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ADA guidelines.

On January 22, 1991, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) published guidelines for the accessibility standards for the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The objective of these guidelines is to assist the Department of Justice in establishing accessibility standards for new construction and for renovation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is simultaneously developing guidelines for the employment practices that will also be addressed by ADA. These two draft documents, and forthcoming guidance from the Department of Justice, represent the first step in defining the new design requirements of this legislation. The process to reach a broad national consensus on this complex problem will be lengthy.

The complexity of ADA can be attributed to multiple layers of overlapping requirements that the law must address. The design requirements for ADA go well beyond providing simple ramps to buildings. The true ramifications will be far-reaching, and the legal issues will be complex.

Building and Product Design

One initial difficulty in developing design guidelines is determining what product and services are now available. New product design of all types usually attempts to target as broad a potential market as possible or is directed at a specific segment of the total population, such as young career women or middle-aged businessmen. In the second case, for example, the marketplace as a whole offers consumers a wide range of automobiles, each with different characteristics and price tags. In housing, as another example, condominiums might be specifically designed for retirement houses or tailored to the needs of first-time buyers.

To meet the needs of everyone (including people with disabilities), all of these different types of consumer products must be available in the marketplace, where the unique requirements for each different group of buyers are often mutually exclusive. Therefore, business judgment must always be exercised as to the appropriate amount of focused targeting that can be applied to any new product.

Historically, success or failure of these business strategies has been judged solely by market forces. In a sense, ADA has now become an important part of this traditional process. The guidelines will now determine what types of accommodations in each specific product must be made to serve a range of people with different capabilities.

Identification of the needs and capabilities of individuals with different disabilities or of people with different combinations of disabilities is also a difficult task. Each person's capabilities are affected not only by their specific injury or disease but also by the individual's age, sex, general health, strength, and stature.

In the past, one primary basis for providing a range of product sizes was the differentiation between those models intended for adults and those for children. Now under the broad umbrella of ADA, almost anyone with limited capabilities is offered new legal protections. In fact, the first legal case under ADA was filed by a construction worker who was overweight due to a medical condition. Even the most basic task of defining the full range of needs that should be addressed by ADA promises to be difficult.

Design Alternatives

In the design of buildings, two different tools can be used to address the new design requirements of ADA. The first is a more flexible design standard (wider doors, for example); the second is "scoping" (one accessible stall of a group of ten, for example). Each of these design tools also has its limitations.

Installing wider doors, for instance, will more easily accommodate people who use assistive devices, particularly wheelchairs. At some point, however, the width of the door and the arc of the swing become an encumbrance that makes use of the door more difficult and also begins to significantly impact the size and function of the room.

In most instances, wider doors are also heavier. Therefore, the greater width increases the physical strength required to operate the door. This change in the width also increases the tension required on the closer. At some point, the added door width now begins to generate a range of secondary problems that are in opposition to the original objective.

The other available design tool is scoping: the application of the standards, establishing the minimums and the minimum percentages of duplicated facilities, i.e., a minimum number of accessible spaces in a parking lot. To identify the proper scoping of any particular element, statistical information must be available on all of the people who benefit from the specific design feature.

Determining the application, or scope, of accessibility requirements is relatively easy in a large facility. In a 1 million-square-foot office building, for example, installing a low drinking fountain and an intermediate drinking fountain, as well as a high bubbler for basketball players, would not be a problem. However, in a small pizza parlor, use of this approach is not as practical.

Operational Procedures

Another potential difficulty is correlating the operational practices with the building design. The legislative background material for ADA indicates that proper training for employees will be a satisfactory way for employers to overcome some architectural limitations. A storekeeper can remove merchandise from a high shelf for a customer in a wheelchair, for example. Therefore the use of a high shelf is not prohibited. But how is the designer (or the building inspector) to know how the facility will be operated in the future?

From an operational perspective, defining employment practices will also create a problem for designers, most of whom do not feel comfortable deciding what types of disabilities could make it impractical for a person to perform certain types of jobs. The reason for this discomfort is their relatively limited knowledge of disabilities and vocational activities. However, many decisions in this regard can significantly affect the design of any new facility.


To develop proper accessibility regulations for ADA will require a thorough understanding of these types of complex technical issues and will also require a great many subjective judgments. The final regulations will need to be:

* Useful, to provide real benefits to people who need assistance

* Practical, so they can be easily and inexpensively constructed

* Safe, so they will not result in undesirable secondary effects

* Easily-defined, so clear standards can be developed and fairly enforced

Achievement of these objectives will be a long and difficult task. For the best results, even after the final guidelines are completed, the standards must be periodically evaluated and then slowly refined, based on the experience that has been gained.
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Title Annotation:Americans With Disabilities Act
Author:Davies, Thomas D.
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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