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Historic structure accessibility

  • 1.  Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 23 days ago
    Here is a link to an interesting article from the blog of the Universal Design Institute concerning issues relating to accessibility of an historic building in Norway. https://www.udinstitute.org/blog (Scroll down once you get there, the article is in three separate parts) The gist is that the building is important in the history of Norway, with an important event occurring on the second floor, which was not accessible to people with significant mobility impairments. Several solutions were examined, with the one I would have voted for being construction of a tower containing an elevator near, but separate from, the building, with a walkway from the tower to a window on the second floor. The window would have been enlarged to a door. This solution was rejected as being too obtrusive and too expensive.

    My opinion regarding accessibility and historic preservation is that accessibility takes priority, and as much historic integrity as possible should be preserved, given the solution that provides the most accessibility - not the other way round. In fact, I proposed a similar tower solution a few years ago to the Kentucky state government regarding second-floor accessibility of a famous state-operated historic home. In this case, unlike the building in Noway, the second floor was no more historically significant than the first, but my feeling is that all people should be able to experience an historic attraction, not just the able bodied. And being able to access the first floor and given a slide show of other floors is not sufficient. My proposal was rejected as being too obtrusive and too expensive.

    As for an exterior elevator tower being too obtrusive, I think a well-designed tower of this type is obviously not part of the historic structure, but does not detract from it. Observers readily differentiate it from the main structure and it becomes invisible. As for cost, in my opinion if we have funds to preserve, we have funds to preserve for everyone's benefit. We make decisions regarding the ways we spend public funds. It isn't that we don't have funds to make historic sites accessible, rather that we prioritize other projects as being more important. And, if we stopped giving tax breaks to the rich, we would have more public funds to do the things we need to do.

    But putting that aside, regarding accessibility of historic structures, I know my opinion is in the minority, but I would still like to hear yours.


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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 2.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 15 days ago
    Hi Jim,
    I totally agree for all the reasons you mention, that accessibility should be a major consideration in allowing all people to physically experience the historicity
    of locations that have been preserved for the public to see. It is a hard won battle though. Purist attitudes prevail that nothing should be changed that was originally part of the site in question. I totally disagree with that. Some wonderful solutions do exist however, that combine ADA and Universal Design. I have seen several well done projects in doing research for my Masters Thesis on Accessibility in Historic Structures. It does seem, however, that most importantly, attitudes need to change to realize that disability and accessibility are now a more visible and necessary standard of accommodation than ever in the past. I believe that the Secretary of the Interior Standards also need to change, not only to recognize accessibility for all, but to recognize other factors affecting the status of historic preservation today, i.e. energy, climate, cost, etc.
    Regards,
    Christa Vragel

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    Christa Vragel
    San Diego CA
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  • 3.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 14 days ago
    Hi Christa. That sounds like an interesting theses; I hope you will upload it to the library when it is finished. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 4.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 12 days ago
    I'm also interested in this topic, and Christa, in your thesis if it becomes available. I agree with both of you that accessibility is primary, including utilizing primary entrances wherever possible. I recently provided consulting services to a local nonprofit organization that purchased three vacant historic houses and is creating a campus for community programming and their offices. In order to achieve primary entrance accessibility, they linked the three houses with a ramp/deck. They also requested "major alterations" to change two doors to accommodate ADA universal design doorways and doors. The major alterations request was denied by the staff administratively but passed by the SLC HLC. In my mind, there should have been no question in such a minor trade-off for a major rehabilitation and revitalization success, but it was a strict interpretation of the Standards that nothing should be changed. Reasonableness thankfully prevailed in HLC interpretation allowing for the changes.

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    Kirk Huffaker
    Kirk Huffaker Preservation Strategies
    Salt Lake City UT
    (801)949-4040
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  • 5.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 11 days ago
    Hi Kirk. It seems to me in the situation you describe, where the houses will be used for offices and community programs, it should have been a no-brainer that ADA would apply and an accessible entrance would be required. But, even in the case of preservation that takes the form of house museums containing no administrative offices or community meeting rooms, it still seems to me that we have to ask the question "Preservation for whom?" The answer shouldn't be only for the able-bodied who are not too young and not too old.

    I look forward to sharing more ideas, opinions, and resources relating to accessibility and preservation.


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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 6.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 10 days ago

    Hello,

    I think this is an excellent conversation to which we could add a few layers for consideration. For example, a few years ago I worked with a group to create a feasibility study for a historic house. Upon brainstorming recommendations for the house's use, the topic of accessibility came to the fore. My architecture colleague reminded us, and helped our group fully understand, that accessibility isn't solely about accommodation, it is about the person's dignity as a human being equally deserving of full participation, and their right to do so unimpeded and without compromising their dignity as a human being. I think it is critical to keep this concept at the center of our discussion about accessibility in historic preservation, particularly in discussing how accessibility is implemented in practice.

    For instance, in terms of accommodating mobility impairments, many organizations who own historic buildings/sites (not all, as Kirk's example demonstrates) add (or are required to add as a compromise with their HLC/HPRB) ramps to the side or back of the location for persons with mobility impairments to use. Furthermore, as Jim's example shows, accessibility to certain interior spaces are limited or are not at all accommodative to persons with mobility impairments. In some cases, alternative or supplementary materials are provided to persons with mobility impairments (in many other cases, nothing is done). Do these types of accommodations value people with mobility impairments' dignity as a human being?

    Based on my experience as an African-American with living relatives who can relay the humiliation of entering public spaces from the rear; AND as a person who has experienced multiple historic tours with a middle-aged, close relative who had severe mobility impairments (and in those experiences: having to enter the historic building with them from the rear or side entrances (as if my relative were something that should not be seen), having had to watch that relative as they sat outside of the room/exhibit we were in on the tour because that space did not accommodate them, and having to feel the overall irritation from other tour group members (as well as the anxiety of tour guides of all ages) as a result of their perception that my family (due to my relative's mobility impairments) would slow down the tour and ruin the experiences of other able-bodied guests)-I do not believe that these types of accommodations value people with mobility impairments' dignity as a human being. I would also suggest that for both people with mobility impairments and their families, these accommodations (or lack thereof) prevents them from equitably experiencing and enjoying the historic building/site together, and that this compromises each's dignity as human beings and their right to equally participate, experience, and enjoy all the historic building/site has to offer.

    Another layer that I think is important to consider is how we identify issues of accessibility within historic preservation practice. Many times, the focus of the discussion on accessibility in historic preservation is centered on mobility (which I can understand, based on how this discussion has the potential to directly impact the material fabric of a historic building). However, in doing this, we tend to omit considerations and subsequent discussions on how people with other impairments (hearing, sight, neurological, etc.) are, or are not, able to equally participate, experience, and enjoy historic buildings/sites. For example, I have also experienced multiple historic tours with a close relative who has a hearing impairment (sometimes on some of the same tours with the close relative who had severe mobility impairments) where there was no accommodation for this relative's impairment. Furthermore, I was perceived as "rude" by other guests, and sometimes even tour guides, as I tried to stand in the gap and make up for this lack of accommodation. I believe that the experiences of people with disabilities other than mobility, as well as those with multiple disabilities, should also be a major component in our discussions identifying accessibility needs and practical solutions in historic preservation practice.

    I hope that these additional layers for consideration, and experiences, contribute to furthering the conversation.



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    Jamesha Gibson
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  • 7.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 9 days ago
    Hello all,

    The conversation of accessibility and preservation has too long been focused on the physical accessibility issues associated with adapting Historic Structures. I agree with Jamesha that location of the accessible entrances, typically at the rear, is just disrespectful.   As an architect there are few reminders in our trainings and guidelines to address other issues of accessibility- with the exception of the new standards for fire alarms. That said, with parents on both sides with vision impairments and hearing impairments I am also aware of the limitations to experiences due to sight limitations.  Thank you Jamesha for pointing out the need to address other forms of accessibility.  Too many places don't accommodate other abilities.

    There are so many other options that Preservation Properties could utilize that don't require innovation just borrowing from the museum industry and finding the funds to do so.  Braille guides, braille plans, and audio tours improve options but something as simple as allowing people to touch and handle objects.  I know some may cringe at this idea but how can we expect people to experience how a space is used without the opportunity to touch and how much more if you can't actually see it? There is so much more that could be down here. Of course there are also the really expensive options of adding elevators to allow people to visit upper floors. If we can put glass boxes on the side of a building to make it look whole, we can add an elevator to the side. If we really want to share these spaces, the approval boards need to adapt and be willing to see the value of a little change at the expense of purity.

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    Paula Nasta, AIA
    College Park, MD
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  • 8.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 7 days ago
    I am intrigued with the possibility of applying VR technology to expand access to physical historic sites for those who are differently-abled, even perhaps using a VR "visit" to plan ahead for possible access challenges that might occur in-person. Then I saw your message and my immediate reaction was to wonder about the application of VR tech for folks who have vision differences.

    I do realize that a virtual visit is not the same as going in person, and that it in some ways may not be as good or even equitable, but I was just wondering about this topic. Also, to point out that even with an onsite visit, AR and other altered or enhanced reality technologies might perhaps be used to assist visitors to better experience a site. Anyone doing research on this? If so, lay it on me! Thanks.


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    Kobi, C.A.
    Archivist and Student
    Boston Architectural College
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  • 9.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 9 days ago
    Jamesha, you are exactly exactly right. I tend to take into consideration only mobility impairments and overcoming physical barriers when I think of accessibility. Even though I have been involved in ADA compliance and universal design for a long time, I sometimes forget that program accessibility and physical accessibility go hand-in-hand. It is easy to overlook people with sensory and neurological impairments because they are less visible, and because people with mobility impairments tend to be more organized and vocal about their accessibility needs.

    For many years I worked with organizations to develop housing for people with mental and physical disabilities, and one of the things the advocacy groups insisted upon was the principle of "Nothing about us, without us." That is, don't make decisions about them, unless they were present to participate in the decision making process. I think many of the problems we experience with accessibility relating to preservation projects could be alleviated by thinking of accessibility not as an afterthought, but at the very beginning, at the planning stage of projects, and bringing in the stakeholders who know their needs better than anyone to participate meaningfully in project design and implementation. We get comfortable talking to other professionals in our fields because we speak the same language. Working with individuals who offer a different, possibly adversarial point of view is challenging, but potentially very rewarding.

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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 10.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 9 days ago

    Hi Jim,

    I absolutely agree with the principle you shared: "Nothing about us, without us," and that it is essential for us as historic preservation professionals to get out of our comfort zones (talking with other professionals in our fields) and begin to listen to, and share decision-making power with, stakeholders with disabilities who know their needs better than anyone, and who may have adversarial, but essential, points of view for historic preservation planning. I believe that one of the most tricky obstacles to accomplishing these principles is the ways in which people with disabilities are perceived as "abnormal" (or are "othered") in society-at-large, and the majority of professional cultures and practices-including historic preservation; and how this perception leads to behaviors which, as I stated before, work to undermine their human dignity and rights to equal and full access within professional culture and practice (both as guests and as decision-makers in planning for projects and programs). What is worse, these behaviors become normalized and justified in professional culture and practice.

    For example, Alima Bucciantini, Assistant Professor of Public History at Duquesne University shared with the American Association for State and Local History her experiences of encountering obstacles as she was "getting into the door" of the museum field as a person with a disability. Dr. Bucciantini shared that these obstacles were more ideological than physical. She also discusses how these ideological barriers were, and continue to be, encoded in official job descriptions and how that acts as "an unnecessary barrier to entry [into the museum field]." Additionally, Mike Hudson, Director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind relays why it is crucial to bring in (as well as some sagacious tips on how to invite) stakeholders with disabilities not simply as (token) consultants for museum planning projects dealing exclusively with accessibility, but as key decision-makers and staff (such as curators, interpreters, and board members) to contribute to every aspect of a museum's operation.

