Firm Assess ADA Compliance

October 10, 2003
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GRANDVILLE — It's a fairy tale, plain and simple. Architects are not responsible for ensuring that a building meets the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for Accessible Design. Meeting that certainty rests solely with building owners.

"When I do a study, I insist on doing it for the owner because the owner is responsible," said Don Strock of DHS Associates Inc., a Grandville firm that assesses buildings for compliance with the ADA law.

"That's a myth," he added about the misconception that architects are liable for a structure's legal conformity.

"The owner is ultimately responsible. When I talk with owners they've told me that they weren't aware of that, and it's a fact."

For the past two years, DHS has evaluated buildings throughout the state for ADA compliance. And as far as Strock knows — and his clients have discovered — his firm is the only one in Michigan that performs this service.

"That's correct, to the extent that I do it. I'm not familiar with any other ones, but that's not to say there isn't (another)," said Strock.

Strock was steered in the ADA direction five years ago when a close friend asked him to perform a due diligence on the interior signage of a building that his friend was thinking of buying. Braille and tactile signs were part of the signage.

The sale didn't go through, but that appraisal ignited Strock's interest in issues of ADA compatibility.

After that job, others in the design field began to ask him questions about the 1990 law, and one even suggested that he become a consultant because he knew the act inside and out.

"I carried one with me. It's not that heavy," said Strock of the federal statute.

"A light went on. I should have thought about it before, but from that point on I took it upon myself to dissect the law."

After learning the ins and outs of ADA compliance, Strock created a questionnaire that he uses to evaluate buildings.

The questionnaire is about as detailed as one can get. It's 99 pages and contains 798 questions that need to be answered to determine how closely a building complies with federal regulations.

Strock's evaluation is confidential and inclusive, and it can also reveal the difficulty that owners face in meeting all the standards.

For example, an architect can correctly design a drinking water station in a building for someone in a wheelchair or for someone who has trouble bending forward. Once in place, the fountain can pass tests for height, knee space and wheelchair approach — all part of the analysis.

But it can still be out of conformance with ADA regulations.

"Because of the depth of the fountain that they've installed, it becomes a protruding object for blind people," said Strock.

Strock's reports are just as classified and complete as his questionnaires.

A typical final report covers 28 individual elements such as stairwells, elevators, doors and ramps, and is color-coded to highlight which meet the law and which don't.

Jim Kelm actually writes the reports from Strock's findings.

Strock hired Kelm this past summer, when he was tied up doing evaluations. Kelm has a disability. He is blind.

But he still manages to produce the multi-colored, multi-faceted final reports that are vital to DHS Associates.

Strock told the Business Journal that he wants to grow his business so he can put more disabled persons on his payroll.

During his tenure of appraising buildings, the code infringement that Strock has come across most often is a lack of van-accessible parking spaces.

He said most lots have the correct number of handicapped spaces, as outlined by ADA, but few have van-accessible spaces. The law mandates that one of every eight handicapped spaces must meet this requirement. But it also requires that there can't be less than one van-accessible space.

"It's very rare that I find a van-accessible space in a parking lot and the statute says there has to be one, even if there is only one handicapped space," said Strock.

Strock finds it somewhat puzzling that buildings are inspected for things like electrical and fire safety, but not for ADA compliance.

He feels that the law is a good one with good intentions to limit discrimination against disabled persons. But he also feels that the statute's enforcement agency, the Department of Justice, has too many things on its plate to properly monitor everyday accessibility.

"There is no enforcing body, if you will.

"The only way this comes to anyone's attention is if a disabled person complains," he said. "That's a shame, but that's the only way it ever comes to anybody's attention."

Strock's friends and clients have called him a champion for the disabled, a title that he accepts.

He said he has a deeply seated desire to see buildings comply with the standards, but noted in his low-key manner that he hasn't found one yet that does.

"I don't throw stones, but I've never found a new building that complies. I base my report on zero tolerance and I've never found a building that complies," he said.

"I don't interpret anything. This is a black-and-white statute. This is the way it has to be."

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