What do I think of the ADA….as an architect?

October 13, 2010 — 18 Comments


On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by then President George. H. W. Bush. It was a momentous occasion and it would change the lives of millions of people, mostly for the better. So here we are 20 years later, well into living and working with the rules and regulations associated with the ADA, but how are we as architects doing implementing these rules? As architects we are probably doing okay because you can’t work on a project without implementing the requirements of the ADA. For example, this act was signed into law before I even graduated from college so it has existed all of my professional life. That having been said, how are our clients doing with it and are we helping them?

On occasion, when I tell people that some portion of their project doesn’t currently meet code or when I try and explain why the bathrooms are as large as I have shown them, I get puzzled, sometimes irritated responses:

Client: “I was in a restaurant the other day and their toilet room wasn’t anywhere near this big.”

Me: “Well that doesn’t make it right, besides, it is possible that their toilet rooms were permitted before ADA was a requirement.”

Client: “And why is that space behind the cashier so large – make it smaller..”

Me: “I can’t, that is another ADA requirement. Someone who works back there might be in a wheelchair and they need to be able to turn around and maneuver properly.”

Client: “It’s too big, I just won’t hire someone in a wheelchair.”

Me: “It’s not called the Americans in Wheelchairs Act, there are other disabilities. You do realize that you are now practicing a type of discrimination and trying to break a federal law?”

Client: “No one else seems to have to do it…now whose being discriminated against?”


I am embarrassed to have to say that I have had this exact conversation or some form just like it several times and I am always shocked that people don’t even realize that they are practicing discrimination. I like to think I have smart clients but I have had a few tell me (after I pointed out what they were asking for) tell me that they don’t discriminate, that they like people from all races and backgrounds.

Errr…that would be racism and something entirely different. Holy gorilla’s armpit – you have got to be kidding me………

I have to be honest with you, I mostly do residential work and my knowledge of the intricacies of the rules and regulations associated with the ADA are good enough to know what I don’t know. I can handle looking things up in the rule book and coming to my own conclusions but what it really comes down to is having a Registered Accessibility Specialist, or RAS, who is there to help guide you. When I start a project, and I try to sit down with all the people who will be working with me and I have a conversation about how we are all on the same team and that we all have the same goals. The very nature of how most professional services contracts are set up, adversarial relationships between architect and contractor are established from the very beginning. Another relationship that can be a bit…well, maybe not adversarial but difficult at times is between the architect and their RAS. The problem as I see it, is that most Registered Accessibility Specialists tend to be rule followers of the highest order. At times, this hardcore “rule following” mentality can serve the architect well when trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the ADA rulebook. Unfortunately, I am not interested in just rule followers. I want my RAS to interpret how the rules might be interpreted to apply specifically to my project. And that’s where my particular RAS consultant specialist comes in.

President Barack Obama signs an executive order to increase federal employment of individuals with disabilities. - July 26, 2010

The type of RAS consultant I like to work with typically has an architectural background. Having a RAS who thinks like an architect while interpreting the rules and regulations associated with ADA, brings me that much closer to achieving a successful project while getting everyone working on the project on the same side and with the same ultimate goal. I don’t think that some people think about the type of role that a RAS can perform – if you get the right one. It is my intention to go beyond just “doing the right thing”, disabled persons should have their actions and challenges taken into consideration. Trying to be a rule breaker, or even a rule bender, holds no allure for me as a architect and designer. But just as I have to interpret the projects programs, I want a RAS consultant who will help me work within the guidelines established and to achieve all our common goals – a happy client. Incorporating ADA requirements into your projects is an indication on how far we as a society have come, how inclusive we can be. It should be more about what we can do, not what we have to do.

Can someone help me off my soapbox please?




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  • Liz

    I’m so glad you wrote this. A helpful way to explain it, I think, might be that it doesn’t just assist people in wheelchairs, it helps people who are only temporarily disabled, too. That may be enough for them to wrap their selfish brains around.

    I’ve had foot surgery twice (so far), and both times I was grateful that ADA laws have made buildings more handicap accessible. The first time, I was on crutches and extremely grateful for the wider aisles, the push button doors, and pretty much any door that isn’t designed to close quickly due to its weight.

    The second time, I was on a knee walker. If you’re not familiar, mine basically looked like this. Keeps you from putting weight on your foot and is so much more mobile than crutches. Note the fabulous turn radius and tiny wheels. I think it should be required for any architect, building planner, civil engineer, or whoever designs and builds sidewalks, roads, ramps, parking lots, and any other surface one might roll on to use one of these for a week.

    While loved the extra mobility and lack of armpit pain and exhaustion from crutches, I immediately noticed things that people who’ve never been injured or handicapped probably don’t. Those push button doors? Essential. And pointless if you intersperse them with heavy doors that slam shut quickly. Those 1/2 inch height variations in the sidewalk? Can either stop you cold or cause you to crash, especially with those tiny wheels. Quaint cobblestone or brick sidewalks made to match the “colonial” vibe of the area? Practically impossible. Every ten foot sidewalk between cars to make it easier for people to get through parking lots on foot, but without a ramp incline, pissed me off. I had to go around. And can I tell you how much I loved doing 15 point turns around my apartment?

  • ArchGirl99

    The other issue that meets architects is explaining the difference between code and ADA. The reality is you have to meet the most stringent requirement to truly protect the owner. I happen to work in education so although the rules/reviews are tighter it doesn’t take near as much work with the owner. Another issue is dealing with intent of the ADA. Although a project may meet the letter of the law it still might not be accessible. My biggest goal when working on a project is to make the accessible design blend into the background or better yet be a feature of the overall design.

  • Eileen

    Thanks to you and everyone else who works so hard to make your city a bit more accessible. I’ve been disabled from a military-related injury for 30+ years now and I wish I could say it’s easier to get around in our medium-sized city, but sadly I can’t. Hopefully the thousands of newly disabled vets will help soften folks hearts and change their ROI/Quality of Life calculations.

    BTW, even when businesses do build the space folks often make it useless by parking trash cans in the turnaround corner or some other such idiocy, so please be sure to remind them that space needs to stay open and 90* turns are very difficult to navigate without bashing a hole in the wall or in the wheeler.

    As for how to deal with folks who don’t see the sense of adapting their spaces, I’ve had some success reminding folks that hard as it may be to think of now they will almost certainly join the ranks of disabled at some point in their lives, whether from illness, injury or age. If they *don’t* make key areas accessible they will be shut out of their own building and would have to trust other folks to do *everything* for them, with no way to manage by themselves or oversee their business. They may be able to convince themselves they can do without disabled customers (not very smart considering America’s rapidly aging boomers & millions of other disabled) but seldom want to chance losing access for themselves.

    Also, you might appeal to their pocketbook. Our local rehab hospital’s foundation offers for a small fee to have actual wheelers, mobility deficient and/or vision-impaired folks move through and try to use the space, with a report to follow. In some cities similar services offer a seal that can increase business from disabled folks and their families, plus anyone else who admires such support and wants their community to include everyone.

  • I do think there needs to be some common sense applied to the implementation of the ADA rules and regulations. One glaring example is a sidewalk ramp on a very hilly road here in the suburbs of western Pennsylvania. This road would be very dangerous to walk across or along, and at one intersection that is particularly precarious the city needed to repair and replace some of the traffic lights.

    The city received some federal money for the improvement of this intersection. Since it was a publicly funded project they included all of the typical standards pedestrian signals, sidewalks and accessible ramps for these new sidewalks. This is all great except that the sidewalks terminate in all directions 10′ to 15′ past the intersection, I assume this was all the money the city had at this time for improvements… this means that a handicapped person would then have to fend for them selves on the shoulder of the road all the way down a steep non pedestrian friendly road until they get 10′ from the intersection where they would go up an new concrete ramp to get on to a new sidewalk that is 10′ long before crossing the street.

