Most municipalities have implemented features required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but many of these features fall short of ADA compliance. With a little background knowledge of the ADA and its standards, facilities managers (fms) can alleviate some of the most common problems that occur when installing curb ramps.
Parking, crossing the street, entering a building, using the restroom—for most of us, these are daily activities we don’t give a second thought. For those with physical disabilities, however, these everyday tasks often present a set of unique challenges. Fifteen years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law to ensure that everyone, regardless of physical limitations, had equal access to public facilities and programs. [For TFM's most recent update on the ADA, see "ADA Compliance in Difficult Times" by Kate McGuinness.] Since that time, features such as designated parking spaces, curb ramps, and accessible restrooms have become standard in public and government buildings around the country, and older facilities continue to be retrofitted with these features.
However, it’s not enough to slap a curb ramp on the end of a sidewalk and call it a day. The ADA maintains very specific guidelines for design, intended to address the myriad of concerns that go along with making a particular path accessible for everyone. For instance, a ramp that can be navigated effectively by wheelchair users may present a different problem for those who are visually impaired, or vice versa. In recent years, many municipalities have been surprised to learn that their curb ramps do not comply with ADA standards.
Understanding the ADA
Title II regulation of the ADA covers “public entities,” which includes any state or local government and any of its departments, agencies, or other instrumentalities. Unlike section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which only covers programs receiving federal financial assistance, Title II extends to all the activities of State and local governments whether or not they receive federal funds. Private entities that operate public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, dry cleaners, doctors’ offices, amusement parks, and bowling alleys, are not covered by Title II but are covered by Title III of the ADA and the Department’s regulation implementing Title III. In contrast, public transportation services operated by state and local governments are covered by regulations of the Department of Transportation. State and local governments may not refuse to allow a person with a disability to participate in a service, program, or activity simply because the person has a disability.
For example, a city may not refuse to allow a person with epilepsy to use parks and recreational facilities and the city must provide programs and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity. Further, state and local governments must eliminate unnecessary eligibility standards or rules that deny individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to enjoy their services, programs or activities unless “necessary” for the provisions of the service, program or activity. Requirements that tend to screen out individuals with disabilities, such as requiring a driver’s license as the only acceptable means of identification, are also prohibited.
One reason for this widespread failure in compliance is that, when specifying design standards, the ADA puts many decisions in the hands of local officials and design engineers, who may or may not have the knowledge necessary to understand the many complexities of the ADA. Often, help or advice from qualified consultants or local advocacy groups can be invaluable in a project’s success. Attempting to make decisions without the help of qualified experts can result in a misguided direction of budget and resources. Further, when a public entity undertakes alterations to an existing building, it must also ensure that the altered portions are accessible. The ADA does not require retrofitting of existing buildings to eliminate barriers, but does establish a high standard of accessibility for new buildings.
Grandfathering and Reasonable Accommodations
One common problem is the issue of grandfathering or small entity exemption. City governments may believe that their existing programs and facilities are protected by a “grandfather” clause from having to comply with the requirements of Title II of the ADA. Small municipalities may also believe that they are exempt from complying with Title II because of their size. Because city governments wrongly believe that a “grandfather” clause or a small entity exemption shields them from complying, they fail to take steps to provide program access or to make modifications to policies, practices, and procedures that are required by law. People with disabilities are unable to gain access to city facilities, programs, services, or activities because of a public entity’s reliance on these common misconceptions.
In reality, there is no “grandfather” clause, but the law is flexible. City governments must comply with Title II of the ADA, and must provide program access for people with disabilities to the whole range of city services and programs. In providing program access, city governments are not required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the service, program, or activity in question or that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens.
This determination can only be made by the head of the public entity or a designee and must be accompanied by a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion. The determination that undue burden would result must be based on all resources available for use in a program.
If an action would result in such an alteration or such burdens, a city government must take any other action that it can to ensure that people with disabilities receive the benefits and services of the program or activity (28 C.F.R. § 35.150(a)(3). Similarly, there is no exemption from Title II requirements for small municipalities. While public entities that have less than 50 employees are not required to comply with limited sections of the Department of Justice’s regulations, such as maintaining self-evaluations on file for three years and designating a grievance procedure for ADA complaints, no general exemption applies. All public entities, regardless of size, must comply with Title II’s requirements (28 C.F.R. § 35.104).
Perhaps the most ambiguous decision that the ADA leaves open to interpretation is the issue of “reasonable accommodations.” Such was the case in a project on which H.R. Gray provided consultation for an elaborate boulder garden on private property that sat in the right-of-way on a curb ramp renovation site. For this project, H.R. Gray recommended that the city relocate the sidewalk around the boulder garden, allowing the ramps to be constructed within the existing right-of-way, saving the city the cost of acquiring the private property, while still complying with the ADA’s specifications.
