Equal Access

Stephen McCarthy is co-partner and president of Equal Access ADA Consulting Architects Inc. in San Diego. He says that many people think it’s a given he’s in this field because he has a disability; from birth he’s had Cerebral Palsy. But, first and foremost, he says, he just wanted to be an architect.

A graduate of Southern California School of Architecture, McCarthy worked for many years in general practice where he realized the complexity of having to apply codes and standards as an architect-not as an advocate. He says his disability helps him develop additional insight into the situation and now he combines those personal experiences with his professional knowledge and focuses exclusively on accessibility issues.

Joe De Patta: How did you and Bob Evans come to start Equal Access?

Stephen McCarthy: Bob Evans and I had been friends since our architecture school days. We both saw how, in our separate practices, accessibility issues and ADA were becoming more of an issue and becoming more complex all the time. We saw a need for a specialty in understanding that law. Bob’s wife is a Special Ed teacher, so his awareness combined with my background gave us a lot of experience.

JD: It seems that we’re hearing much more about schools and facilities becoming ADA compliant; is it a more important issue these days or is it just that proponents are more vocal about it?

SM: It’s always been an important issue. The fact is, the ADA law is almost 13 years old. It’s not new. The clock is ticking and it’s ticking louder. Proponents have become more vocal because a lot of time has passed. In the past 12 years people have become aware of their rights; students and their parents have become aware of what the children’s rights are.

JD: When do clients call you in? Are you hired to consult proactively on the school’s behalf or do you find that clients are reactive?

SM: It can be both. Hopefully, it’s proactive; that’s the best circumstance. This is where our expertise diverges from architecture practice. We do a fair amount of expert witness litigation because reactively, there’s a lot of litigation, and proactively there’s an understanding that work needs to be done or the client could end up in litigation.

The section of the ADA that applies to school districts is Title 2, which went into effect in 1990. School districts had to look at their programs, services, and activities, and make them accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. Organizations had to create a transition plan to deal with physical barriers and remove them.

The law is aware that there just isn’t the money to make everything accessible. You can’t remodel every restroom, but if you have an elevator and restrooms on three floors, you can remodel every other restroom. That can meet the Program Accessibility Standard. Another instance is where you have a program, such as a painting class for third graders, located in an inaccessible building, and by moving the class to another building, one that’s accessible, you to meet the standard.

JD: When working on a project for a school district or university, who brings you into the project, school administrators or the architects hired to design or remodel a specific building or create a master plan?

SM: Usually it’s school administrators, if they understand the law. If they take that first step in evaluating the Program Accessibility Standard, that’s an important issue. Ideally, administrators should bring up the issues before they ever hire an architect.

JD: What is your procedure/method for evaluating the buildings and grounds? What are the first things you look at?

SM: We work from the outside in. We follow a pretty logical method because standards are built around an accessible route into the facilities. We start at the public way or a bus stop where students might be dropped off-the law states that you must have a route from the public way. We check on-site parking. We look at the parking stalls and then follow the route through the campus to all the buildings and see how that route meets the standards. Then we go into the buildings. We evaluate doorways, entrances, routes through the buildings, restrooms, drinking fountains, telephones, stairways, and elevators. All those elements have to be accessible.

JD: What are the most common failings you’ve found during your evaluations? Are there typical things most schools miss or don’t know about?

SM: Almost none comply. The first thing is parking, and that is one of the easier fixes. We see parking areas that aren’t striped properly and lack proper signage. The parking lot’s slope can be a big issue; the law requires a two percent slope in any direction so paving and grading is important. In the older days they’d take out a paintbrush and paint a parking space blue and walk away. The last thing they looked at was the asphalt and the slope. That’s expensive and we’ve told schools that if it is cost prohibitive to deal with the slope issue, at least do the striping right.

Curb ramps also are a common problem; they often don’t meet the slope requirement. In general, ramps and slopes are often incorrect. Maximum slope allowed on a ramp is 8.33 percent. We sometimes find it might be off fractionally, but it’s still off, so make it a little longer. We’ve had facilities pull out a $50,000 ramp because it was wrong.

The disabled community isn’t all that keen these days on the slope maximum standards. They would like to change the requirements from one foot rise for every 12 feet of ramp to one foot for every 15 feet.

JD: Are there different rules or requirements for elementary schools versus high schools or college campuses?

SM: The way it works is that access standards are determined on the federal level. The Access Board creates the standards through investigation and research, and then passes along the standards to the Department of Justice. The DOJ adopts the standards and that’s when they become law.

Right now there are some fairly new play area standards for play equipment. The DOJ also is just about to adopt new standards for toilets and grab bars in elementary schools, based on student’s heights.

JD: How often do ADA rules and regulations change? Are school districts and universities doing a good job of keeping up with changes?

