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Disability Requirements In Architecture | Why Is It A Challenge?

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We’ve seen a significant concern among architects, designers, and contractors for ADA compliance over the last few decades.

Is it because of the arduous and exorbitant lawsuits? To a certain extent, yes! But that’s not all; the need for completing a project in conformity with the ADA guidelines stems from the demand of having a self-reliant and productive community.

In spite of disabilities, people want to go about their daily lives without assistance from others. And that’s a step towards sustainable living. However, designing a structure or building in line with disability requirements is always a challenge for architects.

There’s no agency that can monitor the project for ADA compliance, so there’s no way to determine the same from the very get-go. It’s either in line with the regulations or not.

Through this guide, we’ll be addressing a crucial question – why is it difficult to meet disability requirements? But before that, let’s get into the depth of accessible architecture and ADA.

Disability Requirements In Architecture

 ADA Compliant Accessible Architecture

Signed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law enacted to protect people with physical and cognitive disabilities against discrimination. That said, although federal disability laws existed prior to this act, they didn’t apply to the crucial sections of our community.

For example, privately owned buildings open to the public, such as theatres, restaurants,  private schools, and grocery stores, were inaccessible to people with impairment. The entryways weren’t wide enough and were only accessible by a flight of stairs, making it challenging for those seated in a wheelchair.

These issues were addressed after the ADA accessibility guidelines were introduced, changing the dynamics of the architectural industry. However, the original ADA set guidelines established in 1991 weren’t technically advanced in conformity with the present scenario.

As a result, they were replaced by the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, in line with other objective measures of accessibility. In turn, the law opened up opportunities for millions of Americans to play a significant and productive role in our community.

It’s a known fact that the law has managed to create an impact on architecture. It worked in tandem with the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988, making multifamily housing accessible. But even then, people were confined at their homes as public spaces remained inaccessible.

The technical advancements of ADA helped connect private spaces to public spaces, making it possible for people with disabilities to engage more with the community. It changed lives, allowing even handicapped individuals to become productive members of the society by reducing their reliance on public assistance.

There’s no doubt that the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped the community grow, prosper, and live a sustainable life. But it also obligates architects and designers to follow its rules and regulations while creating an innovative design, which can prove to be a limiting factor.

This is because meeting disability requirements is easier said than done. In the following sections of this article, we’ll be highlighting the reasons for the same.

The Criticisms Of ADA

Workers, architects, and builders will agree that the ADA isn’t perfect. There are flaws, which, in turn, make it difficult to meet the requirements of compliance.

First things first, no building can be deemed compliant with the regulations of the Act just because it “almost” hits the mark. There’s no leeway other than what’s specified in its list of guidelines, so it either meets the ADA standards or doesn’t.

We’ll present an example to help you understand what we mean – suppose the location of a bathroom fixture is off by an inch. Is there any tolerance for variation? No, there isn’t, because the compliance is set by the range permitted in the 2010 Standards. Anything lower or higher than the range shouldn’t be deemed fit to meet the ADA requirements.

That’s not all; we often come across another common criticism of the law related to its lack of a technical standard for compliance. Several standards may differ from state to state, depending on the building’s use and type.

The ADA is enforced only when there’s a complaint. And with incentives like the Unruh Act that rewards $4000 in statutory damages to individuals who report non-compliant establishments and structures without proven evidence, there are a higher number of litigations each year.

Consequently, investigations are carried out by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other agencies to verify these claims. After which, lawsuits are filed if necessary. But there’s no ADA certification or real monitoring other than compliance testing.

Common Mistakes & Misunderstandings

It’s a common misconception that compliance with the accessibility standards and requirements of the local building code is all you need to meet the disability requirements. But this isn’t completely true.

The requirements for the accessible design and construction of the ADA and building code are mutually exclusive. Therefore, they need to be considered separately, which most designers, architects, and contractors fail to realize.

In other words, a building can be compliant with the local code but may not meet the ADA requirements. What’s more, designers tend to focus on technical requirements without understanding “scoping” provisions.

