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Accessibility: How Much is Too Much?

This Katrina Cottage model, designed by Miami architect Stephen Mouzon for a USA Weekend magazine contest,
uses a switchback ramp to allow wheelchair users access to the front porch. (A handrail was added
to the ramp after this photo was taken.) Photo by Stephen A. Mouzon

Lois Slade lives in Concrete, Wash., a small town of roughly 850 souls. Every morning she rises and, even though she'll turn 90 this October, she heads out the door in her motorized wheelchair and rolls along at 3 mph toward downtown.

"I stop at the Cottage Café downtown to have my coffee and visit with friends," Lois says. "Then I visit the Eagles building and have coffee and popcorn. There are more friends there to visit, which is nice, because I like people and enjoy talking with them. Then I come home, take a nap and watch a little TV."

Lois' simple daily agenda has one wrinkle in it: To reach Concrete's traditional downtown district, she must either cross Highway 20 -- a two-way highway signed for 35 mph (guess how fast drivers really travel) -- and make her way along a "terribly bumpy" sidewalk, or turn onto Highway 20 and drive along it for roughly half a mile till she reaches a newer, smooth road that leads her to wheelchair-friendly downtown Concrete, whose streets and sidewalks were recently refinished.

A fixture in town, Lois is used to the stares from motorists and waves from motorcyclists as she rolls along Highway 20. She's fearless and social, bent on meeting with her friends in town because, quite frankly, she's hard-pressed to visit them in their own homes.

Why? Because, although Lois' small apartment suits her well, with enough room to maneuver her electric steed, her friends' houses are far less accommodating. "I can't get into a lot of my friends' homes, because there's no ramp," she says. "So I just meet them downtown."

In that simple statement swirls a world of controversy for new urbanist practitioners and accessibility advocates, who continue to lock horns over how much accessibility is acceptable, and if absolute "visitability" spells the salvation of millions of wheelchair users and other persons with disabilities at the expense of urban building forms that have been around for centuries.

Arguably the most outspoken critic of visitability positions, Andrés Duany, a principal of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, minces few words when laying out his concerns with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and hardline evangelists of visitability concepts.

"The ADA does not have an administrative mechanism, it is administered by lawsuit -- not by bureaucracy, which is terrifying, because the inspectors don't have to catch anything in the design stage. So because it is very often not in black and white, it terrorizes architects out of making the highest possible tradition."

That lawsuit component associated with the ADA is what's most chilling for developers and builders, says R. John Anderson, vice president of design for New Urban Builders in Chico, Calif. "There's an immediate structural problem with federal accessibility legislation: It's civil rights legislation, enforced by someone suing you. If you're a builder, the best-case scenario if you run afoul of the ADA is that when a suit is brought against you, your liability insurance gets dumped. Next, you go to federal court and defend yourself at your own cost against an advocacy group or the federal government. If you win, you go home and try to resurrect your reputation and piece your life back together and go on, and try to get your liability insurance again."

Good luck with that.

With regard to the demands of accessibility advocates, Anderson is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "You have people talking about zero-step entry being incorporated into new urbanist buildings. As advocacy for this becomes more strident and militant, I sincerely don't believe that it will stop at zero-step entry at the side or rear. All you need is a couple of good court cases where someone says sending people to the back of a building is disrespectful, and now you've eliminated close-frontage townhouses -- good urbanism is no longer available to you."

For Duany and other new urbanists, the ADA is not an unreasonable law; larger commercial buildings or apartment clusters should be accessible, they say. But that same law also spells death for smaller buildings, says Duany.

"The worst thing the ADA does is it eliminates small apartment buildings and other small buildings. Medium-sized buildings that are the fine grain of urbanism are eradicated, because once you have to pay for an elevator, your building has to become very large in order to recoup your costs."

Visitability is even more of a hot-button issue with Duany, because, while the ADA doesn't apply to single-family houses, "visitability says that every single dwelling has to be accessible," he says. "If it's raised, it has to have a ramp in front. But that ramp in front prevents urbanism! The houses in New Orleans, for example, have to be raised. So what they're doing is eradicating the urban dwelling. It's draconian. We will end up with a nation of ranch houses with deep setbacks, and large apartment buildings with nothing in between."

That's the kind of environment to which new urbanists are trying to provide an alternative, says Kevin Klinkenberg, a principal of 180º Urban Design + Architecture, in Kansas City, Mo. "New urbanists are trying to create communities where everybody can get out and get around. And yet we're hammered relentlessly by the visitability camp, as if somehow we're trying to make their lives harder.

"Nothing couldn't be further from the truth. We're designing neighborhoods that make a large attempt to integrate everybody, but the accessibility advocates are going out and suing those projects that are trying to make life better for everybody. All that does is discourage people from trying to create those places. Maybe they should sue the sprawl crap, where nobody has an option for getting around."

