Are ADA Regulations Beneficial or Limiting?
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
I do not claim to be an expert on the American with Disabilities Act and frankly have limited knowledge of its intricacies outside of the applications within the landscape architecture, recreation and children's play environment design professions. (This article is focused on the aforementioned application of ADA regulations.) Though adjustments required to conform to the law have been difficult for some; since the Act was first signed into law twenty three years ago1, many individual's lives, and arguable society as a whole, have benefited greatly from it. Sacrifices of countless individual's time, resources and energy are realized in what currently guides the development of our built environments. Current estimates suggest that 18.7% of the population have at least one disability that affects the way they interact with the environment around them.3 In large part to ADA regulations, these individuals experience the world much differently now than those of only a generation before them. For all the good it has brought, there is room for improvement and inadvertent limitations created by regulations can be addressed. The following are a few ideas of what these limitations might be:
Creation of a False Sense of Accessibility
As is the case with many laws and guidelines which set minimum requirements, designers and program developers design exactly to them. A minimum threshold is most often the maximum expected and received. When this minimum requirement is reached, natural logic suggests that the project at hand is now "accessible." Society however is filled with more wonderful diversity than could ever be worked into a set of minimum guidelines. It is unfortunate that in many cases, the design process meant to provide opportunities for everyone to navigate and experience the built environment stops at a quantifiable yet arbitrary threshold, which may or may not actually provide real accessibility. The principles of universal design were developed to overcome this limitation and are based on the premise that, "the design of products and environments (are) usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." 2 These prescriptive guidelines, in tandem with rigid ADA rules and regulations can certainly transcend limitations of accessibility . The seven principles of universal design include:
- PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use
- PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use
- PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use
- PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information
- PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error
- PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort
- PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Little Focus on the Social Inclusion of Individuals
As evidenced by the photo to the right and simple observation of many outdoor environments, the intent of ADA law is not always reflected in the real world application of it. Social inclusion for all individuals is at the heart of these regulations. Our society has matured over the past twenty three years and trends are more focused today on the principals of inclusion than ever before. Assistive devices and socially inclusive playground/recreation equipment are more readily available. This is tremendously exciting for long time advocates of social inclusion who have spent countless hours educating their peers and even fundraising to build their own inclusive environments. Even the trend of intergenerational recreation is rooted deeply in the concepts of inclusion and accessibility. During the design process however, social inclusion of individuals is routinely lost in the details of Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, ASTM safety standards, equipment selections and budget restrictions. Though undoubtedly necessary, the logistics of adhering to minimum regulations and project parameters, actually detracts from and hinders the process of providing social experiences in the built environment. Fortunately there are designers and programmers (advocates for social inclusion) who can effectively wade through these obstacles and emerge with positive results. With further training, advocacy and education of professionals, perhaps these advocate professionals will become the standard rather than the exception.
Unnatural Limitations on Creative Solutions
As was stated above, the design process tends to stop once minimum thresholds are met. Similarly, thresholds also tend to halt creative solutions to accessibility and inclusion challenges that arise. This is evidenced in the fact that if you have seen one access ramp to a building, you have probably seen the majority of the access solutions in the country for access to a building. Speaking as a designer myself, rules and codes are simple to follow and to check off. Once the checklist has been completed it is easy to move on to the next challenge. This mentality created by codes and rules unnaturally allows designers to be satisfied with simple solutions which may or may not address the actual needs of accessibility or inclusion at all. In many cases only one of the two is being addressed. A simple solution of adding a shade canopy to an outdoor picnic or play location provides children with disabilities (who often have difficulty regulating their temperature in summer heat) an opportunity to enjoy social experiences otherwise unavailable to them. This concept is not addressed by ADA regulations and though quite simple to implement may never be contemplated as a solution for inclusion.
The original question was, "Are ADA regulations beneficial or limiting?" I dare say they are both. Fortunately there are advocates around us who are willing to move forward, past artificial thresholds, and focus on the intent of socially inclusive principles. They provide environments that minimize intentional or inadvertent barriers created in the environments we live, learn, recreate and work in.