Why are so many buildings still not handicap accessible? Isn’t that against the law? This is a very good question!
Most US states* have building codes that include standards for accessibility, including:
- Minimum width for exterior and interior doors
- Measurements for building safe, usable ramps
- Proper height and placement of toilets, sinks, stalls, etc. in public restrooms
- Proper height of tables and service counters
- Minimum width of aisles and pathways inside buildings
Most accessibility standards are designed to make spaces accessible to people using wheelchairs. However, there are also provisions for people using other mobility aids, like crutches and walkers, blind people, and deaf people. The idea is that the default design of all public spaces should be usable by the maximum number of people, including those with disabilities. By building in accessibility as a standard practice, there is less need for more expensive retro-fitting and / or inadequate second or third choice ways of providing service to disabled people.
Accessibility standards are part of building codes, alongside structural standards, fire safety, and all the other basic standards for construction we generally take for granted. They are not options. They are as binding as any other component of building codes.
In addition to state codes, there are the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which are designed to ensure that accessibility standards have some uniformity everywhere in the United States. By and large, if you design accessibility features according to these standards, you will be in good shape.
So, why are so many buildings still inaccessible?
First of all, accessibility standards have the most effect on brand-new buildings, and to a somewhat lesser extent renovations of existing buildings. They have much less power to force specific accessibility improvements in existing buildings not undergoing any other renovations. That said, under the ADA, businesses are required to make any needed accessibility improvements that are “readily achievable” … that is, feasible and inexpensive. This helps, but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what any given business must do in their particular situation.
Second, failing to comply with accessibility standards isn’t “illegal” in the same way that speeding and robbery are. For the most part, accessibility is enforced through complaints, lawsuits, and, in really egregious cases, intervention by government agencies like state human rights commissions or the US Justice Department. You can’t call your local police to ticket an inaccessible bookstore, and even building inspectors vary widely in how much priority they put on enforcing accessibility standards.
Third, it is, in fact, usually harder and more expensive to make older and older-style buildings accessible than it is to build in accessibility form the ground up. “Old downtown” buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries generally have narrower doorways, steps at entrances, and less roomy interiors than are standard in new buildings today. They also tend to sit on much smaller pieces of property, with less room for ramps and additions. Because these are “pre-existing” buildings, they are generally only improved when renovated, and then only marginally. Unfortunately, this means that older downtown areas are often less hospitable to disabled people than newer buildings out in the suburban “sprawl”. Yet, many lower-income disabled people live downtown, and don’t have cars or good transportation to get to the more accessible supermarkets and strip malls.
Finally, there is another factor that is powerful, but harder to quantify and define … apathy. Accessibility is still so low on peoples’ list of priorities for social and civic change that it rarely gets much attention at all. There are still business owners and managers who claim, often quite honestly, to not understand their obligations under the ADA, almost 25 years after the law was first passed. Whether this lack of profile is because people don’t care, because they are ignorant of what they can do to improve, or because disabled people aren’t organized enough in their advocacy … it’s hard to say. It’s probably a combination of all three.
There are many strategies we can all use to make accessibility a higher priority. Personally, I think the greatest long term potential lies in consumer recording of accessibility features, and lack thereof, using web-based mapping and business rating sites like AXS Map and AbleRoad. Businesses with poor accessibility need to know that they lose customers as long as they fail to act. That includes not just disabled people themselves, but also, hopefully, their families and friends. One way or another, more of us have to speak up when we see barriers that shouldn't be there.
* Many, if not most countries also have similar accessibility standards applied locally or nationally … also with varying levels of thoroughness.