4 FM quick reads on Accessibility
1. The ABCs of ADA
Every maintenance and engineering manager knows ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the civil rights law signed into law in 1990. Some managers know the law provides protection to the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group— people with disabilities. But many ADA-related terms are less well understood. Here's a mini-dictionary of key ADA issues:
Alterations — Any change made to a facility that affects the function of the element or space. As alterations are designed and constructed, they must meet the new construction requirements of ADA accessibility guidelines (ADAAG).
Barrier-free — Often used to describe an area with no barriers to individuals with physical or sensory disabilities
Disability — A mental or physical impairment that limits major life activities. People with disabilities include someone using a walker and someone who has a visual disability, but also someone with a hidden illness, such as diabetes, emphysema or heart disease.
Good-faith effort — What building owners, managers and all businesses were required to begin making on Jan. 26, 1992. A good-faith effort means taking steps to identify and remove barriers in a facility. It's not too late to start, unless of course a facility has already had a complaint filed against it.
Grandfathering — ADA has no provisions for grandfathering. All buildings, whether new or in existence prior to ADA, must perform readily achievable barrier removal.
Readily achievable — The definition of readily achievable is intentionally vague, as it is viewed on a case-by-case basis, with consideration to structural ability and financial resources. What might not have been affordable in 1992 might be today.
Risk Management — ADA issues have become synonymous with risk management. Grab bars and handrails provide support; smooth sidewalks prevent trips and falls, as do secure carpets and non-skid floor coverings.
TDD/TTY — Telephone Devices for the Deaf. Text telephones that allow individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate using regular voice phones.
UFAS — Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards. The predecessor to ADAAG. The standards were the technical requirements for compliance with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Once ADA was signed into law and ADAAG was developed, ADAAG requirements have, for the most part, replaced UFAS standards.
Universal design — The standard all construction should achieve because it meets the needs of everyone, from children to senior citizens.
2. Using ADA To Evaluate Facilities
Maintenance and engineering managers trying to ensure the accessibility of institutional and commercial facilities must consider the "usual suspects" —restrooms, entrances and interior paths. But they also must assess a host of other items and elements that can affect the use of a facility by an individual with disabilities.
Although alarms fall into this category, post-9/11 emergency preparedness and safety cannot have a higher priority. Audible alarms are only effective for people who can hear. Where audible alarms exist, ADA access guidelines require the installation of visual strobe alarms. This situation is particularly true in restrooms. Managers should take a serious look at their facilities to ensure that visual strobe alarms accompany audible alarms.
Other items of importance include water fountains and coolers, pay phones, cash machines, and vending machines. When negotiating for the lease, purchase or placement of these items, managers must make sure the items themselves meet ADA requirements.
Managers also must review product information carefully. The presence of an ad or cut-sheet with the international symbol of accessibility does not signify the item meets ADA requirements. There is no Underwriters Laboratory for ADA.
Instead, managers need to ask questions, make sure that the vendor answers them, and be confident that the new water fountain or cooler is compliant. Then make sure it is installed in an accessible location. Nothing is worse than a compliant water fountain located at the top of a set of steps.
Ultimately, managers must be vigilant about the accessibility and safety of their facilities. Using the ADA requirements as a template for that process is an excellent way to ensure a facility is safe and user-friendly for people with disabilities, seniors, parents pushing baby strollers, and even aging baby boomers — basically, everyone who visits a building each day.
3. ADA and Universal Design: A Closer Look
Much like green buildings and sustainable design, accessibility and universal design in institutional and commercial facilities make sense for a number of reasons, not simply for the sake of compliance. The concept makes facilities more user-friendly.
The task for maintenance and engineering managers is to help planners incorporate the concept in ways that benefit visitors and occupants and keep facilities maintainable. These examples offer managers straightforward, low-cost options.
Parking. Using placards indicating handicapped parking is on the rise in garages and lots. But senior citizens who have difficulty walking or health problems that are not readily obvious — such as emphysema or heart disease — often use them, as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a numerical table to help managers determine the required number of reserved accessible van and car spaces. These are minimum standards, so if space is available, managers can include additional spaces.
If a facility has multiple entrances or levels of parking, consider spreading these spaces out among the entrances or levels, making sure additional spaces meet the requirements and include access aisles and signs.
Exterior areas. Sidewalks, parking lots, pathways and other areas of pedestrian travel are critical areas for proper maintenance. Repair work might take place during the winter to ensure that walking surfaces are clear and dry and that plowed snow does not end up ine accessible parking spaces or at the bottom of curb ramps.
It also is important to make sure walking surfaces remain smooth and free of gaps, cracks and other obstacles that present trip hazards for anyone, particularly those who have trouble seeing or walking. They then become a risk-management problem for the organization.
Entrances. Heavy doors generate the most complaints from people using buildings. Even though a large number of factors go into designing an exterior entrance, managers have options that can benefit all occupants and visitors.
Power-assisted door operators have become more cost-effective and cost-efficient. Again, from a universal user standpoint, delivery personnel, sales people and those pulling briefcases and PCs on wheeled cases are the heaviest users of these doors.
For airlock or interior doors, checking door closers regularly can mitigate accessibility complaints. Make sure that door operation requires a force of 5 pounds or less.
4. ADA Compliance Requires Proactive Approach
Managers in institutional and commercial facilities looking to avoid problems with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can benefit from taking a proactive approach to the act's accessibility guidelines, which are far more than a set of requirements.
"The ADA is a civil rights law and a building code," says Joan Stein, president and CEO of Accessibility Development Associates, adding it continues to have a major impact on facilities more than 20 years after its enactment. More than 200 private ADA lawsuits are filed monthly in U.S. federal courts nationwide, she said.
How can managers get a sense of whether their facilities present barriers to accessibility? Stein says if somebody with a disability has to do something that is unequal, such as calling ahead before visiting a facility or going out of his or her way to gain access, the facility has a problem.
Facilities can use several permissible explanations for not complying with the regulations, Stein says. These explanations cover three instances: cases where changes to a facility would: be structurally impractical; alter the basic nature of the operation; or create financial hardship for the organization.
But she advises managers to tread carefully in one particular situation.
"Don't say 'financial hardship' unless you are prepared to open your books," Stein says. "They will make you open your books, and it is painful."
She also advises managers to be proactive regarding potential accessibility problems because doing so can give facilities better control over the process of making changes.
"If you wait for a complaint to be filed, you will lose control of the process," Stein says, adding the department will tell facilities what to do regarding mandatory changes, as well as when facilities must complete them.
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