This raised lateral walk in Portland, Ore., suggests one approach to accessibility
in an urban condo or apartment context. Photo by Bruce F. Donnelly

Kristi Thomas helps businesses avoid those lawsuits. A former stand-up comedian, she knows how to take a flammable topic and make it palatable, even entertaining. Thomas the president and CEO of Accessology, Inc. ( a Texas-based firm that helps other companies comply with disability regulations, such as the ADA, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), and the Air Carrier Access Act, the airline version of ADA.

Thomas sees much of the struggle between the two camps as little more than a state of mind -- one that can, and should, be changed. "The mentality is 'we have do this stuff or we're going to get sued.' I'm trying to change that mentality to 'how do we do this stuff and turn it into a marketing advantage?'

One of Thomas' favorite examples of this paradigm shift is the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) International Terminal D, a brand-new, $2 million airline terminal project for which Accessology served as a consultant. To help inform the project's designers, Thomas created an advisory board made up of people with disabilities, including a blind woman who traveled frequently.

The blind woman's suggestions to help her navigate the terminal proved invaluable and cost-effective. "I just need clues," she said. "Change the flooring material in front of the gates, for example, so I can count the changes to reach my gate."

The DFW placed 25-ft. circular medallions made of mosaic tile in front of the gates, a material change from the smooth, regular tile used everywhere else. Now, when a blind person's cane taps the mosaic tile and senses the new texture and sound, they know they're at a new gate.

"Why not take that concept everywhere?" asks Thomas. "Restaurants, for example, can switch from carpet to tile in key areas, men's room can always be on the left, women's on the right, etc. Access by design: It's brilliant.

"The DFW design team was recognized for international awards. The owners were recognized for allowing the design team to go above and beyond, even though changing the flooring didn't cost any more; it was just using the money smarter. When people start looking at access that way, then it becomes a fun challenge.

"I think if we got people thinking along those lines, we wouldn't have these arguments. People would see an opportunity to do things better. People get into architecture because they have a passion for creation and development. This gives them an opportunity to solve the problems that others are trying to avoid."

But new urbanists are still avoiding of the accessibility issue, says Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change (, based in Decatur, Ga. "The main thing they're getting wrong is not paying attention to the issue at all or making an effort to understand it. That's a big generalization, but it's mostly true. It's much simpler a concept than the vast majority of the concepts that they're putting out and teaching in great detail. It's not hard to understand; it's that they haven't applied themselves to the extreme simplicity of it and, by and large, they're not taking it seriously."

Concrete Change understands that it's not practical to retrofit old houses with basic access features, says Smith, but sees no reason why new houses cannot have "basic access features" included just as they now have plumbing and electricity.

So what are these basic access features? Smith lists them:

One zero-step entrance on an accessible route, at the back or front of the house, or through the garage.

32 inches of clear passage space for all interior doorways.

A half-bath on the main floor, with some maneuvering room. "We don't necessarily advocate a 5-ft. turning circle," says Smith.

That's it? So what's the problem? The problem with the new urbanists is that a large proportion of them seem to be willfully ignorant of the accessibility equation, says Smith. "They could become well informed in 30 minutes," she says.

"There are some situations where it's literally impractical to create a zero-step entrance; those situations should be skipped. But a great portion of the time, you can have your cake and eat it too, if you were designing with access in mind. You could have your welcoming porch and your zero-step entrance to the side, or the rear, or even the side of the porch. But, generally speaking, I'm not seeing the New Urbanists put that into practice; rather, they are declining to take the opportunity to learn this.

If you're going to build these communities and say they're good for all people, and then you provide only one housing type in which they can live comfortably, that doesn't make sense, especially when it's possible to create basic access in most housing types."

While the rhetoric can reach fever-pitch levels on both sides of the discussion, most people in both camps are fans of compromise. Marianne Cusato, the New York designer who created one of the popular Katrina Cottage designs, cautions against an "all or nothing" mentality.

"You can't boil design down to one issue. You can't deal with it if you're only focused on your own issue, and disregard all other issues. There's no silver bullet for house design. There are formulas that work for many, but when you go to one single interest group and design entire communities around that interest, you lose all the other interests.

"It's all about balance and it's needed everywhere. Suburbia focused only on cars and forgot the pedestrian. Look where it got us. When we look only at one issue, quality of life is decreased."

Cusato isn't the only one to use the term "balance." Heidi Johnson-Wright, an attorney and wheelchair-user who lives in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Fla., takes an even-handed approach to the issue. "I'm not an extremist," she says. "I don't expect that everywhere I go, every home and building will be accessible. But some should be. People should have the opportunity to age in place. It's a matter of balance."

Johnson-Wright, along with her husband, New Towns contributor Steve Wright, took on the challenge of retrofitting their 1920s one-story home to accommodate her wheelchair and make it accessible. Their updates left the home's character intact, for the most part. A ramp leads from the sidewalk to the front door. Inside, snap-on extensions make light switches more manageable. Snap-on handles transform door handles into levers. And they lucked out with hall and doorway widths; all are wide enough to allow comfortable passage. And the bathroom is big enough, too.