This is undeniably a mistake that should be avoided. Technical requirements help you understand how accessibility is to be met while scoping is what’s required for accessibility.

Importance Of A Universal Design

Often architects forget to maintain a balanced approach while creating an innovative and accessible design. They need to understand the importance of the impact accessibility has on everyone and not just individuals with disabilities.

For instance, a family of four may have one person with a physical impairment, be it the child or a parent. Consequently, it will affect the other members of the family in some way or the other. The same goes for people who may be temporarily disabled with broken bones or injuries.

Hence, architects should focus on building an environment that’s flexible and equitable for all members. It’s important to create a universal design, highlighting ADA as part of a social goal, instead of seeing it as a regulatory burden.

Introducing sufficient floor space for free movement, wider entryways, low-height sinks, and elevators in your architectural plan can help by a huge margin. However, you must keep the size, location, and other related factors in mind while designing such a structure or space.

ADA Violations & Litigations

It’s been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed to protect people with disabilities against discrimination. There have been several revisions in its rules and regulations since then. And of course, the consistent growth of population is another factor that needs to be mentioned.

This led to an increase in the number of ADA lawsuits filed against establishments and businesses. With California being the most populated state comprising 39 million residents as of the 2019 census, it accounts for 44% of all the cases filed in the country, which can get very expensive.

People are always going to be incentivized to make sure the community is observing the ADA regulations. But truth be told, these regulations can be quite tricky and intricate for everyone to follow. This is because not all structures are the same, and even the oldest buildings in the country need to be in line with these guidelines.

There’s no proper agency that can give you a clean chit, but you can undergo a CASp inspection to help you stand in court if a construction-related complaint is filed against your structure. You can also simply avoid the entire situation by following the CA ADA guidelines to prioritize accessibility in architecture.

These regulations will help you tackle the common problems and complaints related to accessibility, which brings us to the next section of our article.

Most Common Challenges Faced

Let’s now take a look at a few challenges architects face while designing an accessible space.

  1. Parking

The lack of proper space allocation in the parking areas of residential and commercial buildings make it difficult for wheelchairs to get out. Along with the inadequate number of accessible spaces, they often lack a sign designating a reserved spot for people with disabilities.

  1. Public Space Accessibility

Architects and designers often forget to consider the heights of tables, counters, shelves, and other surfaces. In turn, this makes it difficult for those with physical impairments to access essential items without physical assistance from others.

Toilets and restrooms are other areas of concern, where low-height sinks and grab handles are required for safety and accessibility. That’s not all; as an architect, you need to allocate ample floor space to your design for a clear path of access.

  1. Route & Entry

People seated on wheelchairs may find it difficult to make their way from the parking space to the building without adequate curb ramps or entrance ramps. And the absence of wider entryways further adds to their inconvenience.

Creativity & ADA

Builders and designers think twice before investing a hefty amount on their project because of the added cost that ADA may impose on their business. But this need not be the case.

Even if there’s no way to be certain about ADA compliance, a creative entity always proves to be an advantage in the long-run, something architects and contractors fail to understand.

Making the protection of people with disabilities a priority also best serves your interest, providing you with peace of mind as you manage your business daily. For this, hire a dedicated team of ADA creative designers and opt for a CASp inspection certificate before any formal complaint.

Final Words

Over the years, the world has undergone dynamic changes, mostly for the betterment of the communities. Today, consumers express their individuality through the choices they make, giving an incentive to architects to be ADA compliant.

Even then, it’s always a challenge to meet the disability requirements of structures and public areas, owing to a wide range of factors. One of the reasons is that architects often consider ADA restrictive in creating an innovative, unique, and safe design for one and all.

But that’s not true; the only limitation for a designer is his own imagination. And combining safety protocols with innovation can only lead to a higher rate of ADA compliance.

On that note, we now come to the end of this informative guide. With this, we’ll take your leave.

Till next time!

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