Newsletter | Sep/Oct 2004

Obligations to Persons with Disabilities
by Gilda Puente-Peters

Are Design Professionals, Contractors and Building Officials fulfilling their obligations to insure Access to Persons with Disabilities within the Built Environment?

More than 40 years have gone by since the first accessibility standards were in place and we still see new and remodeled buildings and facilities constructed that do not provide the required accessibility for persons with disabilities. Because of these failures, the projects are in violation of their civil rights. Since 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights regulation has required that persons with disabilities have the same right as the general public to full use of public transportation, public buildings, facilities, streets, sidewalks, walkways, as well as access to their programs, services and activities.

Since 1985 I started practicing architecture in California and I have observed a lack of appropriate code compliance and enforcement regarding accessibility regulations by both the design, construction and permitting communities. There is definitely a systemic problem, that the entire construction industry is not addressing as it should be the issue of providing access to building and facilities. Architects are not complying in their designs with all the applicable accessibility codes and regulations, building departments are failing to adequately enforce the regulations, plan reviewers are approving plans with code violations, field inspectors are not findings the errors and omissions in the field and contractors are also failing to comply and deliver buildings that are accessible to all.

Recently you may have seen a number of news stories regarding lawsuits against cities and counties in California because of the lack enforcement of accessibility codes and regulations. The Attorney General's Office filed these lawsuits due to the numerous complaints from the disability community. Part of those lawsuits settlement agreements require those public entities to provide training about accessibility codes and regulations to their staff as well as requiring to review their internal policies and procedures to insure compliance. These policies must include a method to evaluate and monitor staff performance in a regular basis and provide on-going accessibility code training.

Due to this lack of compliance, the Division of the State Architect (DSA) has developed a statewide accessibility code-training program. The goal of this training is to help assure a consistency of code interpretation and enforcement. The initial training system was developed for plan reviewers in response to the recognized need for clear and more effective accessibility codes. The training is based on the DSA Plan Review Checklist, which is part of the DSA Access Compliance Reference Manual. If you are interested you can see one aspect of this training that can be found at the following website:

Additionally with the passage of Senate Bill 262, the State is currently working in the development of a certification program for design professionals as well as qualified disabled access specialists.

During the past three months I (Gilda Puente-Peters, Architects, Universal Design Specialists, have been providing comprehensive accessibility code compliance training to 70 building officials, plan reviewers and field inspectors of Contra Costa County. This is the first pilot project training using the 25 section training system developed for the Division of the State Architect by several consultants including myself.

As you can see, there is the need not only to provide disabled access training at all levels, but most of all to change the attitude throughout the industry regarding access compliance. When you are involved in a project, have you ever look at it from the perspective of "Universal Design" as it should be? Universal Design entails planning for a broad range of users, with all kind of abilities. The design solutions should be simple, intuitive and easy to use with low physical effort. Accessibility codes and regulations benefit all of us throughout our life span from birth to dead. Mothers with strollers, delivery people benefit from having curb ramps and ramps, people with temporary disabilities and the aging population benefit from having handrails and elevators, and all of us benefit from having way-finding systems and a friendlier and more functional environment.

It is important to realize the great responsibility of our role as professionals in shaping the built environment and the effect it can have in our communities. In order for change to take place specially one as complex as the needs of the disability community, we the professionals in the design and construction industry as well as the enforcing agencies must recognize that there is not only the need to have appropriate access code training at all levels, but also accept the need to change the attitude throughout our community to a more positive one about disability access. Please consider embracing and giving disabled access compliance a priority by incorporating it in our daily practice.