Last year I penned a fictional "Open letter to my contractor friends". The point of the blog post was to speak of unity and the importance of collaboration between our two fields. The conclusion / punchline of the post was a particular set of nonsensical pool stairs I had came across at a pool at Lockhart State Park. I told contractors that if, "Your reading of the drawings implies that a set of steps going into a pool starts above the top edge of the pool and stops before it reaches the bottom, maybe next time you could give me a call and we could figure it out before the concrete hardens." My assumption, of course, was that the stair was built in error.
The error, however, was mine.
The pool stairs I had come across were in fact a set of "pool transfer steps" designed and built to allow individuals in wheelchairs to safely enter and exit a pool. The stair in Lockhart closely adheres to the design guidelines stipulated in Section 1009.5 of the Texas Accessibility Standards.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a sweeping set of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990. As it pertains to architecture, this federal law required public and commercial spaces and the amenities they contain to be accessible to those with mobility and other impairments. If the ADA states generally what has to be done by law it is left up to local governments to determine exactly how it is to be done. In Texas, this is spelled out in a special set of codes called the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). The 215-page document that describes these standards includes Chapter 10 which addresses recreational facilities. Section 9.5 of that chapter describes the dimensional requirements for pool transfer steps in addition to other, more common means of achieving pool accessibility like ramps and pool lift arms. I happened to be looking up something for a project when I came across the section on pool transfer steps. I often have to look things up because, as demonstrated by the existence of pool transfer steps, accessibility requirements are sometimes nonintuitive.
To be perfectly honest, making a facility comply with accessibility standards can be a pain. It requires bathrooms to be larger, elevators to be added and in general it makes buildings more expensive to build. It could be argued that these increased costs are not worth it given that only a small portion of the population enjoy the benefits of an accessible building.
On the other hand, as a nation we are based on the idea of equality ("All men are created equal...", "We the people..." etc.) and so even though we may individually start life with different circumstances, abilities and disabilities, we do our best when we make our institutions - be it buildings, education or healthcare - truly accessible to everyone.