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Planning for accessibility

Although it has been more than five years since its enactment, the ADA's impact on facility design is still being felt on school construction projects.

There are so many things to consider during a school construction project-the number of classrooms to be included, where the mechanical systems will be located, what type of roof is best, and much more. In addition, as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), administrators and planners must consider how activities, as well as spaces within the building, will be accessible to everyone.

"ADA has been in effect for years and most people know the rules," says Marcel Quimby, project manager, Brown Reynolds Watford Architects, Dallas. "It is just becoming the norm today and doesn't take any more effort than not being in compliance."

While it might not take more effort, it does take knowledge of what will work and what won't. Ron Mace, program director for the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, notes that a lot has happened since the ADA was passed.

"People have learned a lot," says Mace. "The ADA increased awareness tremendously. It treats non-compliance as a form of discrimination. This has caused the building industry to be more responsive, which has caused another reaction where manufacturers are making products that are readily available that meet standards, so it is much easier to meet the ADA."

What is not the norm, however, are the sites that are not flat and level-like many school sites. "If you have a site that is very steep, then you have a problem you need to deal with, especially concerning exterior sidewalks and ramps," says Quimby. "The best approach is for the parties involved to sit down and talk it out; talk about what they would like to be achieved and what is reasonable."

Making changes Often, the most difficult time to meet ADA guidelines is during building renovations. Quimby is currently working on a project at the University of Dallas, where several of the residence halls were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Renovations on some of the residence halls resulted in a lift being installed and changes being made to several individual rooms to make them accessible. Restrooms also were modified to meet ADA guidelines.

"There are some residence halls that have cast-in-place, load-bearing walls," says Quimby. In this situation, Quimby says that although these types of buildings are difficult to make totally accessible, the university will still be in compliance if it has enough other handicapped-accessible residence-hall rooms available.

There are allowances within the standard that are directed toward renovations. However, as North Carolina's Mace points out, if you are tearing out walls and reconfiguring, it is just like new construction. "In those cases, it doesn't cost any more to meet the ADA than if you were building new."

The most important thing to remember, according to Jack Catlin, partner, LCM Architects, Chicago, and member of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, is that for state-owned Title II entities, the goal is program accessibility. "It is not necessary to remove every barrier in a facility," he says. "The critical component of Title II is program accessibility. The school must develop and understand their facility and program and how the two mesh."

Formulating a design While every barrier does not have to be removed, the ideal facility is accessible to everyone. A major step in achieving this is in the school's design.

"Barrier-free design needs to be incorporated from the first moments of design," says Catlin. "If it is part of the concept of the building then it will be incorporated at every step. If accessibility is added halfway through the process, it will always look like an add-on and not something that was thought out."

School administrators and planners understand that accessibility is not an option but a requirement, and want to meet that requirement. However, not being versed in all of the laws, administrators must rely on different experts for some information.

"It is important to educate yourself so that you can ask the architect intelligent questions," says Quimby.

Also, talk with a number of experts or consultants, the district's legal staff, the facilities staff and the local disabled community. Understand the goals of the ADA before beginning. At some point, according to Catlin, it may make sense to bring in a design expert, whether it is an in-house person or outside consultant.

Also, visit recently completed schools that have made accessibility part of their general circulation path. For example, many schools are building ramps that are 8- to 12-feet wide, which gradually guide students up from the first floor to the second floor. Auditoriums often will feature an upper and lower entry and exit.

Catlin notes that buildings should be designed from the beginning to incorporate any level changes so that all people use the entrance in the same way. "There shouldn't be a separate route for people with disabilities," he says. "The principal goal is integration. By that, I mean not just that people with disabilities can use the facilities, but people with disabilities can use facilities in the same way as everybody else."

While elevators may be one option, Quimby points out that it is not the ideal solution. "There is no need for elevators if you can design around it," she says. "The whole idea is to mainstream, and making somebody use an elevator can make them feel like a second-class citizen. There is no reason why new facilities should not be accessible."

Rules and children While the ADA applies to everyone, it does not have provisions specifically dealing with facilities that cater to children-until now.

