Imagine your child uses a wheelchair and has started the fall at a new school. She comes home one day happily chatting about new friends, bad lunch food, and how she likes her history teacher. She also mentions they had a fire drill, in which her class went to a safe location across the parking lot, away from the school. However, the door closest to her classroom – which her classmates used – was inaccessible due to stairs and an adult had to quickly accompany her through the school to the accessible front doors. You mentally panic as you realize her school was built in the 1960s and may not be fully up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines.
This is just one of many examples people with disabilities face as they encounter outdated private and public spaces each day. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, it was an important milestone in ensuring public and commercial spaces were accessible for all. However, in the design and construction world, implementing these code requirements has been a slow progress as the design standards continued to be considered an afterthought for some, often making even new construction non-compliant. As ADA lawsuits against non-compliant parties increase, accessibility is in the spotlight more than ever before. Businesses and municipalities are engaging civil engineering firms with expertise in accessibility design to retrofit their existing properties and bring them in to compliance with the current ADA code. In just the last three years alone, our team has worked on more than 75 projects throughout the U.S. to assess ADA compliance and develop an approach to bring the site up to code. What follows are some of the most common issues we see in outdated public and private spaces related to physical mobility impairments. Keep in mind, though, that ADA applies to other accessibility issues such as communication, with website accessibility being a recent hot button issue.
Accessible Parking Stalls –Parking spaces that serve a particular building or facility should be located on the shortest accessible route to the building’s entrance (see 2010 ADA Standards section 208.3.1). So when you see accessible spaces pushed to the edge of parking lots instead of closest to the door, you can bet it is an outdated, non-compliant design. For parking lots that do not serve a particular building (think a public lot in the middle of a downtown area), ADA code requires accessible spots to be located on the shortest accessible route to an accessible pedestrian entrance of the parking facility. The code even governs the number of accessible parking spots. For parking lots of 100 standard parking stalls or fewer, the requirement is one accessible space for every 25 standard spaces or fraction thereof. Beyond the number and location of spaces, one must also consider the slopes of the space. If a slope is greater than 1:48 anywhere within the space or access aisle, it is considered non-compliant.
Width of Accessible Routes – Imagine you park right in front of the Redbox stall at your neighborhood store with your bumper hanging just over the curb. Someone in a wheelchair then comes out and needs to get past your car but is unable to because the space between your bumper and the Redbox machine is too narrow. This is an example of a non-compliant accessible route. We see this most often in commercial spaces with outdoor ice sales coolers, propane cages, Redbox machines, etc. To be compliant, the clear width of an accessible route should be at least 3 feet. Additionally, the “vending” machines are required to have a flat (1:48) slope in all directions with a clear floor space of at least 30”x 48” in front. While we now provide wider sidewalks on new projects, the most common retrofit solution is to provide a wheel stop in the space in front of the machine to prevent vehicle overhang at these critical locations.
Condition of Accessible Routes – Accessible routes should have a clear head space of 80 inches. We often see this with trees and larger shrubs that hang low over an accessible sidewalk or path. Whereas one might step off the path briefly to move around the overgrowth, those with handicaps are not able to do so and the low-hanging plantings obstruct their path. In addition, horizontal protrusions, such as fire department connections or gas meters along the building, may not protrude more than 4” into circulation paths between a height of 27-80”.
Accessible Schools – We recently completed property condition assessments at 47 public schools. As a part of the property assessment, a baseline, visual accessibility survey was completed for each site. The most frequent non-compliant items we observed that specifically apply to schools included lack of accessible bus drop-off and pick-up locations and lack of accessible routes to playgrounds and areas of refuge (locations where children go for fire/bomb/weather threats or drills). Since many public schools were built decades before the 1991 ADA Accessibility Guidelines went into effect, not to mention the updated 2010 Standards, many school districts face the need to evaluate and update their facilities to the 2010 ADA standards to better serve students of all abilities.
Inaccessible Public Spaces – In evaluating public spaces such as stadiums, parks, and rest areas, many of which were built decades ago, the most common compliance issues are lack of accessible routes to things like picnic tables, water fountains, pet walk areas, and other amenities. In stadiums, we see the lack of an accessible route to the field, making it difficult for a disabled father to access the field to escort his daughter on the Homecoming court, for example. With an increased demand for public recreation spaces comes an equal demand to makes these spaces accessible to all in ways that weren’t considered even just 20-25 years ago.
So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen a shift in the last several years toward prioritizing the updated 2010 ADA guidelines, whether in retrofitting existing spaces or designing new ones with accessibility in mind. What does this exciting momentum toward inclusive, accessible design mean for you or a loved one? As we continue to make progress, the the safe enjoyment of public and private spaces should be increasingly available to all, regardless of ability.
About Shane Yarbrough, PE
Shane Yarbrough, PE, is a Senior Project Manager for the Land Development team in Auburn, Alabama. Shane graduated from Auburn University in 2001 with a degree in Civil Engineering and has been working on a variety of civil design projects for the past 15 years. He serves public sector clients at the federal, state and local levels, as well as private sector clients for the development of residential and commercial developments throughout the southeast. Shane has been with Foresite Group for more than 10 years.