Accessible Architecture: A Job Far From Done

So far in these blog entries, I have discussed The Americans With Disabilities Act as it applies to the criminal justice system. I also discussed how it is impacting the accessibility of the “virtual world.” In this post, I want to address another one of the ADA’s most important features, the way it opens up the “real world.”

In my experience, most person’s first thought when they hear “The ADA” is blended curbs, braille signage, or other physical adaptations for those with disabilities. That makes sense – these are the most visible changes the ADA helped usher in. These are the things that the general public encounter on a daily basis. The ADA made them a reality.

Architectural barriers are the physical characteristics of public accommodation that can impair a disabled person’s access. The ADA targets these architectural barriers.  As just one example, regulations under the ADA’s title III require a specific height for cash register countertops to ensure they can be accessed by customers in wheelchairs. The regulations address a wide range of specific situations.

When a structure has an architectural barrier that violates the ADA, there are factors that determine if, and how, it should be removed. The most important consideration is the date the building was constructed. The ADA’s architectural requirements are dependent on this date. For structures built before 1992, the ADA and its regulations require the owner or operator  to remove architectural barriers under the standard of what is “readily achievable.” “readily achievable” means: “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” Examples of readily achievable barrier removal include adding ramps to stairs, rearranging shelf displays to make goods reachable for customers using wheelchairs, and moving tables to create additional space. For new construction after 1992, including alterations that affect the way public accommodation is used, compliance is determined by referencing the applicable architectural regulations. In other words, all construction after 1992 that creates a new structure, or changes the way an old structure is used, must fully comply with the ADA.

These rules and regulations have not put a stop to architectural barriers. I can say from personal experience there are countless buildings around the city of Chicago, (including courthouses), that do not have the braille signage they are required to have. This has made it difficult for me to locate specific courtrooms or offices. It is important that we do not consider the work of building an accessible society to be done. It is far from it. The Americans with Disabilities Act gives us more tools to get the job done, it is up to us to wield them.

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