You know who you are. You can’t deny it. It is obvious to everyone. You are step-aholics. Those who build steps when there is absolutely no reason to do so. Those who will make what could be accessible to everyone inaccessible to those of us who use wheelchairs. It may well be a disease. And you may well need treatment.
But, for some reason, we must have steps. And we certainly must think they are really cool because they are everywhere. They are in stores. There are in restaurants. They are in movie theaters. There are the in front of the Capitol building of the United States, where ADAPT protesters once got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps to demonstrate inaccessibility in order to get the ADA enacted.
These freaking things are everywhere. And for some reason, we keep building them.
It has always been CCDC’s argument that when a building is renovated or built brand-new, the ADA says it must be accessible. This seems pretty obvious. But does the law even matter here? I’m really trying to get at what makes steps so cool?
Take houses for example. If you live in a house (and you or a family member does not use a wheelchair) it probably has steps. Lots of them. This might make sense if you’re talking about getting to the second story or the basement. But your house probably has steps at the front door. It probably has steps out the back door. It probably even has steps into the garage. You couldn’t live without these, right?
But what if instead of all the steps, there were ramps? Or (pardon the radicalness of this idea), what if there were flat, level entries? Obviously, you would not know how to survive. You couldn’t handle this. I mean, how would you go about your daily life?
The truth is accessibility for everyone makes everyone’s life easier. For example, have you ever tried to move a washer and dryer in or out of a house? How about a sofa? Or a king-size bed? If you have a ramp or a flat, level entry, these things are much easier to accomplish than if you have steps.
Beyond that, aren’t steps really just a trip hazard? Think of all the things your brain has to go through to ensure that your body does the right thing when you have to walk up or down steps. Anyone who has ever taken a tumble up or down stairs knows what I’m talking about.
With respect to houses, in the United States, the vast majority of people use wheelchairs are pretty much cut off from using anyone’s house unless measures are taken to provide some form of temporary access. It is true we have the Fair Housing Act, which covers some multi-family dwellings (apartments and some condominiums), but single-family homes, or houses, what most people (non-lawyers) call them, are not required to be accessible at all.
There are a few cities and states, and even the United Kingdom, that have developed laws pertaining to houses, but many of these are tied to whether the homes are built using public funds. Even those places where some accessibility has been provided, houses are what is known as “visitable,” and not truly accessible. I invite you to visit Concrete Change
to see what efforts are being taken to fix this problem. Strangely, in the United States, where we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, we do not have a universal law that allows people to get into other people’s houses. When you think about the amount of activity that families, associates, colleagues and friends have going on inside of their homes, you begin to realize the level of exclusion people who use wheelchairs experience in their everyday lives, in part, because of our addiction to steps.
But at least our laws touch on this in some respect. The ADA, the Fair Housing Act and some other laws require a certain level of accessibility for everybody, including those of us who use wheelchairs. For example, the ADA requires that for places of public accommodation and public buildings that when they are renovated or altered or built new, they must be “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” including those who use wheelchairs. The ADA also defines unlawful discrimination in many ways that mean building steps that prevent people who use wheelchairs from gaining access is illegal. Unlawful discrimination includes a “denial of participation” and requiring people with disabilities to participate in an “unequal,” “different” or a “separate” benefit. The ADA requires that goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations shall be afforded to an individual with a disability “in the most integrated setting.” All of this language of the ADA makes it clear people who use wheelchairs should be able to do and go where everyone goes. A favorite bumper sticker among activists says, “The ADA: To boldly go where everyone else has gone before.” But it has not happened yet.
The ADA goes behind these broader pronouncements in the statute. There is a whole body of regulations that set forth the requirements when a builder renovates or designs and constructs a building. Currently these are the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design, issued by the United States Department of Justice. Among many other requirements for access are the following:
Each facility or part of a facility constructed by, on behalf of, or for the use of [the public] shall be designed and constructed in such manner that the facility or part of the facility is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities[.]
Each facility or part of a facility altered . . . shall, to the maximum extent feasible, be altered in such manner that the altered portion of the facility is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities[.]
That sure sounds like it covers everything, doesn’t it?
To be sure, there are some exceptions to what must be completely accessible. But these exceptions are clearly defined and are very limited. For example, the 2010 Standards exempt “Areas raised primarily for purposes of security, life safety, or fire safety, including but not limited to, observation or lookout galleries, prison guard towers, fire towers, or life guard stands.” Okay. Also exempt are, “Raised structures used solely for refereeing, judging, or scoring a sport.” Alright. Raised boxing or wrestling rings and raised diving boards and diving platforms are also not required to comply with the ADA, but other than that, it sounds like everything else should be covered.
An analysis under the 2010 Standards starts with the requirement that all spaces must be accessible unless specifically exempted. 2010 Standards, § 201.1. The advisory note to Section 201.1 states that “[t]hese requirements are to be applied to all areas of a facility unless exempted . . . .” 2010 Standards, § 201.1 (Advisory). Moreover, where a space contains more than one use, “each portion shall comply with the applicable requirements for that use.” 2010 Standards, § 201.2.
The point is there are very few exceptions to what should be made accessible to people use wheelchairs in locations open for public use. So why do we keep seeing inaccessible main entrances, inaccessible raised dining areas, inaccessible spaces in public buildings? Why do they feel the need to continue to exclude us?
I can only attribute it to step-aholics. No matter what the law says, no matter what would make life easier for all people, and no matter what simply makes sense, some folks are addicted to building steps. Because it appears to be an addiction, I would suggest there might be a cure. Unlike most addiction programs, however, I would not suggest a “12 step program” in the process of your recovery. Instead, I would suggest a no step program.
Get over it. They are not that cool.