Many years ago, a colleague complained to me about how demanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) design requirements were, as well as expensive and time-consuming. She saw very little benefit in them since they did not benefit her directly at the time. However, a few years later, she had enough character to admit she was wrong once her mother needed to use a wheelchair; suddenly, she appreciated all the ramps, bathroom facilities, etc., which helped her mother enjoy being outside, as well as being able to travel and continue visiting parks, museums, and other recreational sites. And even though the ADA requirements have been around for a few decades, it is interesting how some still consider them excessive.
As civil engineers, we have to ensure that much of the construction work we design for the built environment has to be accessible for everyone, which means not just for people with mobility constraints, but parents with kids in strollers, the elderly, and others who need a bit more help. And even if you feel that sometimes the ADA requirements go too far, the reality is that they are here to stay and, therefore, as engineers, we have the opportunity to be creative, innovative, and effective in applying ADA standards. For example, I am currently working on various park projects throughout the City. I have found that the ADA standard is not only helpful for people in wheelchairs but also for young children, such as designing planter boxes. When designed and built at a lower level, people in wheelchairs can water and maintain the planters, but so can smaller children; this provides a learning experience on how to be stewards of homegrown food and community gardens.
ADA standards provide a more inclusive design for various facilities, such as schools, malls, or even City parks, and also in State and National Parks, which provide access to community members who previously would not have been able to enjoy such impressive outdoor landmarks. Also, providing access to everyone means that people with mobility issues can work and contribute to our economy and the collective social fabric of our communities. And this is a measure of our civility and sense of fairness, which is an important part of our national identity.
Additionally, since sustainability incorporates social equity, environmental protection, and economic viability, inclusivity through ADA standards is as essential as any other sustainability measure. And this is because designing for ADA access, for example, provides people the independence they need to move around under their power instead of requiring special vehicles, vertical transportation, and other facilities that are not as sustainable. Furthermore, sustainable materials can be used for ADA-compliant facilities just as easily as for non-compliant facilities. For example, ADA ramps can be built from composite, porous, or other more eco-friendly materials. And this is part of the innovation and creativity that civil engineers can bring to any construction project.