In July, the Access Board voted to approve a final rule on accessible elements designed and constructed primarily for use by children. The final rule must be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which can request changes. OMB's review should be completed early this month.

There is at least one difference between the proposed rule, which was published on July 22, 1996, and the final rule as it was before OMB's review-the final rule deals with elements designed primarily for use by children, whereas the proposed rule deals with facilities designed primarily for use by children.

This one-word change was made to clarify when and where the provisions apply.

"This new ruling gives designers an alternative set of specs," says Jim Raggio, general counsel for the Access Board. "It is not really going to have additional requirements. It will outline what the proper height is for such things as drinking fountains and water closets for children."

Architects and planners now will have greater flexibility in designing with children in mind when working on facilities that also cater to adults. As Raggio points out, the final rule will allow some exceptions for the mounting height of some elements such as water closets, sinks, lavatories and grab bars.

He also notes that many architects already are designing with children in mind according to Section 2.2, which gives designers the ability to modify regulations to meet demands. However, the new guidelines will take the guesswork out of design. (Check AS&U's website for more information on this new ruling as it is released.)

Common ADA errors When the ADA's minimum requirements are not met, the results can limit or exclude a person with a disability. For example: -When a curb ramp extends into an access aisle at an accessible parking space, a person using a wheelchair may not be able to get out of the car or van. -When the slope of a sidewalk that is an accessible route becomes steeper than 1 to 20, railings and edge protection are required. -Objects that project into circulation spaces from the side or that do not provide at least 80 inches of head clearance can be hazardous to some people.

In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the most common ADA errors and omissions in new construction and modernization projects include: -Adequate maneuvering clearance is not provided at doors, including doors to accessible toilet stalls. -The shape of the door hardware requires tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist to use. -Objects protrude into circulation paths from the side or from posts. -Lavatories with six or more toilet stalls lack a 36-inch-wide ambulatory toilet stall. -The door to the lavatory swings into the required clear floor space at accessible fixtures, controls or dispensers. -When permanent room-identification signage is provided, it is mounted in the wrong location. -No visual alarms are installed when an audible alarm system is installed.

ADA requirements include detailed provisions for elements, spaces and facilities. Successful accessibility often is measured in inches, so attention to detail is vital in any new construction or modernization project.

Most elementary schools have a playground. This area, too, should be accessible. The Access Board approved a proposed rule presented by the Play Facilities Regulatory Negotiation Committee in July. These guidelines will be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget for review. Then, the board will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, with a public comment period of 90 days following that notice.

Among the committee's recommendations is that at least one of each type of ground-level play component be accessible, which would require that clear space be provided next to the play component to facilitate maneuvering and allow room for a child to leave his or her assistive device behind in order to use the activity if he or she could do so. The proposal also includes a requirement that there be some means to facilitate transfer onto equipment, such as rockers or slides, and that there be an accessible route to the activity itself.

A ground-level component, as defined by the guidelines, is any activity that begins and ends on the ground level, including free-standing slides and activities such as sand diggers, whirls and rockers.

For elevated play components, which are those that are part of a composite structure, the committee proposes a requirement for 50 percent of the total number to be accessible. Where 20 or more play components are elevated, the committee recommends a minimum of 25 percent of the total number of elevated components should be accessible by ramp and another 25 percent by transfer system or ramp.

In composite structures with less than 20 elevated components, no ramp access would be required. On those structures, the committee proposes that 50 percent of all elevated play components be required to have access by transfer system. Traditionally, transfer systems are made up of a series of large steps that a child crawls up or bumps up backwards from a seated position.

While the Access Board has voted to adopt the committee's proposed guidelines as presented, OMB still has the authority to request changes prior to publication of a notice of proposed rulemaking. Once the notice has been published in the Federal Register, the Access Board will invite written comments on the proposed guidelines. The notice will be available free from the Access Board. Contact the publication's line to be placed on a waiting list, (800)872-2253, select option 1; TTY is (800) 993-2822; or send an e-mail request to [email protected]

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