Since the ADA states “reasonable accommodations” must be made in regards to renovations for ADA compliance, building a ramp outside of the boulder garden, rather than through it, was determined to be a reasonable accommodation by city officials and the local ADA advocates. This successful project resulted in the installation of an ADA compliant curb ramp where there previously was none, and enabled the city to avoid the costly acquisition of private property to make the ramp compliant. Further, this program encountered several locations where property owners granted the city easements and/or access rights to work on their private property to avoid removing or destroying landscaping features that extended on to the right-of-way. While situations such as this will undoubtedly require a specialized approach as they arise, specifiers should be familiar with the basic tenets of the ADA, as well as some of the most common problems that occur when installing curb ramps, so they can avoid these pitfalls in their own projects.
Conquering Curb Ramps
The ADA requires curb ramps on streets or roads “wherever there are curbs or barriers to entry from a pedestrian walkway. Any new roadway construction or reconstruction that includes new sidewalks or is in an area with existing sidewalks requires curb ramp installation. Further, any sidewalk improvements or alterations within or adjacent to an intersection or a public transportation stop—even if the sidewalk work is incidental to other work such as utility installation—requires a curb ramp. New construction or reconstruction projects that provide access to a public facility or program, including parks, government buildings, post offices, bus stops, etc., also must have curb ramps. Finally, the Department of Justice has established that street resurfacing is an alteration prompting the requirement that curb ramps be installed at all intersections within a resurfacing area where sidewalks exist.
To be considered compliant, all curb ramps must include a ramp and a landing at the top—each with specified cross-slopes and running slopes. Smooth transitions onto the sidewalk and crosswalk must be provided. In some circumstances, street level landings are also required.
Ponding water in the gutter area in front of ramps must be prevented. When curb ramps are constructed into the walkway so that pedestrian traffic would cross the ramp, side flares are then required with specified slopes to prevent trip hazards.
Curb ramps are also required where a sidewalk intersects with the road. These ramps are designed primarily to allow those with mobility impairments safe access to sidewalks and other pedestrian areas. All new construction projects are required to implement curb ramps; however, alteration projects may or may not require curb ramps to be retrofitted to existing sidewalks.
For instance, resurfacing a street or sidewalk is considered an “alteration” under the ADA and therefore requires the addition of curb ramps, while simply filling potholes is considered maintenance and does not require the installation of new curb ramps. Whether curb ramps that are not undergoing other alterations at the time are retrofitted to sidewalks is left up to the discretion of city governments. One way to ensure the proper integration of curb ramps throughout a city is to set a series of milestones for curb ramp compliance in the city’s transition plan. It also may be appropriate for a city government to establish an ongoing procedure for installing curb ramps upon request in both residential and nonresidential areas frequented by individuals with disabilities.
Conversely, certain projects do not require curb ramp construction such as maintenance projects of any kind within the public right-of-way including those for replacement of an insignificant portion of the roadway surface or sidewalks within the immediate area of an intersection that includes existing sidewalks. Further, new roadway construction or an alteration in areas where there are no existing sidewalks or other pedestrian facilities does not require curb ramp construction. This applies with or without the presence of curbs.
In recent years, one of the biggest issues that has surfaced in relation to curb ramps is the addition of detectable warnings, which help the visually impaired determine when they are entering a roadway. These warnings were initially required by the ADA Accessible Guidelines for curb ramps, hazardous vehicular roadways and transit platform edges. However, the requirement for curb ramps and vehicular roadways was soon suspended to allow for research to determine the most effective type of warning.
After 10 years of research, truncated domes proved to be the most viable solution, beating out other options such as grooves, striations, and exposed aggregate. On July 26, 2001, the suspension on the requirement expired, and truncated domes are now required on all new curb ramps. Generally, retrofit detectable warning devices are not required for old ramps. However, if a project is implemented, such as a street resurfacing, that would require installation of curb ramps, and the existing ramps are otherwise compliant, retrofit detectable warning devices are required.
When it comes to installing truncated domes, each curb ramp is unique in its design needs; however, there are certain specifications that are universal regardless of the individual ramp design. For instance, all detectable warnings must extend 24″ in the direction of travel and cover the full width of the curb ramp.
Research has shown that this length is sufficient in signaling the beginning of a roadway 90% of the time. In addition, the warnings must be placed six to eight inches from the curb line to give blind pedestrians enough stopping distance between the curb and the street, as well as to give wheelchair users a smoother transition from the curb to the street. The domes must be aligned on a square grid so they can be rolled over easily, and each dome has very specific dimensions (0.9″ diameter on bottom, 0.4″ diameter on top, 0.2″ high and 2.35″ from center to center) designed for maximum detectability.
