Today, USA Architects held an in-house seminar and hands-on demonstration of the accessibility regulations.  Several of us spent time in a wheelchair, attempting to navigate around our office.  The results were both awkward and eye opening. 

 Let me say that none of us here at the office have spent time in a wheelchair, but that does not mean that someday we might not have to, either temporarily or permanently.  While we were focusing on being wheelchair bound, the regulations are in place to also address others that may be disabled in other terms.  It could mean you are on crutches, have an arm in a sling or have other physical disabilities that limit your mobility and functioning.

 First, the five foot turning radius (which I am dubbing the “circle of death”) is virtually impossible to navigate.  Many attempted to achieve this and found that keeping within the radius a difficult task.  Most of us truly formed more of an ‘oval’ when attempting this maneuver.  Remember, this is the minimum recommended turning radius floor space.

 Maneuvering hallways and turns was a little less challenging, but some had a hard time running a straight line, bumping into walls and other obstructions along the way.  It reminded me of the bumper car rides at amusement parks.  Moving through the doorways (with the doors open) even presented challenges with a standard width wheelchair (27” +/-).  With the minimum clearances at doorways of 32” this only leaves a 2-1/2” clearance on each side for fingers, elbows and arms.  I know that the oversized units would be impossible to use under these circumstances.

 Our office entrance from the elevator lobby is a double door with levers on the lobby side, closers and panic hardware on the inside.  The ability to manipulate the lever, open the door far enough, all while keeping the wheelchair stable gave most of us a problem.  From the inside, using the panic hardware, again while maintaining the wheelchair still, and getting through the door was difficult.  These were all attempted while positioning the minimum side clearances.

While our kitchen is fairly spacious, no one could access the sink (not designed for accessibility).  With a table and chairs, getting to the refrigerator and opening it was a challenge.  And, the wall cabinets were just out of reach.

One person in our group attempted to move into a cubicle to simulate working.  The computer keyboard, located on an articulating arm below the work surface, did not allow clearance underneath.  This also did not allow close enough access the telephone and much of the working surface.  Turning the computer on and off was impossible.

 I was the one to access the bathrooms.  I found that pulling up to the urinal, just would not be close enough to take care of business.  I also realized that to access the accessible toilet stall, required backing in, a real challenge while opening the stall door (I think back-up mirrors are necessary for this).  Once inside the stall I realized that I probably would not be able to make the transfer, let alone ‘drop my drawers’ in the process.  I think that you may need to plan ahead due the extra time involved in getting into “position.”

 The elevator in our building was easy to access, however, once inside, I found myself having to make the turn-around through a series of maneuvers.  I cannot imagine what it would have been like with more than one person accompanying me.

One last item to note is doorway thresholds.  They became a real challenge, especially into the bathroom, where a transition from carpet to ceramic tile had a marble threshold.  Opening a door with a closer, while overcoming the threshold, and maneuvering the chair through the doorway, gave me a greater appreciation of the challenges people confined to a wheelchair have to overcome.

 I think the wheelchair we were using needed some mechanical work, as it pulled slightly to the left.  A full alignment and brake check is probably in order as well as a replacement of the wheel bearings.  Is there a wheelchair repair garage out there?  Do they offer loaners?  I can say this was exhausting and truly limits mobility as we (mostly) normal people participated in this event.

Remember, the regulations are minimums!  So, next time your client asks about accessibility perhaps you should have them do this exercise.  I truly believe their questions would be answered.


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