Advocates defeat change making ramps less safe

Residential ramps will not change in steepness, thanks to a concerted lobbying effort against a proposed modification to building codes. Activists and building officials teamed up to block the proposed change at the International Code Council (ICC) conference earlier this fall. The council voted Sept. 21 to reject the proposed code change and continue the requirement that ramps shall be no steeper that 1 unit vertical to 12 units horizontal.

Many people from around the country, including a number of Twin Cities advocates, helped in the effort to keep a safe slope standard in the building code. Changing the slope would make ramps less safe and harder for people with disabilities to use, ICC members were told.

The change was proposed by Rick Davidson, a building official from Maple Grove. He was the only person to testify in favor of changing the code from 1 to 12 to 1 to 8. Although he repeatedly said that “This is a not an accessibility issue,” the proposal drew a strong response from disability advocates and building officials who disagreed.

Opponents of the ramp change used a multi-faceted education campaign to make their case. An educational video produced by Jim Williams of Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL) and Bob Zimmerman of the Minnesota Workforce Center Rehabilitation Services Independent Living Program was seen by hundreds of building officials who visited the ramp education booth during the conference’s expo. The video itself was produced with numerous volunteers from the Twin Cities disability community.

MCIL handed out free copies of the “How to Build Ramps” DVD that illustrates how to make reusable ramps that meet code requirements. Many code officials from around the world agreed to take the DVD to use in their home communities.

Davidson was the only person to speak for a change. David-son said there is no justification that a 1 to 8 slope is unsafe, and said that other parts of the residential building code, as well as other codes, govern accessibility.

A dozen people testified against the change. Many discussed ramp-building efforts in their communities and explained the need to have properly sloped ramps. Building officials and advocates from Minnesota, Utah, Florida, Arizona and Virginia argued against the proposed change.

“Safety is the primary issue we need to deal with,” said John Schatzlein of the Minnesota Spinal Cord Injury Resource Center said. “1 to 12 is safe. 1 to 8 is not safe.”

Margo Imdieke-Cross of the Minnesota Council on Disability said she found the proposed change “to be unacceptable, unsafe and a potential barrier to any home environment.”

“We all strongly oppose this proposed regulation,” said John Tschida, speaking on behalf of the Courage Center and the Minnesota Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities. “We want standards that work for people; we want to encourage increased access, increased safety for those of us with mobility impairments.”

Zimmerman quoted the motto of the ICC in his testimony, “People helping people build a safer world.” He asked the voting members to live up to that motto and vote against the proposed change.

Officials from other states joined in, explaining the difficulties a change in slopes would cause. A Utah building official, who was the first to speak, began her comments by saying “Mr. Davidson just said this is not an accessibility issue. Come on, let’s get real, permits are almost always pulled for accessibility.” Building officials from Virginia, Florida, and Arizona also made comments about how difficult 1 to 8 slopes are to use. Another comment made was, “People go to the code for guidance, they assume if it is in the code it will work. 1 to 8 does not work.”

At the end of the comments, a show of hands vote was taken. One person, in addition to Davidson raised his hand to vote to approve the change. Hundreds of hands were raised to disapprove changing the code to 1 to 8. That effectively blocked a change.

According to Zimmerman, the educational effort resulted in two important outcomes: maintaining the code requirement for safe slopes for ramps at homes and educating building officials from across the U.S. and Canada about safe wheelchair ramp design.

The code changes that were made at the conference will be published in 2010, as changes are published every three years. A number of other code changes that affect people with disabilities were also reviewed and made at the conference. Some changes are meant to improve safety in elevators and stairwells, and to improve rescue operations and two-way communications. This should make it more obvious where areas of refuge and areas for assisted rescue are located.

Another change deals with companion seating, clarifying that one companion seat is needed for each wheelchair space. Other changes center on accessibility for bathrooms and for the provision of roll-in showers and motels and hotels.   

To learn more about building code changes and the recent conference, visit www.iccsafe.org and click on the conference wrap-up tab.