Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Handicap Issues and Buildings

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My father spent his last years in a wheelchair, living in his own house, that was not upgraded to his severe condition. He usually complained he couldn´t enter the bathroom without hurting his knuckles, as there is a pocket door in the bathroom in first floor, and it cannot be completely embedded inside the wall. And one day, he went too fast to the small ramp from the patio to the garden, and he fell down. Of course, the house was not under ADA code. A person that had a heart attack is a common problem in a house. When the affected person cannot go to the bedroom in 2nd floor, a bedroom had to be improvised on first floor. So, I usually suggested in a new house design, to have an extra room –if possible- like a family room or studio, and if something happened, there was an extra accessible bedroom.

Sometimes, a building can be upgraded completely for handicap, sometimes not.

The main complications I´ve seen, when the handicap requirements became an obligation in Argentina, long years ago, were in commercial buildings. The new ramps were so long, that would never fit in some places. You don´t make them work, you couldn´t approve fire department. So, I spent long hours discussing with the fire fighters how to remodel buildings accesses, some suggestions were ridiculous, and they never took into account that sometimes there is no money to cover the remodels.

Anyway, handicap improvements are really important, accessibility has to be provided for everybody. But, the Codes fail in considering there are different degrees of disability. For example, I was a consultant for schools construction conditions in Buenos Aires, and I remember one school for blind people was accessible –let´s say for wheelchairs- they have the Braille signs, obviously, but colors were plain and there were no textures on the walls, no special sound to guide those who are not completely blind. I asked the principal about it, and she answered ¨It never occurred to us.¨ It is that the architect never told them about some minor helpful tips.

An obese person is a handicap. An Argentine obese actor, told once in an interview that he could not pass through the subways controls, they were too narrow. Seats, are another example. A pregnant woman is a short time handicap, and so on.

So many issues, I think buildings cannot cover all level of disabilities, and this is not enough reason for plan checkers to say some designs show ¨discrimination¨. But, what is not specifically written in the Codes, should be analyzed by the architects. It is our obligation to provide all the elements needed to make the handicap´s life easier, without becoming silly in our effort.

Let´s see a case a contractor showed me today: in a commercial building in California, of approximately 4000 sq ft, two stories, you can add an elevator or, if not, make the second story absolutely accessible, like the first story. My question, if the handicap is on a wheelchair (and that´s the bathrooms requirements, the use of a wheelchair), how could a handicap access to the bathrooms in second story without an elevator? In other words, what´s the purpose of two stories with ADA design if there is no way to go to the 2nd floor, unless somebody carries the handicap in arms? I had an identical case, but even worst, in the City of Hemet. The plan checker said to me, that I was discriminating with such an argument. He said directly, or you do what I´m telling you or you´ll never approve the plans. And I asked him, if we have sewer machines in first floor and second floor, how could he expect that somebody in a wheelchair, or blind could use a type of sewer machine that needs of all our limbs? It means that, for some type of jobs, a handicap would never be hired, and this is not discrimination, this is that there is no way to resolve these problems, at least for now, with the technology we have available right now, like the example of sewers machines that have a foot pedal below.

Björk, a shot from Dancer in the Dark. From
Another example, the movie ¨Dancer in the Dark¨, with Björk. How can a person, almost blind, work with a very dangerous machine? Do we need handicap bathrooms in the building of the movie? No, only in the administration area. So please, plan checkers, do not be blind yourselves in the interpretation of the Building Code.

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