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International Interior Design Association

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The New Rules

By Shaila Williams

In the Summer of 1991, the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency responsible for regulating accessible design, first released the extensive and far-reaching guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two Summers ago—just one year shy of that event’s 15th anniversary—those guidelines were updated for the first time. As other agencies begin to adopt standards based on the new guidelines, designers, architects, builders and planners across the country are wondering how their work will be affected.

About Time

By most accounts, the new ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) are a welcome change. After all, technology, building codes and human needs have evolved significantly since 1991. More than 2,500 individuals submitted comments in public hearings and on federal Web sites over a six-month span. While opinions and recommendations vary, the comments do share a common denominator: the call for change.

Professionals from a wide range of industries also have voiced the need to modernize the rules for some time. Their role was crucial to the instigation and formation of the new guidelines. Twenty-two people representing the design, construction and building-code industries, representatives of state and local government, and people with disabilities were pegged by the Board to review and update the guidelines. Called the ADAAG Review Advisory Committee, their central goal was to ensure that the ADAAG remained consistent with technological developments and model codes and continued to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

What's New

More Clarity. One of the most significant and immediately recognizable differences in the new ADAAG is in format. Where the original guidelines are dense and vague in interpretation, the revised version is more organized, easier to read and as a result, easier to follow. A new numbering system coincides with model codes. Scope-of-compliance is more clearly delineated. Additions of more straightforward chapter titles and a reorganization of information give the document a more streamlined structure.

This clearer, more concise format has one interesting—and intended—paradoxical effect: By clarifying precisely which spaces are and are not covered under the ADAAG, designers can easily identify non-required spaces, and the various enforcement agencies have greater basis for penalizing designers of required spaces that don’t comply.

More Slack. A surprise revision is the loosening of certain standards. This includes a reduction in the number of single-restroom facilities required to have an accessible unisex toilet (half instead of all), more flexibility in centerline placement of toilets and a reduction of required “reach ranges” (from 54 to 48 inches). After years of observing the consequences of the original guidelines’ applications, the Board concluded that some rules are overly restrictive. It’s now easier for every required facility to comply.

The standards governing employee work areas are now more enhanced than their predecessors. The guidelines require the accessibility of all parts of newly constructed work facilities, the widening of circulation paths and the connections for visual alarms. A notable addition concerns the accessibility of press boxes, which by definition are hard to access. The new guidelines include an exception for boxes of certain sizes, elevation and location.

More Centralization. Chapter eight of the new ADAAG addresses “Special Rooms, Spaces and Elements.” This umbrella covers facilities such as dressing rooms, locker rooms, storage rooms, transportation facilities and holding cells. Where the current guidelines treat these spaces separately, according to their usage, the new guidelines serve to simplify usage and compliance by treating all such spaces the same, regardless of by whom or how they are used. For example, specifications for kitchens and kitchenettes now apply to hotel guest rooms and employee break rooms.

What's Next

The 1991 guidelines will continue to be enforced until the individual enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Service officially adopt the new ADAAG and communicate that adoption to the general public. The timeline of the ADAAG Review Advisory Committee, (formed in 1994), its findings (published in 1999) and its yet-to-be finalized revisions highlights an important but relatively under-the-radar footnote. Many people wonder how relevant a 6- to 11-year-old report can be. The wheels of government turn notoriously slow, but were it possible to close the gap by at least a couple years, these standards certainly would have a more meaningful effect in the lives of people with disabilities.

In the meantime, as interior designers wait with bated breath for the green light, they begin paving the way for the anticipated work ahead.