Accessible…or Useable?

Jack McMahan

ADA Compliance? Or effective usability?

What’s your accessibility management goal? For most facility owners and managers, city planners and architects, the goal is, understandably, “compliance”. We prefer that it be both.The traditional approach.

The traditional approach.The usual course of action for facility owners and managers is to meet with an architect to discuss the project goals and budget. The design team deliberates functional and creative options. Next, they review ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines), adjust design parameters for compliance, and then generate a proposed final design.

The usual course of action for facility owners and managers is to meet with an architect to discuss the project goals and budget. The design team deliberates functional and creative options. Next, they review ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines), adjust design parameters for compliance, and then generate a proposed final design.

The problem.

The problem with this approach is that it’s not often that either the facility owner or the architect is disabled. As a result, a set of standards, largely referring to wheelchair accessibility specifications, is applied without understanding how effective the solution is, or even if the solution had any impact on another form of disability. The project might be ADA Compliant, but often falls short when it comes to usability by many customers. Want evidence? Check out your finished project and see how many people with disabilities are participating. If the answer is few…the reality may be that the project is compliant, but not very hospitable for a large audience of people with diverse disabilities, so they don’t show up.

Why the problem persists

The simple answer is that neither the facility owner nor the architect was disabled. That’s not a fault, it’s a reality. ADA guidelines are minimum standards, very general in nature, and built to primarily serve wheelchair users. But if you don’t use a wheelchair or a cane…or “know” the limitations of a particular disability you don’t know if the solution you’re selecting really makes the facility more usable for a broad audience. ADA guidelines typically address physical barriers, making it possible for certain people with disabilities to park, get in the door, identify a location, and use the restroom.

The heart of the matter: SUBJECTIVE LANGUAGE

Title II of the ADA advises municipal facility owners that:

No qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any public entity. (28 CFR Part 35.130)

A public entity shall operate each service, program, or activity so that the service, program, or activity, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. (28 CFR Part 35.150)

Similar language advises private facility owners that:

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any private entity who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation. (28 CFR Part 36.2010)

Most facility owners defer to architects and designers to assure compliance with ADA Guidelines. But that gets really difficult when the architect typically views his/her role to design physical access which is tangible, quantifiable and readily easy to do. But when it comes to making the benefits of services, programs, and activities accessible (state and municipal facilities) and/or enjoyment of goods and services accessible (private entities) the task becomes very subjective. Achieving results demands the designer have a full understanding of the intended experiences the owner has planned and a full appreciation for the best practices currently available to help people with a broad variety of disabilities access and enjoy the experiences.

One Solution.

The technique we use to provide insight into effective usability (program access) is to invite professional who serve a broad spectrum of people with disabilities, to review plans before they go final. Through their collective interpretation for what works and why, aligned with our understanding of industry best practices from museums, national parks, and other evidence-based facility owners and operators, we are able to advise our clients how best to achieve projects that work…and that are compliant.

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