It goes without saying that people with disabilities should be able to access public buildings. But to ensure that right, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. It prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications against people who have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit “major life activities,” which includes walking, sitting, reading, seeing, and communicating.
As a result, structures built after that year are designed with accessibility in mind. (Or at least they should be.) Buildings erected before 1990, however, may not meet ADA requirements at all, or may be built under earlier versions of the various standards that make up the building code.
The Housing Authority of New Haven owns a number of older buildings as part of its multi-family residential portfolio, and came to us for assistance with bringing them up to code. We have been happy to collaborate with the Housing Authority on this ongoing project, which involves, among other things, providing ADA-compliant access to the buildings from the street, sidewalk, and parking areas.
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This requires working out how to ensure that residents and visitors can safely navigate main entries and hallways, and also how they can access individual residences. Inside the apartments, the renovations must provide for access to all areas, including the kitchen, living areas, bathrooms, and at least one bedroom.
Community spaces, laundry facilities, trash disposal areas, and other shared spaces must be accessible to residents, visitors, and staff as well. Only certain mechanical and maintenance areas are exempt from ADA regulations.
Breaking Down Barriers: Turning Accessibility Challenges into Opportunities
They say that it’s important to learn how to turn challenges into opportunities. People with disabilities, more than anyone, tend to become experts in that area. In our work with the Housing Authority, I’m glad to say that we have encountered a number of challenges and our team is working diligently to overcome them so that the residents of these buildings don’t have to.
Some of the opportunities we’ve been presented with include:
- Deciding where to position accessible units in buildings that have elevators and buildings that don’t. Obviously, this decision has a significant impact on people with mobility issues.
- Finding the best way to reallocate space in updated apartments. For example, accessible kitchens and bathrooms take up more space, meaning that a unit might lose a bedroom or have to have a smaller living room or dining room.
- Being careful to ensure that functions on non-accessible floors are also available on accessible floors. For example, this might mean putting a washer and dryer in a first floor unit if the communal laundry room is on the second floor in a building that has no elevator.
- Making sure that things like entry hardware, mail delivery boxes, and fixtures in public restrooms are accessible. An overlooked detail that might seem like a minor issue to one person, can be a major problem for another who has a disability.
Learning to Look at the World Differently
Whether you are familiar with the challenges faced by people with disabilities or not, a project like this one for the Housing Authority of New Haven tends to be an eye-opener. As you immerse yourself in it, you start to see the world from a new and more compassionate perspective.
Our staff keeps up with the latest accessibility standards and universal design. And it’s fair to say we’ve been humbled by our expanded understanding of some of the things people who don’t have disabilities take for granted every day. That awareness energizes us to find the best possible approach for completing these renovations.