    Bottom line, I’m all for improving our surroundings and updating areas to make it easier for handicapped people to navigate. But I don’t think that every place and every intersection needs to be accessible. I think that the world isn’t fair! and that while I would never condone willful discrimination, I do believe that it is futile to think that we could make every place ADA accessible.

    Also I think this is a prime example of a waste of money. Not because of ADA… but because no one really asked the pertinent question of .. “will this ever be used???”
    What’s next ADA ramps to the top of Mt Everest? Unfortunately some places are just not wheelchair friendly and we need language in the codes to reflect this.

  • I hope your sopabox has a properly sloped accesible ramp…

    • Anonymous

      It’s a residential soapbox so it isn’t subject to the same standards as commercial soapboxes…

  • In my experience as a Registered Accessibility Specialist, it’s usually not about interpreting the Standards, it’s about bending the rules….and that’s from the Architects. Sometimes they can be as difficult as the owner.

    For the most part, the Standards are black and white. The problem arises when you have a RAS that doesn’t understand the rules and refuses to investigate beyond their own knowledge.

    • Anonymous

      Really insightful comment Jeromy. You articulated very succinctly what I failed to say. Complete knowledge of the rules is the greatest way to effectively incorporate them.


  • In my experience as a Registered Accessibility Specialist, it’s usually not about interpreting the Standards, it’s about bending the rules….and that’s from the Architects. Sometimes they can be as difficult as the owner.

    For the most part, the Standards are black and white. The problem arises when you have a RAS that doesn’t understand the rules and refuses to investigate beyond their own knowledge.

  • Brokenkeys

    In my experience; ADA is one area that stirs up a lot of client side comment. Pre-recession, the majority of my clients were sane and had no further issue after being reminded of the legal and ethical reasoning behind ADA. But lately, this is when their crazy reaches a tipping point. I know crazy clients are bad clients but in Florida’s economy you take anything you can get or close up shop.

    The only project I’ve ever walked away from was very recent and reached the ‘last straw’ moment over ADA issues. There’s only so many times I can hear; “take out that low counter or I’m not paying” or “I play golf with the mayor, we’ll see what he thinks about the ramps” or “we’ll see what my lawyer says about those hi-low fountains”, before realizing I’d rather not work than work for them.

    • Anonymous


      I should consider myself lucky that I have never had to deal with anything close to that. I have clients who are interested in bending the rules but none that are willing to openly break them.

  • Kevin E.

    Always good to hear thoughtful commentary from you Bob, and I think you may have been holding a cocktail by the end of the post….

  • You’re not the only one on a soap box, Mr. Borson, and maybe mine is just an old filler strip I have lying around, but thanks for saying it and encouraging the shift in perspective.

  • This was a great article. It reminds me of a story.

    A woman from Johnson County Iowa went to DC to protest. It may have been adoption of the ADA, I am not sure. She chained herself to the fence at the White House. This was not well received by security.

    The press got wind and showed up. She would not unlock the chain. They threatened her and said she would be arrested if they had to cut off the chain. She refuesed. The press watched.

    Eventually they cut the chain and went to arrest her. Sadly they couldn’t get her into the police car, as she was wheel chair bound. So they had to commendeer a city bus which was wheel chair accessable. Now the story was getting really good, so the press was happy.

    They followed her to the police station, where she was booked. The woman was to be put into a cell, but the jail wasn’t wheel chair accessable. They couldn’t get her in the cell. After dealing with her for many hours, the police were defeated. She had made her point, and they let her go.

    That story always makes me chuckle. Great Post Bob!

  • Jlh

    You should talk to Marcy! She is a specialiste!

    • Anonymous

      I talk to Marcy all the time – I wrote this piece for her (she is my RAS consultant) 🙂

  • I like your discussion of the the differences between rule-breaking, rule-bending and rule interpretation. A moral lesson in here for everyone.

    • Anonymous

      A moral lesson from me? Must have been on accident because I am a crazy rebel!!