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Accessibility : What You Can Do About An Inaccessible Building

Accessibility Guide For Wheelchair Users

What You Can Do About An Inaccessible Building

Can you spot the accessibility problem with the hotel reception in the photo above? If not, you are not alone. I will admit that I could not see it. You will find the answer at the end of this article.

Wheelchair Accessibility: A Good Start, But A Long Way To Go

Wheelchair accessibility is improving, but there is still a long way to go. While many buildings are accessible, others are still not built to ADA standards. If you are a wheelchair user and are having problems with an inaccessible building, this article will help you to understand what options are available to you to improve wheelchair accessibility for yourself and for other wheelchair users.

History of Wheelchair Accessibility

Laws requiring accessibility started in the 1960s with Civil Rights laws and are continuing until today. At first some of the laws were voluntary. But over the years Congress realized that was not working. Enforcement responsibilities were given to the U.S. Department of Justice. Congress wrote the laws which developed into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to give equal opportunity and full participation for wheelchair users and all people with disabilities. Those laws were made a part of the Civil Rights laws.

Who Are The Police of Wheelchair Accessibility Laws?

All people with disabilities are the police. Every person with a disability has the right to use the Federal Court system to get owners to make buildings accessible AND there are no costs. However, a person with a disability is required to compel a building owner to bring a building to standards. Without someone making an accessibility complaint the system does not work.

Who Foots the Bill For Wheelchair Accessibility?

The owner(s) of buildings that are not ADA accessible pay in the end. There are attorneys who will take on cases and experts who will work with the attorneys all at no charge to the complaining party. Their fees are paid by the owners of the buildings. But unfortunately, it does not always result in an accessible building. There are pitfalls in this system. This occurs when the lawyer is only interested in his fee and the owner does not want to spend the money for compliance, so fees are paid, a few non-compliant issues are fixed, and the Federal Court case is settled.

Interview With An Accessibility Expert

To get more information about how the system regarding accessibility compliance works, I contacted Hank Falstand of Access Technology Services. Hank is an architect with 17 years of experience getting building brought up to accessibility standards.

Gene: Tell me what comes to your mind as the most common reason that a wheelchair user contacts you about an accessibility issue? What kind of building and why?

Hank: The most common accessibility complaints are with lodging facilities where the accessible room they requested was not an accessible room, and upon an audit was not even close to being accessible. We also see slip and fall cases, and these have always been in the tub or shower area. We saw a slip and fall in a corridor of an office building where there was a change of material and the transition piece was never installed.

In the last year we have seen a lot of timeshare accessibility complaints. The timeshare suites that we have audited all needed major renovations to get them compliant with accessibility standards. The challenge as I see it is there was some misunderstanding regarding whether they needed to accessible, and the answer is that timeshares are transient lodging and unlike private houses timeshares must be accessible and therefore are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. I really think many of the timeshare developers were in it for the quick buck. They have gone into bankruptcy and the buildings are being bought cheap, but still need a lot of work to get them compliant with accessibility standards. One of the largest timeshare operators was investigated by the Department of Justice and that really gets ones attention.

Gene: If a wheelchair user complains about a non-accessible building is there any possibility that this can backfire? For example, could the owner of the building make life more difficult for the complaining party?

Hank: This is always a possibility, but retribution is a violation of the ADA and we will report that action directly to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). That means big trouble for building owners.

Gene: What are the most common accessibility problems with buildings, in your experience?

Hank: On the building exterior we see parking and accessible route cross slope non-compliance the most. The interior building items we see most frequently are doors and toilet rooms.

Gene: Can you give me a few examples?

Hank: In the first photo, the red car is parked next to what is called an access aisle and on the other side of that access aisle is an accessible parking space. You can see the sign behind the sidewalk. The purpose of the access aisle is to assist the wheelchair user in getting out of the vehicle with ease and transferring to a wheelchair, walker or just getting their balance before they start moving. There is a requirement for this access aisle to be level to assist the wheelchair user with their balance; and the regulation allows for a 2% deviation from level. The yellow level you see on the access aisle measures the slope, so any reading over 2.0% is considered non-compliant, as was the case in this photo.

Hank: Now have a look at the the closets below. What impression do they give you?

Gene: They both look accessible to me.

