyone equal rights to which they’re entitled. Making facilities and public places accessible to more customers, patrons and potential employees is just good business.