Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Design Professional

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers a broad range of topics related to accessibility including specific guidelines that must be met when designing  public projects.  Although the original ADA legislation was passed in 1990, the guidelines and standards continue to be updated, and design professionals need to stay current on ADA requirements.

Sain has recently been working on several sidewalk projects around the Birmingham area.  Those projects necessitated a refresher course for our staff on current ADA practices and how the requirements are enforced by local, state, and federal agencies.

Because of Birmingham’s hilly topography, we’ve encountered some situations where the design cannot meet accepted standards.  Full disclosure of those situations to the project owner and regulating agencies is critical and demands clear and well documented communication.

To help educate our staff in a hands-on format last summer, we took a group of our engineers out to a local neighborhood that has sidewalks.  Using a smart level, we measured the sidewalk’s slopes, which in most cases did not meet the ADA requirements of a 2% cross slope and 5-foot width.

We then took turns in wheelchairs trying to navigate the non-compliant ADA sidewalks and discovered in a very memorable way that the task can be quite a challenge.  None of us made it very far in the wheelchair and most had to be caught by a friend when they started to roll and fall off the sidewalk.

When we tried the wheelchairs on a recently constructed sidewalk that did meet ADA, both in widths and slopes, it was much easier.  The purpose of this exercise was to impress upon our engineers how our design, if not properly prepared to meet appropriate requirements, can affect future users.  Our ethical responsibility as engineers is to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.  Meeting ADA requirements is a critical step in doing that.

There are new guidelines being adopted by public agencies.  These are referred to as Public Rights of Way Access Guidelines (PROWAG) and are being developed by the U.S. Access Board.  PROWAG is still in draft format but is already being referenced by public agencies.  Sain is currently designing and inspecting sidewalk projects and has been referencing and utilizing ADA and PROWAG requirements.  As design professionals, we are responsible for ensuring a design that meets ADA and PROWAG requirements.

Before starting these recent sidewalk projects, we would probably have told you it is not difficult to meet ADA requirements.  However, recent experience has shown that retrofitting sidewalks to ADA and PROWAG standards is not always easy, sometimes not practical and sometimes not even feasible.

When a design cannot meet the requirements, design professionals must consider how to protect themselves and their client from future liability.  In these cases where ADA and PROWAG cannot be met, we work hand in hand with our clients to disclose and document non-compliance issues.  Communication is the key!

For more information, please visit the PROWAG and ADA websites.

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Cullman, Alabama, Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.

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