Pushing ADA beyond the Limits: The Americans with Disabilities Act Requires Specific Measurements and Codes That Allow Access for Disabled Students. Some Campus Planners Say That Isn't Enough-And Are Looking to Universal Design Concepts

By Sturgeon, Julie | University Business, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

Pushing ADA beyond the Limits: The Americans with Disabilities Act Requires Specific Measurements and Codes That Allow Access for Disabled Students. Some Campus Planners Say That Isn't Enough-And Are Looking to Universal Design Concepts


Sturgeon, Julie, University Business


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KORYDON SMITH CAN TELL BY A quick stroll whether a college campus is doing extra credit when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an associate professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas ,and the head of its Arkansas Universal Design Project, he'd like to see more buildings without the ubiquitous wheelchair symbol pointing to the back door, and instead wheelchairs rolling in through the front.

Likewise, Lynne Deninger, an associate principal at Cannon Design in Boston, pays attention to the landscaping, such as pathways that don't build in steps every 20 feet to reach a terrace or special space. She's also on alert for ground-floor public amenity spaces with a variety of seating options in dining rooms.

And there are bigger kudos if these experts spot a temporary facility on a campus--say, a Homecoming tent--offering equal access. "Because they don't have requirements to meet certain standards, this means the university's disability service office is being pre-emptive as opposed to waiting for a problem," points out Sean Vance, director of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Clearly, for these institutions, the ADA code isn't merely a checklist. "If you go in with a tape measure, lots of buildings meet code," says Elizabeth Watson, director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. "But in the final layout the functionality just isn't there." For instance, does an ADA bathroom still work for a 6-foot, 8-inch basketball player? A transsexual? Vance's 60-some-year-old mother who is considering going back to college for her PhD?

Now they're flirting with the concept architects have dubbed "universal design"--layouts striving to be broad-spectrum solutions, producing buildings, products, and environments that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities, as the collective wisdom at Wikipedia describes it. Architects consider a building "universally designed" if 95 percent of the population can enter and use the facilities and programming for their purpose.

The concept is not new (the philosophy is pushing 20 years now), nor is it interchangeable with accessibility, as Vance is quick to note. "You can't circumvent ADA by saying I'll apply universal design instead," he explains. "And the minimum accessibility standards do not achieve universal design. That requires a holistic analysis of your conditions." The NC State campus, he admits bluntly, is not reaching for more than ADA--yet.

But some architects estimate that day is inevitable. James Rayburg, vice president of Cannon Design, recalls working at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access while attending the University at Buffalo. The challenge at the time was looking for the proper way to attach grab bars to walls for ADA compliance. Today he's the project designer for that institution's South Ellicott residence hall project, which will open in fall 2011 with a 100 percent universal design philosophy.

Why might campus planners be looking toward universal design now? For starters, the education market is about to see an influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, some will have the expected mobility challenges, while others will bring learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, and visual impairments to the table. "They may have disabilities we previously didn't think of as a disability," Vance says. Smith's statistics say one in 10 students today would already fall into the disabled category.

Vance also sees universal design as a model to rope in the best researchers and attract alumni endowments. After all, the demographic that looks back fondly with its checkbook is reaching an age where these folks can't adapt to circumstances as they did when they were students. It's time for the surroundings to adapt to them. …

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