Parking, crossing the street, entering a building, using the restroom – for most of us, these are daily activities we don’t give a second thought. For those with physical disabilities, however, these everyday tasks often present a set of unique challenges. Eighteen years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law to ensure that everyone, regardless of physical limitations, had equal access to public facilities and programs. Since that time, features such as designated parking spaces, curb ramps and accessible restrooms have become standard in public and government buildings, and older facilities continue to be retrofitted with these features.
However, it’s not enough to simply slap a curb ramp on the end of a sidewalk and call it a day. The ADA maintains very specific design guidelines to address the myriad of concerns that go along with making a particular path accessible for everyone. For instance, a ramp that can be navigated effectively by wheelchair users may present a different problem for those who are visually impaired, or vice versa. In recent years, many municipalities have been surprised to learn that their curb ramps do not comply with ADA standards.
Understanding The ADA
Title II regulation of the ADA covers "public entities," which includes any state or local government and any of its departments, agencies or other instrumentalities. Private entities that operate public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, doctors’ offices, and amusement parks are covered by Title III of the ADA. Public transportation services operated by state and local governments are covered by regulations of the Department of Transportation.
One reason for this widespread failure in compliance is that, when specifying design standards, the ADA puts many decisions in the hands of local officials and design engineers, who may or may not have the knowledge necessary to understand the many complexities of the ADA. Often, help or advice from qualified consultants or local advocacy groups can be invaluable in a project’s success. Attempting to make decisions without the help of qualified experts can result in a misguided direction of budget and resources. Further, when a public entity undertakes alterations to an existing building, it must also ensure that the altered portions are accessible. The ADA does not require retrofitting of existing buildings to eliminate barriers, but does establish a high standard of accessibility for new buildings.
Grandfathering And Reasonable Accommodations
One common problem is the issue of grandfathering or small entity exemption. City governments may believe that their existing programs and facilities are protected by a "grandfather" clause from having to comply with the requirements of Title II of the ADA. Small municipalities may also believe that they are exempt from complying with Title II because of their size. Because city governments wrongly believe that a "grandfather" clause or a small entity exemption shields them from complying, they fail to take steps to provide program access or to make modifications that are required by law.
In reality, there is no "grandfather" clause, but the law is flexible. City governments must comply with Title II of the ADA, and must provide program access for people with disabilities to the whole range of city services and programs. In providing program access, city governments are not required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the service, program or activity in question or that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens. If an action would result in such an alteration or such burdens, a city government must take any other action that it can to ensure that people with disabilities receive the benefits and services of the program or activity.
Conquering Curb Ramps
The ADA requires curb ramps on streets or roads "wherever there are curbs or barriers to entry from a pedestrian walkway." Any new roadway construction or reconstruction that includes new sidewalks or is in an area with existing sidewalks requires curb ramp installation. Further, any sidewalk improvements or alterations within or adjacent to an intersection or a public transportation stop – even if the sidewalk work is incidental to other work such as utility installation – require a curb ramp. New construction or reconstruction projects that provide access to a public facility or program also must have curb ramps. Finally, the Department of Justice has established that street resurfacing is an alteration prompting the requirement that curb ramps be installed at all intersections within a resurfacing area where sidewalks exist.
To be considered compliant, all curb ramps must include a ramp and a landing at the top – each with specified cross-slopes and running slopes. Smooth transitions onto the sidewalk and crosswalk must be provided. In some circumstances, street level landings are also required. Ponding water in the gutter area in front of ramps must be prevented. When curb ramps are constructed into the walkway so that pedestrian traffic would cross the ramp, side flares are required with specified slopes to prevent trip hazards. Curb ramps are also required where a sidewalk intersects with the road. These ramps are designed to allow those with mobility impairments safe access to sidewalks and other pedestrian areas.
All new construction projects are required to implement curb ramps; however, alteration projects may or may not require curb ramps to be retrofitted to existing sidewalks. For instance, resurfacing a street or sidewalk is considered an "alteration" under the ADA and therefore requires the addition of curb ramps, while simply filling potholes is considered maintenance and does not require the installation of new curb ramps.
New curb ramps must also have detectable warnings, in the form of truncated domes, which help the visually impaired determine when they are entering a roadway. Generally, retrofit detectable warning devices are not required for old ramps. However, if a project is implemented such as a street resurfacing that would require installation of curb ramps, and the existing ramps are otherwise compliant, retrofit detectable warning devices are required.
A Customized Approach
Given the many intricacies of the ADA, one standard design can’t possibly function for every curb ramp. Factors such as slope difference and interfering objects (trees, signs, fire hydrants, etc.) require each curb ramp to be given a customized approach. However, this is not to say that each one must be designed from scratch. The city of Columbus, OH, for example, maintains 13 standard curb ramp designs, each of which can be modified on a case-by-case basis.
Before beginning any new curb ramp project, it is important to study similar projects that have been completed in the past to learn what worked and didn’t work. Further, training for the entire team – not only your staff but also local design consultants and the construction workers that will build the ramps – is necessary to ensure a successful project.
One recent example that occurred in Pennsylvania demonstrates the importance of training all personnel involved with a curb ramp project. The city was sued by a local advocacy group for the disabled that claimed that the city had failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city negotiated an interim settlement agreement that required them to begin a curb ramp construction program as a part of their ongoing resurfacing program while final settlement negotiations continued.
Early in the program, the city had to suspend curb ramp construction because a high percentage of the newly constructed ramps were not ADA compliant. The city asked H.R. Gray to help them develop a training program for their team which included their engineering staff, inspection personnel, local consultants, and contractors. An eight-hour training session was conducted. Ramp construction resumed and near-100 percent compliance was achieved almost immediately.
When undertaking any ADA project, it’s important for the entire team to keep compliance as the No. 1 goal. This push toward a common goal, combined with education on basic ADA issues and requirements, can go a long way in ensuring that every one of your projects is ADA compliant.
Editor’s note: Bob D. Sexton, senior construction manager for H.R. Gray, has more than three decades of practical experience in the management of public works construction projects. In recent years he has developed extensive expertise in the planning and implementation of programs designed to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act within the public right of way. He is particularly effective in the training of administration, inspection and construction personnel in ADA-compliant curb ramp layout and construction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mistakes to ADA Compliance:
ADA Compliance and curb ramp designs are different for persons with disabilities and persons with visual impairments. Simply installing ramps is not good enough. There are no standard corners. Treat each project as unique, build upon past experiences, and continually improve accessibility for all ADA compliance projects.
Challenges to ADA Compliance:
The law defers to local officials to determine what makes a "reasonable accommodation." This is open to many areas of interpretation. If no one has raised issues with a community’s ADA accessibility to date, the door is still open for future lawsuits. One main culprit in unsuccessful ADA compliance is disconnect among involved parties.
Implement an ADA Training Program:
Educate the entire team before undertaking an ADA compliance project. An ADA compliance training course provides valuable knowledge about how to make a specific project ADA compliant. Starting an ADA compliance project with all players having the same knowledge can reduce questions and variances as the project moves forward.
Partnering with ADA Advocacy Organizations:
Utilizing ADA advocacy groups as a partner in any project will help ensure a successful end result. Bringing them into the project as early as possible prevents potential pitfalls as the project is completed. These experts can help define "reasonable accommodations" and assist all parties in developing a satisfactory resolution. ADA Advocacy Organizations include: