According to the Pew Center, roughly 40 million Americans self-identified as a person with a disability in 2015. Of those, over 20 million adults reported having “serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.” Approximately 11 million reported serious hearing impairments, while 7 million reported significant visual impairments.
Yet despite the vast number of persons with disabilities, surprisingly few law students have heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (“Guidelines”). The Guidelines include specific scoping and technical requirements, which strive to ensure that persons with disabilities can enjoy equal access to public facilities. They address everything from ATMS and alarms to ramps and toilet stalls. Other sections relate to restaurants and cafeterias, medical care facilities, libraries, courts, correctional facilities, etc.
By way of illustration, Section 4.4 relates to “protruding objects,” which are defined as “objects protruding from walls with their leading edges between 27 inches and 80 inches above the finished floor.” As shown below, such objects “may not protrude more than 4 inches into walks, halls, corridors, passageways, or aisles.”
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering how any of these exacting, and seemingly arbitrary, requirements have anything to do with prohibiting disability discrimination. You’re not alone. My quizzical students often wonder the same thing, which is why I incorporate a mock accessibility audit to bring disability law to life.
To prepare for the mock accessibility audit, students complete reading on Title III of the ADA, which prohibits disability discrimination in public accommodations like restaurants and shopping malls. I also encourage students to “skim” the Guidelines, which are far too dense to assign as reading. Yet learning the black letter law and skimming the Guidelines are not enough to illuminate why these protections are necessary and how they ensure that persons with disabilities can have equal access and enjoyment of public facilities.
That’s where the mock accessibility audit comes in. I write one provision from the Guidelines on each slip of paper. One slip may include doors or parking spaces, while another may address water fountains or signage. At the end of our Title III class and after briefly introducing the Guidelines, I ask each student to draw one slip of paper. That is their assigned provision. Their homework assignment for the next class is to read that specific provision carefully and develop an accessibility checklist for the requirements necessary to comply with it. I advise them that they will be our subject matter expert on that specific provision and will lead the group during our audit in the next class.
The audit is fun but can be taxing because it requires the group to move efficiently throughout the law school, bending and measuring. So I encourage students to wear pants and comfortable shoes. I also ask them to bring enough copies of their checklist for the class as well as a pencil and paper for recording their observations and any note-taking.
At the outset of our next class, I provide students with our collective “ADA accessibility toolkit,” which I compile in advance. Among other things, it includes: (1) hand sanitizer; (2) plastic gloves; (3) a blindfold; (4) earplugs; (5) a wheelchair; (6) measuring tapes; and (7) one or more door pressure gauges, depending on class size. While most of these items can easily be purchased for next-to-nothing at the local dollar store, you’ll likely need to order the door pressure gauge a few weeks in advance from an online retailer like Amazon. Gauges range in price from $30 to $70. The gauge is used to determine whether the amount of force necessary to open a door is ADA-compliant. Fortunately, they’re small, lightweight, and easy to use.
After storing the students’ valuables in the safety of my locked office, our auditing adventure begins. Before class, I map out an efficient route that will provide the opportunities for students to encounter each of their various provisions – the accessible water fountain on the main level, the accessible unisex restroom on the third floor, the accessible parking spaces and doors near our courtyard, etc. We use the elevator to travel to these spaces, so we can consider the relevant elevator provisions like button height.
At each spot on our tour, the subject matter expert takes the lead in demonstrating how to conduct the measurement, measuring and recording it, and then explaining to the class whether or not it is ADA-compliant and why. As a facilitator, I supplement, correct, and assist students as necessary like a medical resident overseeing an intern.
After the subject matter expert concludes his or her oral analysis of ADA compliance, I lead a brief discussion with students regarding why the provision is necessary and what it protects. This aspect of the exercise is usually the most illuminating and intellectually rigorous because the Guidelines often do not expressly explain “why” they are necessary. Thus, students must think pragmatically to discern their underlying rationale.
In this regard, the wheelchair, earplugs, and blindfold in our toolkit prove particularly helpful because students take turns using these tools to simulate the experience of a person who is unable to walk or who suffers a visual or hearing impairment. For example, when studying the protruding objects provision mentioned above, a blindfolded student quickly demonstrated to the class why protruding objects pose a danger to persons with a visual impairment. (He nearly bumped into one, but his student guide warned him in time.) As the figure above illustrates, a blind person’s cane may be able to detect protruding objects on the ground but not up high, so absent the Guidelines, persons with visual impairments could seriously injure themselves by colliding with protruding objects. Likewise, the exposed pipes and mirror height provisions in the Guidelines didn’t make sense to students until a student in a wheelchair indicated that without them, she might burn her knees on the hot pipes under the sink or be unable to see her full face in the mirror. Similarly, many students are surprised at how much strength it takes to push open a door from a seated position in a wheelchair, so this reinforces why the Guidelines articulate the appropriate amount of door force necessary to do so.
To be clear, students do not take the exercise lightly. While it is fun to get outside the classroom and put legal doctrine into action, I impress upon students the seriousness and respectfulness with which they must undertake the exercise.
Student safety is also of paramount importance. Thus, to avoid injuries, students simulating a visual or hearing impairment are assigned a student guide to watch over them and prevent injury. Even this aspect of the exercise – being so vulnerable that you require outside assistance – often proves quite illuminating to students and fosters empathy.
When the class concludes, I assign students a written thought experiment, which invites them to reflect upon what they learned from the exercise and how it changed their perspective on disability law, if at all. Through the years, these reflections have consistently demonstrated that for most students, the mock accessibility audit is the most impactful exercise in the course. Course evaluations bolster this conclusion.
By incorporating a mock accessibility audit, students leave the course with an enriched understanding of the doctrine and more importantly, why it matters. Furthermore, many gain a deeper appreciation of and empathy for persons with disabilities and the way that the law can prevent, rather than react, to disability discrimination. For all of these reasons, the mock accessibility audit brings disability law to life.