    Considering these examples, I believe that in order to successfully correct the unhealthy behaviors and attitudes that have become normative towards, and that are systematically justified in regards to people with disabilities in historic preservation professional culture and practice, we must transparently identify them and hold ourselves accountable for them. From here, we can begin to build a new conversation around accessibility and create better behaviors that lead to actionable change within our field.



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    Jamesha Gibson
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  • 11.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 5 days ago
    Over the years I have worked with many different disability advocacy and consumer groups (meaning consumers of supportive services, such as clients of regional community mental health agencies). These have included individuals with mobility impairments, mental illness, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, vision impairments, and hearing impairments. I worked with them on the development of affordable, accessible rental housing, which were complicated projects requiring numerous meetings to discuss issues such as design, zoning, financing, construction, and supportive services.

    Working on these projects with these individuals was both challenging and rewarding. In case any of you are in a similar situation in the future, here are my recommendations:
    • Locations where meetings are held must be completely accessible, from accessible parking spaces, into the building, into the meeting room, and around  the meeting table. 
    • Make sure the room where the meeting is held, and the table where participants will sit, is large enough to accommodate everyone who will be using a wheelchair. Having able-bodied attendees around the table and individuals who are wheelchair users in the background looking on, is not acceptable. 
    • Many individuals with disabilities do not have full-time jobs or own cars. Many must live only on SSI income of less than $800 a month, so it is important that you reimburse travel costs to anyone coming in from out of town. People with significant disabilities often have to pay others to drive them to meetings and appointments, and some have full-time attendants, so you must take these individuals into account when you calculate meeting attendance. This means you may have to have meetings at off-site locations in order to accommodate everyone. 
    • You should provide a free catered lunch, with a variety of choices, including vegetarian. A lunch-on-your-own meeting can create significant logistical and financial hardships for people with disabilities. 
    • Snacks such as granola bars and fruit should be provided, along with water for those who prefer to eat small amounts frequently, rather than larger meals three times a day.  
    • Bathrooms must be plentiful and accessible. 
    • Information presented at the meeting, whether spoken, written, a slide show, or video, must be presented in a form that can be understood by everyone.
    • Make sure that all attendees get the opportunity to speak and be heard. People with disabilities may speak slower, and softer, and may take longer to organize their thoughts and express their opinion. This doesn't mean, though, their opinions should be valued less. They can provide valuable insights that can make a project successful.
    Most importantly, communicate with attendees beforehand to ascertain their needs. That will help ensure that meetings involving people with differing abilities is productive.

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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 12.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 5 days ago
    Jim Sparks, thank you so much for you response. Hearing form this community directly and valuing them is most important. As mentioned above, giving dignity to the disabled or differently abled should also be the highest consideration. As a Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer and the wife of a partial quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair, I have sometimes struggled with my two roles in life conflicting with each other. My husband drives with an adapted vehicle, works part time from home, and is on several volunteer boards, one at a historic house site. So, I can only speak to his personal experience with physical barriers. My husband has accompanied me to many historic sites, and while he is but one person, entering into the back of a building was not concerning to him. That said, there should always be an attempt when possible to enter at the front or side, but every property is different.