Hank: Ok, that was a trick question. The answer is that they are both accessible. But this property is a time share. When I look at the upper photo my first impression is that I am in an accessible time share suite. This in my opinion is bad design for time shares. In my opinion, the challenge as an architect is to design space that is accessible, but not to the point that when a guest enters the space their first impression is that this is room designed for a wheelchair user. The lower photo is a closet that meets my design criteria. Why? As you can see we have some high hanging space and some low hanging space. We have some high shelves and some low shelves. Never once did I feel that this is an "accessible closet". Now that is what I call good accessible design, a very functional closet for a guest in a wheelchair and for a guest who is able bodied.

Gene: On average, how long does it take for you to get a building up to accessibility standards?

Hank: That is a good question; if it is a restaurant, we are talking a week or two. For a large hotel, we are talking months.

Gene: Hank, let's talk costs. If a wheelchair user contacts you, let's say to complain about a public building not having good accessible parking spaces, you will get it fixed for them and it will not cost them anything?

Hank: There is absolutely no cost that the wheelchair user will pay. Any complaint we will review at no cost to the wheelchair user to determine if the complaint is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When the complaint is a violation of the ADA we will tell the wheelchair user, and the next step is for the wheelchair user to file a complaint in Federal Court. We will find an attorney to help the wheelchair user to do that. Some lawyers are better than others and we only work with attorneys that really want to get buildings ADA compliant. We work all over the country. When the wheelchair user has an attorney we work with that attorney, or if they do not have an attorney we can assist them in finding one. The wheelchair user does not pay any money for legal fees. Civil Rights law also does not charge wheelchair users any fee for filing a complaint in Federal Court. The bottom line is there is no cost to the wheelchair user. All these cost are required to be paid by the building owner. We are consultants to the attorney and that is the way we get paid, of course after the building owner pays the attorney. It is not unusual for the wheelchair user to be a consultant to the attorney and receive some money for consulting. The Americans with Disabilities Act has a section on attorney fees. All civil rights law is policed by citizens, and in the case of the ADA it is policed by the wheelchair users. The ADA law makes it easy and at no cost to the wheelchair user to file a complaint of non compliance to the ADA law.

Gene: What is required of the wheelchair user in order to file an accessibility complaint?

Hank: To file a complaint the wheelchair users needs to have standing a legal term which means, they visited the building and experienced something that was not in compliance with the ADA, they have a disablity and that they wish to return to that facility to enjoy all the amenities of that facility.

Gene: Are there any types of building that you can not assist with?

Hank: Yes, private buildings not open to the public such as private clubs, churches (unless they are rented out, in which case only those parts that can be rented), and of course homes and apartment buildings where the jurisdiction is the FHA.

Gene: So tell us what was wrong with the hotel reception photo that we saw at the beginning of the article and again below?

Hank: There is no area that a person in a wheelchair can access. In order to be considered "accessible" the registration counter is required to have a portion of the counter 30 minimum in width and at a height of 36 maximum. There is a strong argument that the accessible counter needs to be located in the center of the overall counter. At least, we always put it in the center. The approach to the counter is forward, because that is the way the general public will approach the counter. With a frontal approach there is a requirement for knee and toe clearances. From the edge of the accessible portion of the counter there needs to be a recess into the front a minimum of 17, that is called "the toe clearance". That opening width is a minimum of 30. The requirement for the knee to get under the accessible portion of the counter has a minimum dimension of 27 above the finish floor.

Gene: Are you telling me that all hotels in the USA are required to have a section of their reception desk which is wheelchair accessible as you have described it? What percentage of hotel receptions would you say are not currently ADA compliant?

Hank: It is absolutely a requirement. I would say 95% of hotel receptions are not in compliance.

Gene: What is the best resource for someone who needs further information?

Hank: The access board is the best reference. But ADA is Civil Rights Law and by the very nature of civil right law it is not well written and really gets rewritten by the Federal Courts in their decisions. I have spent the last 17 years of my architectural practice in specializing in the ADA law. It is really a full time job.


Hank Falstad is the Managing Senior Associate of Access Technologies. Hank received his degree in architecture at the University of Michigan. He was the Managing Senior Associate of the ADA/FHAA Department within a leading engineering company. Hank is the former owner of an architectural firm and a former owner of a construction firm. He was selected to be the ADA Consultant to the 2001 and also the 2005 Presidential Inauguration Committees in Washington, D.C.

Access Techologies Services is recognized by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) as one of the premier companies in the United States dealing with Federal compliance issues. Over the past sixteen years, Access has completed over 2,000 accessibility audits, and have been an expert witness in over 65 cases. To date, Access has not lost a case.

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