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Architects focus on disability requirement compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights statute to protect the rights of people with disabilities, was passed in 1990. One of the law’s provisions is to make public places accessible for those with disabilities, meaning that designers and builders of these facilities must make adjustments to comply. Much of that compliance begins with architects. They take it seriously because it’s not an option; it’s the law.

Jackson architect Hal Brumfield says the ADA code is so complicated that it’s a real challenge. “I keep it on my desk and I keep a letter from an architect who got into trouble with the Justice Department,” he said. “Until the assistant attorney general comes calling, you might not know you have a problem.”

The ADA, he said, is enforced by the U.S. Justice Department and every state enforces it differently. Because he is also licensed in Florida, Brumfield knows that the Sunshine State has a stricter code than even the federal guidelines.

If an architect or builder is in doubt, the attorney general’s office will send someone to review and enforce the compliance law. “That person must figure out if it’s enforceable,” he said. “We’re under federal guidelines to comply and complaints go to the federal level. It’s not a building code, but is a law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Strict requirements for public spaces

Brumfield said churches can be exempt although most want to comply and do. There are strict requirements in new construction and all places with public access. That’s places such as hotels, restaurants, bars, auditoriums, stadiums, museums, office buildings, libraries, sales, service and entertainment establishments, schools, parks and so forth.

“Public accommodation is the key and not to discriminate against anyone,” he said. “That includes mainly the accessibility to get up to the building through the parking lot, come through a main door and travel throughout the public areas of a building and have access to public restrooms, drinking fountains, ramps, elevators, lavatories and alarm systems. Things like that.”

Making telephones handicap accessible is something people don’t think about until they’re trying to comply with the ADA, he added. “If it’s a public phone, as the architect I’m responsible for how high it’s mounted and if it has text messaging and volume control,” he said.

A practicing architect for more than 25 years, Brumfield said making sure a big assembly area such as a stadium or auditorium is ADA compliant is a difficult thing. “Those with disabilities want seats with no one in front of them and that puts the burden on other people,” he said.

Single-family housing is not required to comply, but housing of four or more units must do so. “Everything changes when there are at least four units,” he said. “It can be real expensive for instance to move all the light switches down a few inches in large units.”

Gulfport architect Keleal Hassin Jr. says matter of factly that following ADA guidelines is something with which everyone must deal. As president of the city’s board of appeals, he sees many compliance issues come up for consideration and makes sure everyone complies.

“Anything that varies from the code is breaking the law, and building people don’t have the authority to give a variance,” he said. “If a business owner does not have the physical space for a ramp to be wheelchair accessible, he must appeal.”

Hassin said that a person working alone in an office or business may question why they must have at least one handicap-accessible toilet. “They may say, ‘It’s just me working there,’ and I agree that there are some guidelines that are ridiculous,” he said. “Or even if there are two people working there, they still may feel that one toilet is enough, but they have to appeal.”

The Gulfport resident, who obtained his architect’s license in 1973, is involved with ADA requirements in the design phase and with the appeals board. He says dealing with compliance for him is not hard and not frustrating.

“I’ve been around so long, it’s not a problem,” he said. “I just do it and make sure everything is done right.”

In Brumfield’s experience, he’s found the code to be something that’s not cut and dry, especially when there are those who wear their disability on their shirtsleeve and go looking for things that are wrong.

“A lot is after the fact, and there’s a whole method of filing a claim,” he said. “I see others not complying and it is not enforced across the board.”

He says he tries not to put the burden of compliance on the property owner and makes every attempt to be well informed, including taking seminars as continuing education. He notes that the U.S. Department of Justice puts out a guidebook on ADA for small businesses.

“We want to reasonably accommodate as best we can,” he said, “but how do you make a golf course comply? I’ve never seen it.”

Information about the Americans with Disabilities Act can be found at www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/homl.htm or by calling 800-514-0301.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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