Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

REDIRECT ALERT! (Scroll down past this mess if you're trying to read an archived post. Thanks. No, really, thanks.)

Due to my inability to control my temper and complacently accept continued silliness with not-quite-as-reliable-as-it-ought-to-be Blogger/Blogspot, your beloved Possumblog will now waddle across the Information Dirt Road and park its prehensile tail at http://possumblog.mu.nu.

This site will remain in place as a backup in case Munuvia gets hit by a bus or something, but I don't think they have as much trouble with this as some places do. ::cough::blogspot::cough:: So click here and adjust your links. I apologize for the inconvenience, but it's one of those things.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Okay, now--on with the scintillating recitation of four hours of sitting in a room full of architects.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had another continuing education seminar to attend yesterday--this one dealing with issues on the Americans With Disabilities Act. Most of you are familiar with this--a broad piece of civil rights legislation signed into law by George Bush (Evil Republican), designed to insure at least some level of access to the widest possible range of facilities which serve the public, for those persons who have physical disabilities.

Most people think of the more obvious disabilities, which require the use of a wheelchair, but the legislation was intended to serve the widest possible range of people with disabilities, including the blind, the deaf, those with limited mobility due to diseases such as arthritis, amputees, as well as those who use wheelchairs.

The law adopted a set of guidelines for construction, which in a way makes it a type of building code. However, what few architects wanted to realize at the time was that instead of a normal set of building codes as they were used to dealing with, in which the enforcement aspect was an administrative-level regulatory function, the ADA enforcement is a legal function--you don’t sit and jawbone with an inspector trying to figure out how to fix something, you sit at a long table full of lawyers and try to figure out just how much you’re going to have to pay.

It’s civil rights law--not many advocacy groups go around bringing class action lawsuits over buildings not being built to code, but the ADA opened up a huge new field of disability access litigation. While courts across the country have had difficulty in coming to a common understanding about exactly who should be liable in ADA cases--the owner, the builder, the architect, the material suppliers--it doesn’t really matter because they all get served with papers, and the case must be heard, and the lawyers must be paid. Occasionally, people with disabilities are helped.

Most building code violation cases usually only make it to court after something has fallen or broken or burned, and are usually more concerned (at least when it comes to designers), with showing if a reasonable standard of care was exercised, and if the architect was duly diligent in carrying out his contractural obligations and the applicable statutory requirements.

On the other hand, since the requirements and standards of the ADA are open to judicial interpretation, it has not been simply a matter of showing that a particular design element--say, a ramp--was designed to be in compliance, and for whatever reason was installed incorrectly, and get yourself off the hook.

This is especially pertinent in areas in which the original legislation had unclear intentions--in building codes, updates and clarifications are promulgated regularly to insure that there is are as few discrepancies as possible. In the case of the ADA, the process of clarifying discrepancies is handled more as a matter of discretionary power upon the part of the Department of Justice. In a way, it’s a bit like a cop deciding to give you a mile or two over the speed limit, to correct for possible “speedometer error”. 65 might still be the limit, and if his equipment says you’re doing 66, he has the power to ticket you. But if he’s feeling nice, he won’t.

An example the instructor used, again dealing with ramps, is the result of several cases in Florida. Wheelchair ramps, which are mandated to be no steeper than 1 foot of vertical rise for ever 12 feet of horizontal run, might, due to variances in construction methods or finishing, have a few shallow dips or lumps in the surface. Overall, the ramp might be perfectly fine, but those few dips actually create a situation in which the uphill side is actually a bit steeper than 1:12. And this can actually create a lawsuit. And can actually create a need for someone to get out the jackhammer and make a new ramp.

Justice has recognized some parts of the law might be unclear (such as how to deal with normal tolerances in construction), and they are less likely to try to litigate those instances. They still can, if they want to. A separate federal body, the Access Board, does come up with interpretations to guide compliance--since the ADA guidelines are minimum standards, the commentary by the Access Board is usually a good way to insure that you are erring on the side of caution. You can go it alone and make your own call that whatever you’ve done falls under the provision for “equivalent facilitation”, but it’s probably better to do what’s in front of you in black and white.