SM: It’s a misconception that things change quickly in this area. We’ve been using the same Americans with Disabilities Accessibility Guidelines, which is the standard, since 1994.

Changes are now just getting implemented. By the time the review process is through and the standards are sent to the DOJ, it may take a year or two-or more-to get approval.

Basic standards, such as parking, haven’t changed that much, and probably won’t change significantly.

JD: Do school districts or universities usually have an ADA coordinator with whom you work? Should schools and universities have such a position?

SM: If they have more than 50 employees, they’re obligated to have a coordinator.

It is an important position, but we find, unfortunately, that schools point at someone and say, "You’re it and we aren’t going to see you anymore." It should be, in most cases, a separate position. Most universities, and some of the larger school districts, are very proactive and some even have a full department with an ADA coordinator and a staff.

JD: Not being in compliance with ADA regulations is a civil rights violation, is it not? How can so many educational facilities continue to not meet ADA standards?

SM: It is a civil rights violation and it is enforceable by the DOJ or by civil suits from an individual with a disability.

It isn’t cost effective for a district or university to find themselves in that situation. If they go to court it is difficult to say, "We’ve had 12 years to come into compliance and haven’t taken the first step." They at least have to have a plan to show good faith. They can defend the fact that they haven’t fulfilled the requirements, but at the least they have to show they’ve identified problems and formed a plan of correction.

JD: What are the most important tips or pieces of information you think every school district or university should know when it comes to ADA compliance?

SM: There isn’t any one element, but the easiest thing is to understand the Program Accessibility Standards and apply them. It is the program that matters and it must be provided in an accessible facility and an integrated setting. If you’ve accomplished that, you’ve met the spirit of the ADA.

JD: Once your evaluations are complete, what are the typical next steps? Do you work with the district on implementing the plan?

SM: It can be a multi-year process and we help the school create a checklist, a priority list, and start working through it. We will often do construction observation. Some elements are correct on the architect’s plans but get lost in the field. If we can go in during the construction process and check the slope on a ramp before they pour the concrete, we can help save money and forego future litigation.

JD: On average, how much does retrofitting for ADA requirements cost? How much does it add to the cost of new construction?

SM: It doesn’t add anything to the cost of new construction because that’s what the standards are. It’s like asking what is the cost of adding a window or a fire alarm. You have to have those things. It’s a misconception to consider these requirements added.

JD: It’s hard to use the word "trends" when it comes to meeting special needs, but have you noticed a shift in the types of compliance now being put into policy?

SM: I mentioned the ramp standards and the ratios. In schools there are new standards for acoustics in classrooms. For instance, according to the Center for Disease Control, 15 percent of students have hearing impairments that affect what they can hear in the classroom.

JD: With an increased emphasis on school safety, are you seeing safety needs conflicting with needs for improved access?

SM: It’s just the opposite of that. Improved access makes for a safer building. Part of the universal design philosophy is that by making things accessible, you make them safer and better for everybody.

Lever hardware is specified for buildings now. Someone with a gripping issue can push down on a lever, but also students with books in their hands who wouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob can push down on the lever with their elbow.

JD: What are you seeing or hearing that encourages you?

SM: Technology is a boon to people with disabilities. It has less to do with architecture and more to do with computers. Power doors, for instance, while not required, make easier operation for everyone.

JD: Do you find that you often have to educate architectural firms on ADA compliance? In researching ADA issues, we came across an instance where a well-known architectural firm paid a $25,000 civil penalty for violating ADA requirements for new construction; shouldn’t they know about these regulations?

SM: It is our professional obligation, as architects, to know the information. There is no excuse for being ignorant or negligent. We see a lot of construction where we just shake our heads. A small mistake is still a mistake.

JD: Do you find that you often have to educate architectural firms on ADA compliance? In researching ADA issues, we came across an instance where a well-known architectural firm paid a $25,000 civil penalty for violating ADA requirements for new construction; shouldn’t they know about these regulations?

SM: I have my own issues as a person with disabilities. I’ve seen the world change so much in my lifetime. I was born in 1951 and I went to a crippled children’s school; it was segregated and run by the Crippled Children’s Society. Today, you can’t even use those words. It was right across the street from school for the "regular" kids. Totally separate, though.

In junior high and high school we started mainstreaming. I’ve seen a lot of changes from segregated, to integrated, to what we have today. It is amazing how much better the world is for people with disabilities, especially in the United States and in California in particular. People tend to forget how things have progressed and I try to give them a perspective on the changes.

What is gratifying is that a lot of the current architectural students and new architects don’t see the need to separately design a restroom that has special facilities for persons with disabilities. They instead simply design restrooms because their perceptions naturally include accessibility.