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Americans With Disabilities Act

I Stand Corrected

Last year I penned a fictional "Open letter to my contractor friends". The point of the blog post was to speak of unity and the importance of collaboration between our two fields. The conclusion / punchline of the post was a particular set of nonsensical pool stairs I had came across at a pool at Lockhart State Park. I told contractors that if, "Your reading of the drawings implies that a set of steps going into a pool starts above the top edge of the pool and stops before it reaches the bottom, maybe next time you could give me a call and we could figure it out before the concrete hardens." My assumption, of course, was that the stair was built in error.

The error, however, was mine.

The pool stairs I had come across were in fact a set of "pool transfer steps" designed and built to allow individuals in wheelchairs to safely enter and exit a pool. The stair in Lockhart closely adheres to the design guidelines stipulated in Section 1009.5 of the Texas Accessibility Standards.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a sweeping set of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990. As it pertains to architecture, this federal law required public and commercial spaces and the amenities they contain to be accessible to those with mobility and other impairments. If the ADA states generally what has to be done by law it is left up to local governments to determine exactly how it is to be done. In Texas, this is spelled out in a special set of codes called the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). The 215-page document that describes these standards includes Chapter 10 which addresses recreational facilities. Section 9.5 of that chapter describes the dimensional requirements for pool transfer steps in addition to other, more common means of achieving pool accessibility like ramps and pool lift arms. I happened to be looking up something for a project when I came across the section on pool transfer steps. I often have to look things up because, as demonstrated by the existence of pool transfer steps, accessibility requirements are sometimes nonintuitive.

To be perfectly honest, making a facility comply with accessibility standards can be a pain. It requires bathrooms to be larger, elevators to be added and in general it makes buildings more expensive to build. It could be argued that these increased costs are not worth it given that only a small portion of the population enjoy the benefits of an accessible building.

On the other hand, as a nation we are based on the idea of equality ("All men are created equal...", "We the people..." etc.) and so even though we may individually start life with different circumstances, abilities and disabilities, we do our best when we make our institutions - be it buildings, education or healthcare - truly accessible to everyone.

This, too, is DQ country

One of the many pleasures of driving through the Texas landscape is the opportunity to visit one of the 600  Dairy Queens that exist in the state.  Although this fast food chain was born in Illinois, few things are more this quintessentially Texan.  Wether you find yourself in Marfa, Midlothian or Mason, chances are you will find a Dairy Queen and chances are you will be compelled to buy yourself a a Blizzard.

Speaking of which, my standard M.O. is to pull into a local DQ, place an order for a mimi "Chocko-Cherry Love" Blizzard and then make use of the facilities while that is being prepared.  I'll then wash my hands, retrieve my soft-serve treat, jump back into my car and continue on my journey.  It is during the critical third part of this process that I have a moment to relax and take note of the incredibly small size of most Dairy Queen restrooms.

Building codes and regulations are good things.  They make sure that our buildings don't collapse around us and that we can get out of them should they catch fire.  The 1990 American With Disabilities Act (ADA) helped ensure that individuals with mobility impairments can use buildings as well as anybody else.  That's why most restrooms you walk into are of a consistent, relatively large size.  We are so accustomed to this size of restroom facilities that it feels odd to walk into one that is smaller.  When we come upon a restroom of an unusually small size it typically means that we are making use of a facility that was built before the ADA became law.  My guess is that Dairy Queens - especially ones in smaller towns - do not update their buildings as often as other franchises and so have not been required to update their restroom facilities.

One side effect of the ADA and other building standards is that it makes our buildings feel - well - very standard.  I'm not at all advocating that we should go back to the day when people in wheelchairs couldn't make use of public restrooms (notice that in the above photo that there is physically no way a person in a wheelchair could enter the 4' by 4' men's room and close the door behind him), but it does make it difficult to create exceptional spaces.

But just because something is difficult doesn't mean that it is impossible.  That's why there are architects and that's why you should pay them lots of money to create exceptional bathrooms that can be used and enjoyed by all.