But luck isn't something to lean on when designing new homes, especially those that are intended to accommodate owners with a variety of needs, from able-bodied to completely wheelchair-dependent. And even though, according to Eleanor Smith, only a small percentage of new urbanist practitioners are "paying attention" to the need for accessible buildings, that small percentage is turning out some good work.

In the "Ideas" category, Andrés Duany suggests that access ramps be located at the backs of structures that absolutely require it for urban design reasons, such as rowhouses. "Anywhere but the front," he says.

Duany also suggests a new ramp formula. Right now, the ADA-mandated slope is 1:12; that is, for every one foot of rise, 12 feet of horizontal run must be provided. But for a 3-ft. rise, Duany says, you need 36 feet of ramp, "so basically you can't rebuild New Orleans."

His formula would accelerate this, based on the distance from the door threshold to ground level. For a 3-ft. rise, 1:6 should be adequate. A 1:4 formula should work for a 1-ft. rise, because a wheelchair-user would be less likely to tire with a smaller rise. "The lower the rise, the more accelerated the ramp should be," says Duany. "That could be an incredibly good new urbanist contribution to this discussion."

About a year ago, Miami architect Steve Mouzon found himself stuck on the porch issue as he worked to design a Katrina Cottage model for a USA Weekend magazine contest. Encouraged by media expert Ben Brown to make the cottage visitable, Mouzon at first resisted. "I couldn't imagine lowering the porch to sidewalk level, for example, because the porch social dynamics don't work if you do that," says Mouzon. "I said I couldn't do it; it's geometry; it can't be done.

"But once I got my head around the thing, I came up with a solution for it that was so simple, I couldn't believe we hadn't conceived of it before. It was a 'duh' moment."

Mouzon's design (see photo) incorporates a ramp that uses the often under-utilized side yard space to switch back and rise to the level of the porch. Problem solved -- and Mouzon is filled with hope. "Now my position is, if we solved that situation, why is it that we can't solve some of these other challenges?"

Those other challenges include the zero-step entry, which, although not intrinsically problematic, must be executed properly in order to retain architectural and urban integrity. Ray Gindroz with Urban Design Associates (UDA) in Pittsburgh, Pa., reports that a Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) initiative is spearheading a pattern book that will focus on accessibility and visitability issues, including zero-step entries. "The idea is to get as many of that ideas that have been developed available to as many people as possible," says Gindroz. UDA, Torti Gallas and other firms will contribute design ideas for the pattern book, which as of press time had no firm release date.

This residential retrofitted ramp made of aircraft aluminum isn’t sloped at the
1:12 grade ADA demands of commercial buildings, but it
functions well for this older home in Miami, Fla. Photo by Steve Wright

For Kristi Thomas, the biggest problem in the accessibility debate is that many practitioners are looking at the issue as "something we have to do for those people."

"Who decides who those people are?" she asks. "Everyone knows someone in the disabled community, and frankly, everyone is one their way to becoming a member of the disabled community, to some degree. That's why the disabled community calls us TABS: temporarily able-bodied."

In 2000, the U.S. Census asked homeowners for the first time how many people with permanent disabilities were living in their home. The result was astonishing: 59 million people. While that number has been disputed, even a +/- 4 percent margin of error leaves "a demographic far too large to ignore," says Thomas.

It might be an interesting exercise for new urbanists to try an experiment that Thomas performs regularly. "We'll have a [client] spend a day in a wheelchair, trying to do everything they would normally do. The stories that come out of that always fascinate me. The people are never the same again; their entire view changes."

But even with the occasional "aha" moment, the rift between many new urbanists and the accessibility/visitability camp shows no sign of healing itself soon. That's unfortunate, says Laura Hall, with Hall Alminana Inc., in Santa Rosa, Calif. "New urbanists are generalists; we're the best at finding intersections of interests. We need to sit down and figure out how to create accessibility without degrading the public realm.

"My hope is to lock everyone in a room for a week-long charrette, do the pictures, the drawings, the walking (rolling?) tours -- a working session. Because everyone's entrenched, and the only way we can push through this is to get everyone in the same room where they have to stare down their opponents. If we can come up with solutions that meet affordability, accessibility, visitability, etc., then push that down to the local or state level at least, and have pattern books and rules, that will win a large part of the battle."


Version 8.0 of the SmartCode addresses visitability standards for Transect zones T3, T4 and T5 in Section 5.3.10, with the following language:

a. There shall be provided one zero-step entrance to each building from an accessible
path at the front, side, or rear of each building.

b. All first-floor interior doors (including bathrooms) shall provide 32 inches of clear

c. There shall be a half or full bath provided on the first Story of each building.