    Obviously, elevators seem like a fix all, but they do need to be considered on a case by case basis. They really can destroy the entire look of a site, depending on volume and height, and sometimes towers are just not feasible because of limited land space if in an urban area. There is also cost to be considered. Let's be realistic. Would we really spend as much as a property costs to put an elevator next to or inside of it? Again, every case is different. For some non-profits running properties, and for some local governments, cost is a huge issue. This is where minimum ADA guidelines come in, and they must be followed. If there there is no accessibility to an upper floor, should you really be using it for programming at all? Make that your office space or meeting space, but have an alternative meeting space elsewhere, for when you have disabled customers or disabled board members (which I encourage you all to pursue!!).  Do the minimum standards, but when you can, do more. It won't ever be perfect, but show a good faith effort. From the beginning of a project, think through usage for all sorts of disabilities: physical, hearing, sight, neurological. Sit down with a local advocate or organization to discuss accessibility. It may not get done overnight, but start the conversation with the people that know.

    If you disagree with me, or don't take anything else form this post: know that from my personal experience and that of my husband, the most frustrating thing about some historic sites (and non-historic spaces) is chair lifts!  If you have a choice of a ramp into the back of a building or a lift in the front, use the ramp!! I am speaking of open lifts, not enclosed elevators. I can't tell you how many times my husband and I have been met by a chair lift, and here is now is goes:  He waits there while I have to go find an employee or volunteer. The employee looks dazed and tries help, but either doesn't know how to use the lift or can't find the key, or it doesn't work at all because no one tested it for a year. We wait while they go get the manager or site manager. If they get it working, we finally after 10-15 minutes, we can go inside. Had there just been a ramp, I could walk with my husband up the ramp upon arrival, and I or staff open the door.  Better yet, have an automatic opener and he can get in by himself! If it is not made into a big deal, he can enjoy our visit with dignity and feeling that he doesn't need to depend on anyone for help.

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    Robert Lotane
    Tallahassee FL
    (850)245-6357
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  • 13.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Ambassador
    Posted 5 days ago
    Hi Robert. I agree with you about outdoor chair lifts. They are notoriously expensive to install and operate and are subject to frequent breakdowns. Regarding first-floor accessibility options for historic buildings, my preferred option is for a well-designed ramp at the front entrance that detracts from the building esthetics as little as possible. Next is a ramp at a side or rear entrance. Last is an outdoor chair lift anywhere. I hate to say this, but I think there are sites that have given up on keeping them operational, but keep them so they can resist constructing ramps while still claiming ADA compliance.

    I realize most historic preservationists would consider my views on accessibility to be extreme, but the way I see it, we all will experience mobility and sensory impairments at some point in our lives. It's really not a question of if, rather when and to what degree. Accessibility benefits the entire population. The world is not divided cleanly into abled and disabled; we move between the two conditions. Any individual may not need accessibility features today, but may tomorrow.

    If we could get away from the mindset of them and us and realize it's just us, we would take accessibility more seriously.


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    Jim Sparks
    Sparks Architecture
    Glasgow, KY
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  • 14.  RE: Historic structure accessibility

    Posted 4 days ago
    Edited by Jennifer Robinson 4 days ago
    The discussion on this subject has been great, and so important.

    @Jamesha Gibson wrote above​, "...accessibility isn't solely about accommodation, it is about the person's dignity as a human being equally deserving of full participation, and their right to do so unimpeded and without compromising their dignity as a human being."

    YES!! YES!! YES!!

    Her words were so resonant with me. We as preservationists are doing nothing to promote inclusivity if we don't allow people of all abilities to participate, visit, and experience the things we're trying to preserve. If we're cutting out people who use a mobility device because we don't want to widen a doorway or add a ramp to the front of a building, is it really that different than the shameful history where we forced POC to use a separate entrance?

    I have a friend that recently shared her experience in choosing a graduate school. She was accepted to numerous prestigious creative writing programs, some with full-ride financial aid packages. Her decision came down to figuring out which programs offered classes in accessible buildings. Not the program that was the best fit for her, but which program was most physically accessible. She wrote a blog post several years ago, when she was first researching grad programs: Literal Accessibility

    I look forward to continued conversation on this topic. It's so important to our field.



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    Jennifer Robinson
    Easement Program Coordinator
    Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
    jrobinson@preservationalliance.com
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