Updating the ADA guidelines, since they are part of the vast sea of Federal regulations and subject to the inteminable review process, is time consuming. The proposed revision to the original guidelines is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget. From the law’s inception to today has been more than ten years--in the same time, most of the former stand-alone building code organizations promulgated three completely new updates of their codes, and in fact, developed a single code (the IBC) combining all of the former works into one organization and one code. Once the ADA guidelines are updated (if ever), there are a laundry list of things which should go a long way to correcting mistakes and clarifying the intent of the guidelines.

You would think, given that it’s been around for ten years, and hasn’t changed any, and is fraught with legal liability, that architects would be a bit more on the ball about what is required. Most are, but there is a percentage out there who, despite five or six years of schooling, three years of internship, and a weeklong board exam, still don’t get it.

Since these seminars are toward the end of the year, they tend to attract a particular group of older gents for whom time stopped around the early spring of 1967. They don’t like doing continuing education, you know, since they had it all figured out in ‘67, and they are completely baffled by the ADA. Which was excusable ten years ago, but unfathomable now.

One old codger (who always comes to stuff like this and complains) was blabbering about toilets. Under the ADA, the flush handle on handicapped toilets has to be located over on the wide side of the stall. This is so a wheelchair-bound person can easily flush it without having to reach way over to the other side and possibly fall down in the pot. This is usually no problem to overcome with a flush valve, since the handle location is a matter of turning the handle to the correct side and making sure it's roughed-in correctly. Tank style toilets, however, have to be special ordered. (Usually, their handles are over on the left side, looking at it head on, and there’s no easy way to fix that in the field.) Now, believe it or not, it has always been possible to special order the handle on the wrong side, and when the ADA kicked in, this became better known to most folks.

But this guy piped up in the middle of the lecture with shock in his voice, “You mean the handle has to be over on the wide side!? How’re you gonna do that with a tank!?” The instructor told him tanks could fitted with a handle on the wrong side, and it was like a demonstration of fire to Og the Caveman. The curmudgeonly Andy Rooney routine might have been cute and charming TEN YEARS AGO, but such a show of blindingly obvious ignorance by someone with a certain reputation in town is just unbelievable.

But you can’t really be too hard on him--it seems to be prevalent. I may be more attuned to it since, back at the Bad Place, I was the designated ADA guru, but it’s not hard to walk into a brand new building and immediatly start picking out stuff that’s installed in the wrong place, such as door signs, or that don’t pick up on some of the more subtle parts of the law. Sorta like the Van Halen Brown M&M Contract Rider, one of the best little things to check to see if someone is really serious about compliance is to run your hand over the lever of a mechanical or electrical room door. Under the ADA, dangerous, inaccessible rooms like these are supposed to have some sort of tactile warning surface (gnurling or rough-textured finish) on the lever to alert blind people that the room should not be entered. Most buildings, it’s just not there. And if the brown M&Ms aren’t there, you figure something else isn’t either. (I do this sort of things with doors, too. Carry around a dental mirror, and check the tops of wood doors to see if they’ve been painted. Makes for much awe among painters.)

Anyway, the first presenter showed us a list of stuff that we still miss—handicapped parking in the wrong places and the wrong size and marked wrong, wrong or missing signage, no clearances at doorways—a whole litany of simple stuff. And despite my aversion to lawyers, most of these items are things that, if you are so dim you can’t design it right, you probably deserve to be sued out of existence. Our presenter told us of sharks swimming through parking lots, basically scoping out if there is a correctly done accessible parking lot-to-entrance pathway—if not, they start drawing up the papers. They wouldn’t do it if it weren’t so simple. Maybe if enough people get eaten, they’ll stop swimming with meat chunks around their necks.

OH, almost forgot about lunch for Jim Smith!

Remember when I said vile concoction? It actually wasn’t vile, per se, just really, REALLY disappointing. Styro trays, marked with GK, CAL TURK, CS, SW, CLUB. Hmm. Must be sammiches...pick yer pizen. (I was just glad they kept the California Turkey and the Greek Style on opposite sides of the table.)

I figured that in keeping with the architectural theme, I would take the classical Greek style sandwich, which turned out to be some chicken, weeds, bits of feta cheese and black olives slices, wrapped in a sickly yellow flour tortilla. And a bag of no-name chips. And a tiny cookie. I’ve seen more food in a Lean Cuisine box. And paid a WHOLE sight less for it.

But, it was good enough to keep me from keeling over in the chair. Well, that, and a special guest appearance by Maud Adams, reprising her role as Octopussy!

So, see? Continuing education can be very fun!

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