Although the specifications are universal, the installation process itself provides a number of different options. Dimensional pavers—which can be used with a variety of materials including natural stone, stone composites, ceramic tile, cast iron tiles, molded polymer tiles, brick and precast concrete—must be recessed into the concrete.
Some of these products are designed to be set into the wet concrete and others are installed later into a boxed-out area of the concrete ramp. Alternately, truncated domes can be applied directly to the surface of existing concrete via thin tiles, which are either rigid (made of polymer) or flexible (made of polyurethane). These tiles are fastened to the substrate using a structural adhesive system.
Other surface-applied products include rubber domes that are attached with a polyurethane coating. If the surface in question is concrete, detectable warnings also can be fabricated on site, either by stamping the top layer of fresh concrete, transferring them from a carrier sheet or forming them using a template as the concrete is flowed.
One common error/omission is a curb ramp located across a circulation path with steep unprotected side flares, resulting in the possibility of people walking across the curb ramp tripping and/or those using wheelchairs tipping if they accidentally roll over the non-flared sides. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section 4.7.5, if a curb ramp is located where pedestrians must walk across the ramp, or where it is not protected by handrails or guardrails, it shall have flared sides; the maximum slope of the flare shall be 1:10.
Curb ramps with returned curbs may be used where pedestrians would not normally walk across the ramp. Built-up curb ramps that project into the access aisle of parking lots also are common. When an access aisle has a sloped surface, a wheelchair may roll away from a car or van preventing the wheelchair user from getting out of the vehicle. The sloped surface also prevents a van-mounted wheelchair lift from being fully-lowered to the access aisle surface. Parking spaces and access aisles shall be level with surface slopes not exceeding 1:50 (2%) in all directions.
Another common problem is failure to provide adequate drainage in the gutter in front of the ramp. When water is allowed to pond in front of the ramp, dirt and fluids leaked from automobiles is picked up by the wells of a wheelchair and transferred to the operator’s clothing. In temperate climates, ponding water in front of the ramp can freeze creating a hazard not only for the mobility impaired but also for the able-bodied pedestrian. Adequate drainage is required for compliance.
A Customized Approach
Given the many intricacies of the ADA, it stands to reason that one standard design can’t possibly function for every curb ramp. Factors such as slope difference and interfering objects (trees, signs, fire hydrants, etc.) require each curb ramp to be given a customized approach.
However, this is not to say that each one must be designed from scratch. The city of Columbus, OH, for example, maintains 13 standard curb ramp designs, each of which can be modified on a case-by-case basis. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) frequently incorporates continuous right turn lanes in their traffic designs and has expanded their drawings to include special curb ramps for traffic islands. TxDOT has also developed designs for switchback ramps to accommodate the high curbs frequently found in rural Texas towns.
As such, before beginning any new curb ramp project, it is important to study similar projects that have been completed in the past to learn what worked and didn’t work. Learning from past mistakes can save you from making the same ones on your own project. Further, training for the entire team—not only your staff but also local design consultants and the construction workers that will build the ramps—is necessary to ensure a successful project.
One recent example that occurred in Pennsylvania demonstrates the importance of training all personnel involved with a curb ramp project. The city was sued by a local advocacy group for the disabled who claimed that the city had failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city negotiated an interim settlement agreement that required them to begin a curb ramp construction program as a part of their ongoing resurfacing program while final settlement negotiations continued.
Early in the program, the city had to suspend curb ramp construction because a high percentage of the newly constructed ramps were not ADA compliant. An eight-hour training session was conducted. Ramp construction resumed and near 100% compliance was achieved almost immediately.
Ensuring the entire team is in sync also is key to success. One person on the team may have more knowledge of ADA issues than the others, so it’s important to meet as a team well in advance of the project’s commencement to make sure everyone can benefit from this knowledge before things are underway.
Likewise, if no one on the team feels well-educated on the complexities of the ADA, an ADA compliance training course might be extremely helpful for the team to undergo before starting the project. Advocacy groups, which are an excellent resource, should also be brought into the project during the planning stages to ensure that any confusion about specifications is addressed in a timely manner.
When undertaking any ADA project, it’s important for the entire team to keep compliance as the number one goal. This push toward a common goal, combined with education on basic ADA issues and requirements, can go a long way in ensuring that each and every one of your projects is ADA compliant.
Dispelling the Myths
Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a hot topic. While standard drawings make curb ramps seem like a simple fix, the ADA’s intricacies can leave city officials’ best designed and most monitored projects completed, yet still out of compliance. While curb ramps are the example for this purpose, applying the same principles to any ADA compliance project can help a team troubleshoot and plan accurately – ultimately saving valuable time and money. Following are tips for success.
