Many people worked over a stretch of time fighting to create and implement the Americans with Disabilities Act. Every time I venture out of my house, I benefit from the guidelines that the ADA put in place. I can’t imagine trying to get around on wheels without the multitude of ramps and sidewalk cutouts and elevators and handicapped bathrooms that exist because of it.
I believe the ADA does a decent job of providing pathways for those who use wheelchairs. However, wheelchair users make up only a portion of people who are mobility challenged. A great many people who deal with age and disease struggle to maintain independence and pride. There is a large range of (dis)ability between a perfectly healthy body that walks well and one that requires wheels as a substitute for legs.
Weak legs, painful legs, arthritis, bad knees, broken legs, hip issues and surgery recovery are just some of the things that cause difficulty for people in getting around. When people who live with age or physical challenges begin to have difficulty walking, they struggle to manage the world around them. Eventually, they use something to aid them – crutches, a cane, a walker, etc. They either don’t need a scooter or wheelchair at this point in time or they avoid/deny the need for one or they don’t need one on a regular basis. Those in-between people are often faced with either climbing a number of stairs or walking a long distance of ramp, both of which may appear insurmountable.
For those who struggle to move uncooperative bodies forward, adding height and length multiplies the effort. Traversing these obstacles almost always requires a great deal of energy and resolve. The challenge may require more courage than in-between people can muster or is simply beyond their capability. That portion of the population is left without a reasonable way in or around. Those individuals have likely already tackled some fear in leaving the safety of home only to be faced with a choice of exhausting themselves in determination for access or admitting defeat and changing plans.
I was an in-betweener for many years. There are places that meet ADA requirements where I could not go, or were not worth the energy it would take to get into. On several occasions, I would arrive at a destination only to be disheartened by a choice of climbing twenty stairs or somehow managing to move fifty feet just to reach a long ramp leading to a door. Even with wheels now, I must gauge my device’s battery power before knowing if it’s possible to gain entry. A steep grade of a ramp will keep me in the car waiting for others or send me back home, sometimes ruining individual or group plans. The worth of every appointment and activity was and is evaluated by what leads to the door. I do not expect the world to always cater to my limitations, but I wonder why the builders and owners wouldn’t prefer a building that welcomes all people.
Builders must comply with ADA requirements, but usability should be the ultimate goal. So, when designing buildings, please keep in mind the in-between people of the world. If you’re not one, then you know one or will know one. At some point in life, most people will either be an in-between person or travel with a person who is. Think of ADA only as a springboard for your ingenuity. Usability is about more than following laws/regulations and fulfilling obligations. It benefits everyone to design a building where the door is what people see, not the obstacles that lead to it.
Use your creativity to decrease number of stairs and ramp length as much as possible. I realize terrain and a multitude of other factors play into how a building sits on a property, but please carefully consider doing whatever is possible to make easy access for everyone your goal. Can the building be set lower into the ground? Which entrance allows for easiest access? Might the ramp be shorter if it was placed elsewhere? How far is the elevator from the entrance? The time taken to consult with a few in-between people is well worth the effort taken to trouble shoot problems that could prevent people from wanting to enter the building you are designing. Ask mobility challenged people to look at your design/blueprints and ask what accessibility issues your design may have. Those pretty stairs on your colored sketch may look like a dream on paper, but would be a nightmare for your grandmother. That long, beautifully landscaped ramp is an architectural beauty, but the sight of it will turn the bravest cane user back home.
ADA is a great thing. Following the guidelines of ADA is a requirement for your job. Making the building easy to access may be quite another thing. Doing both will make your customer and all those who use the building more eager to enter it.