The ADA: Now Playing in an Office-Space Near You

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It is 11 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), making it against the law to discriminate against those with physical or mental handicaps. In that time, there have been changes made in every arena, from making standardized tests accessible to students with learning disablities, to making sure that state and government agencies find a way to get their services to disabled community members.

Kenneth Lill, a senior associate with the Phillips Group, architecture firm in Manhattan, specializes in the design of corporate interiors, and has done considerable ADA-compliance work. spoke to Lill about how his profession has been changed by the ADA. If you were to compare the industry before the ADA with the current landscape, what are the main differences?

Kenneth Lill: Everybody looked at (handicapped accessibility) as a pain in the neck; they wondered how would they deal with it. ADA brought logic to the whole thing — everyone knew what they needed to do on a regular basis, and they became more accepting of it. Clients are now more educated and concerned with dealing with it. Before, we tried to avoid (remodeling for accessibility) — it was a nuisance that destroyed our designs. But the entire industry is accepting much more accessibility than it had been prior to ADA. We have to deal with it day in and day out.

Now one of first things we do when we look at a space for renovation is say, "ok, what do we need to do to make this space accessible?" Itís up front, not secondary. Very often a space will have too many obstacles, and our client may elect to either not to take the space, or to negotiate a lot harder with the landlord to get the landlord to bring, say toilet rooms up to ADA accessibility standards. They may bargain for lower rent or for a higher build-out allowance.

But it never enters in the conversation anymore that the space wonít be brought up to standard — thatís an accepted fact.

When you are beginning a project, where do you look to see how much will go into bringing the space up to ADA standards?

You start right from the elevators — make sure the elevators are accessible, make sure that once you enter, the door widths are correct, your circulation around desks, in offices, in workstation — all of those things need to be accessible.

But that has become the norm for the design standard. Say this is a building that a new tenant is moving into, and theyíre going to do a major renovation. You start right when you walk in — are the elevator push buttons at the right height? Is there an audible tone along with the elevator call lights? Inside the elevator, you need Braille numbers next to the buttons. It goes right through the space — on signage within the space (like a sign outside an office) not only do you have it in writing, you have it in Braille underneath. And you donít see it any other way anymore.

Has the ADA made your task harder?

I donít think itís made our job more difficult; I think since people know they have to do it theyíre more educated in it and itís more routine.

What is the enforcement situation? How did that work before and since the ADA?

The bottom line is that 11 years ago, before this came about, each state had various handicapped accessibility laws but they were all different. The ADA meant that everyone referred back to a common standard.

Each state had own code, and there were some national codes. And basically what happened was most of the states had adopted or referred to this for their standards. ADA is not a building code, itís an act of Congress. So the although various state housing departments typically do not enforce ADA, they do enforce handicapped codes, and those are very similar if not identical. All the states still have their codes, but the design industry has really focused on ADA, because if you do, youíre covered for about 90 percent of disabilities codes.

Whatís happened is the lawsuits are now starting. If a location is not in conformance with ADA it is susceptible to lawsuits and the owners or users want to avoid that. The whole mentality has changed to the point where people arenít fighting it, and that makes it easier for everyone.