1. Understand the ADA
The ADA is a disability rights law that leaves many (often ambiguous) decisions to local officials and design engineers. Attempting to make decisions without the help of qualified experts can result in a misguided direction of budget and resources. Did you know?
- ADA compliance (and curb ramp designs) require features for the visually impaired as well as the physically challenged.
- Simply installing ramps is not good enough.
- The law defers to local officials to determine what makes a reasonable accommodation. This is open to many angles of interpretation.
- If no one has raised issues with a community’s ADA accessibility to date, the door is still open for future lawsuits.
- Local advocacy groups can be an important partner in successful ADA compliance projects.
- Trusted experts can help define “reasonable accommodations,” assisting all parties in coming to a satisfactory resolution.
2. There are no standard corners.
If a city’s standard drawing for curb ramps consists of one example, that particular design cannot possibly be correctly applied to each curb in that community. Trees, slope difference, signs, fire hydrants, inlets, utility poles, and other variables will affect the design of a curb ramp for that particular location.
Many cities around the United States have recognized the uniqueness of curbs and have created several standard drawings (Columbus has 13) to categorize different varieties of curb ramps for application on a case-by-case basis. Each of Columbus’ 13 standard drawings is used for guidance only. When the time comes to create a curb ramp, the chosen standard drawing is modified in the field to fit that particular need. Remember, curb ramps consist of a ramp, landing and flares, each having specified cross-slopes and running slopes. One without the other leads to non-compliance. By treating each project as unique, engineers and city officials can build upon past experiences and continually improve accessibility for all ADA compliance projects.
3. Educate the entire team before an ADA compliance undertaking.
One main culprit in unsuccessful ADA compliance projects is disconnect among involved parties. While the city engineer may be well-read on ADA compliance, such knowledge may not translate through to the design engineer, contractor and inspectors. Before embarking on a compliance project, invest in an ADA compliance training course for your team. They exist, and they provide valuable knowledge on specifically what makes a specific project ADA compliant. Starting an ADA compliance project with all players having the same knowledge can help reduce questions and variances as the design and installation move forward. If everyone on the team has the same compliance goal, mistakes are difficult to miss and a successful outcome is highly likely. For projects in question, utilizing ADA advocacy groups as a partner in any project will help ensure a successful end result. Bringing them into the project as early as possible prevents potential pitfalls as the project is completed.
4. Keep ADA a high priority, regardless of the project.
Curb ramps are only one example of how the ADA impacts the public domain. For any project, it pays to have complete understanding of the ADA’s policy on that particular feature before design, planning and execution. Finally, treat every project as unique. As there are no exactly the-same corners in the world of curb ramps, each project is its own. By thoroughly researching similar previous projects, one can learn from mistakes, take positive examples, and create a guide for moving forward. Remembering the uniqueness of each, and following the above reminders can create a method that saves design flaws, and ultimately resources in the future.
Common Mistakes to ADA Compliance
- ADA Compliance (and curb ramp designs) are different for persons with disabilities and persons with visual impairments.
- Simply installing ramps is not good enough
- There are no standard corners. Treat each project as unique and build upon past experiences and continually improve accessibility for all ADA compliance projects.
Challenges to ADA Compliance
- The law defers to local officials to determine what makes a “reasonable accommodation”. This is open to many areas of interpretation.
- If no one has raised issues with a community’s ADA accessibility to date, the door is still open for future lawsuits.
- One main culprit in unsuccessful ADA compliance is disconnect among involved parties.
Keys to Success
- Remember the uniqueness of each project can create a method that saves design flaws and resources
- Utilize ADA advocacy groups as a partner in any project will help ensure a successful end result. Bringing them to the project early prevents potential pitfalls.
- Invest in educating all team members in ADA compliance.
Implement an ADA Training Program
- Educate the entire team before undertaking an ADA compliance project
- An ADA compliance training course provides valuable knowledge about how to make a specific project ADA compliant.
- Starting an ADA compliance project with all players having the same knowledge can help reduce questions and variances as the project moves forward.
Partnering with ADA Advocacy Organizations
- Utilizing ADA advocacy groups as a partner in any project will help ensure a successful end result.
- Bringing them into the project as early as possible prevents potential pitfalls as the project is completed.
- These experts can help define “reasonable accommodations” and assist all parties in developing a satisfactory resolution.
ADA Advocacy Organizations
- • National Organization on Disability
- • National Council on Independent Living
- • The Arc of the United States
- • American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today
- • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
- • Access-Able Travel Source