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The Value in Accessible Sites

My wife and I have a pretty standard routine on Sunday mornings. Wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, drive to church… complain at length about the ridiculous number of poorly designed stairs sets, ramps, handrails and other general tripping hazards to be found around the “All too new for this type of shabby design” church buildings and site… worship, eat lunch with the family go to the grocery store, et Cetera. All pretty normal stuff for most folks around East Texas.

Like a lot of churches in this part of the world, a hefty faction of our congregants are “Well-Seasoned” and becoming increasingly mobility restricted. At only 30 years old, I’m still in good walking shape and can pretty easily handle most terrains, but the fact of the matter is that every day I, like everyone else in this world, am getting a little older, somewhat wider, and definitely creakier.

When the Americans with Disability Act and the subsequent Architectural Barriers Act (ADA/ABA) were enacted during the 90’s, designers around the country were saddled with yet another set of complicated and convoluted restrictions from Uncle Sam that were often incorrectly implemented and didn’t accomplish what was intended by the laws. Many projects since, were developed with the approach and mindset to meet the minimum requirements of these laws, and even that was an unnecessary pain in the neck because (and I’m paraphrasing from many conversations) “No one in a wheelchair is ever going to come here and none of them live around here anyways!” This is an incredibly ignorant view point that has been all too common and persistent.

Most people, designers included, when asked about ADA/ABA think about folks that are permanently bound to a wheelchair. Their minds may go to curb ramps, handrails, and those all-too-coveted special parking spaces that would get me that much closer to the front door. But in reality, these laws are about putting people first, whether it’s someone in a wheelchair or using a walker, someone with declining or fully lost vision or hearing, the elderly gentleman who uses a cane to get around, the teen boy who broke his foot, the mother carrying two kids, and even the fairly young but creaky fellas like myself. No matter our circumstance, at some point or another these accessibility accommodations have an impact on almost everyone.

In the case of our church, the designer neglected to develop the site design around the anticipated functionality of the primary user. Rather than providing a site that is safe and easy to traverse by elderly pedestrians, the primary user of most churches, design priority was given to the vehicles they drove in with, and this came at great cost. Nearly flat parking lots, superimposed onto an otherwise rolling landscape, created the need for stairs, ramps, handrails to get into the buildings, and significant changes in finished floor elevations then created the need for more stairs, ramps, and handrails inside the building. Those items aren’t cheap and most if not all could have been easily avoided. An example: Installing the primary drive aisle immediately adjacent to the building forced handicapped parking to be further than necessary from doors and forced all the congregants to negotiate crossing the highest speed and highest concentration of vehicles, which is a recipe for disaster.

ADA/ABA laws and guidance’s require at a minimum that we designers, contractors, and property owners allow equal access to our sites, but they really attempt to push the idea of “Designing for the human user” to the forefront of our priorities. Thinking of their requirements as impetus for better design, not only helps us create accessible sites but safer, smarter, and more resilient properties.

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