Accessibility Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

Oct. 1, 2008
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect almost 20 years ago, there are still common mistakes being made that are easy to fix

In what was advertised at the time as the biggest attended bill signing ever held on the White House lawn, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into effect 18 years ago, in July of 1990. Why, then, are there still complaints and lawsuits regarding the placement of accessibility elements?

After the passage of the ADA, different federal agencies were given rulemaking authority for different sections of the act: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was awarded aircraft; the Department of Transportation (DOT) was awarded rail, buses, and highways; and the Department of Justice (DOJ) was responsible for buildings and facilities. The DOJ, which was more familiar with bank robberies and drug busts, chose a federal board—the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Board—to craft its rules. (The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Board is now known as the U.S. Access Board.) The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Board developed the bible of accessibility regulations: the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

After years of enforcement, you'd think that all of the required accessibility features are being installed and maintained according to the guidelines. Even today, though, many building elements are being installed or changed in such a way that they may not be usable by the population they're intended to help, simply because building managers aren't really conscious of how these elements contribute to accessibility. It's hard to change hundreds of years of construction practices. A whole new sensitivity and thinking needs to be followed in order to comply with the vast number of regulations in this arena.

Following is a list of the 10 most common mistakes that occur in the field—from least common to most common—when building owners/managers attempt to provide accessibility.

10. Installing a coat hook too high.

If you stood facing a wall, reached forward, and put a pin in the wall, it would be about 60- to 70-inches above the floor. If you sat in a chair and did the same thing, the pin would be about 48-inches above the floor, depending on your height. In the past, industry has installed coat hooks, thermostats, pull stations, and other assorted items at the "convenient" 60-inch height, making these items inaccessible for the wheelchair bound. Items like coat hooks, which require forward reaching, must be placed no higher than 48-inches above the floor.

9. Using round knobs on doors.

Someone who has had a neck injury, a stroke, or some other medical episode might be restricted in his/her ability to fully open his/her hands, which makes tight pinching or grasping of round objects very difficult. Flat-lever hardware, which has been used in Europe for years, is a great solution for this problem. Although many doors have these levers installed when the building is built, if the doorknob breaks, the replacement is often an inappropriate round knob, which is still sold at local supply stores. Why are round knobs still offered when levers are much more easily usable by a larger group of people? Good question. The answer probably lies in the industry's previous investment in manufacturing equipment and the fact that some people are used to the look of, or prefer the look of, round knobs. Round knobs are still allowable in private residences, but can no longer be used in government or commercial facilities that must be accessible to the public.

8. Objects protruding from walls.

Visually impaired people who use canes can't detect any object with a cane that's higher than 27 inches above the floor. If an object that high protrudes more than 4 inches from the wall, the person will usually bump into the object while walking along a route. Consideration must be given to the mounting locations of wall-mounted lighting, fire extinguishers, fire-hose cabinets, and other objects to protect this group of people.

7. Mirrors are too high.

As noted in No. 10, when standing, the average eye level is about 60 inches. When seated in a wheelchair, it's about 10 inches lower. According to the ADAAG, the bottom of a mounted mirror cannot be any higher than 40 inches above the floor; it's important to remember that this measurement is to the reflecting surface of the mirror, not the frame.

6. Clear space is obstructed.

If you picture a standing person in a box, the box would only be about 22 inches wide and 18 inches deep. If you put the person in a wheelchair, the size of the box grows to 30 inches wide by 48 inches deep. This larger area is an invisible area called "clear space." Clear space is needed wherever an individual would stop and use a building feature, such as a lavatory in a toilet room, a phone, a water fountain, a pool shower, etc. Most new buildings start with this clear space, and then it becomes occupied over the years by trashcans, storage, or other goodies. No one sees the problem until a wheelchair user tries to enter and is frustrated by the blockage.

5. Grab bars are blocked.

Clearance above grab bars is needed for the user to transfer from his/her wheelchair or mobility unit to the toilet. But, the space above the grab bars is often used to put large toilet paper roll holders, baby-changing stations, or seat-cover dispensers. This makes it impossible to use the grab bars for their intended purpose. At least 12 inches (preferably 18 inches) should be kept clear above the grab bars to ensure their usability.

4. The door offset is too small.

If there's too little space next to the knob side of a door, a wheelchair or walker user would have a difficult time opening an in-swinging door to leave an area because he/she needs to pull the door toward himself/herself and get on the side in order to pass through the opening. An 18-inch offset is needed between the doorframe and the side wall on the doorknob side. Many times, this space is initially supplied, but is later blocked by a trashcan or other object.

3. The accessible route is too narrow.

A pathway that's 36 inches wide is needed throughout a complex to allow a disabled person to negotiate the areas he/she needs to visit. Many times, this space is initially provided, but it becomes temporarily or permanently blocked—deliveries are temporarily stored in pathways, bushes and trees grow over walkways, and, in retail stores, sales items are placed in these areas. All of these items can block a passage.

2. Accessible parking signage is too low.

The accessible parking stall sign has to be high enough so that it's not blocked by a vehicle parked in the space. This is so an enforcement officer can see the sign and ticket those who are illegally parked. While no height is specified in the ADAAG, 60 inches from the ground to the bottom of the sign is generally considered a sufficient height. The sign must also contain the international symbol for accessibility.

1. Door signs are on the wrong side of the door.

If I had $1 for every sign in the wrong place at the wrong time in every building I've surveyed in the last few years, I could retire right now. Room signage is required to be on the wall next to the doorknob side of the door—not on the side with the hinges, and definitely not on the door itself. Why? If it's an out-swinging door, and a sight-impaired person was reading the Braille on the sign, think about what would happen to that person if someone on the other side opened the door.

With more awareness, understanding, and sensitivity, providing accessibility can be accomplished in a way that's usable for the population for which it was intended.

Jeffery Gross is president at Hollywood, FL-based Jeffery Gross Associates Architect.

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