Sometimes, experience is the best teacher. From 2001 to 2008, I became acutely sensitive to architectural barriers and appreciative of accessibility laws. My wife developed a neurological degenerative disease of the nervous system, and I became her full-time caregiver. My experience made me aware of the lack of design sensitivity for accommodating physically impaired individuals, especially seniors attending events for grandchildren in their schools.

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 was one of the first efforts to ensure access to the built environment. ABA mandated that facilities designed, built, altered or leased with federal funds be accessible. Since then, architectural design standards have evolved slowly, usually addressing the minimums.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 required places of public accommodation and commercial facilities (private sector) to follow specific architectural standards in the construction and alteration of buildings.

On July 23, 2004, the U.S. Access Board issued updated accessibility guidelines for new or altered facilities covered by the ADA and the ABA.

Building codes and zoning ordinances identify the required number of handicapped parking spaces. Unfortunately, the space often is not sufficient. Parking lots that have only two handicapped parking stalls with a center access aisle are not adequate. Each handicapped parking stall must have a 5-foot-wide access aisle adjacent to and on the right side — the passenger side.

The parking space and access aisle should not have a slope greater than 2 percent in any direction. Parking on a steeper slope and transferring a disabled person from a car to a wheelchair or transport chair is difficult and dangerous.

The access aisle must be connected to an accessible route to the appropriate accessible entrance of a building. The parking access aisle must either blend with the accessible route or have a curb ramp complying with ADA regulations. The access curb must be designed with a smooth transition from the parking lot surface.

Too many exterior ramps exist that are designed in the ratio of 1:12 (one foot of vertical rise in 12 feet). They are difficult to maneuver regardless of weather conditions. Exterior ramps must be designed to the ratio of 1:20 (one foot of vertical rise in 20 feet of horizontal length).

A canopy covering the walkway should extend from the building to beyond the curb, enabling a vehicle to discharge the handicapped individual in a protected area. The canopy should cover and shield the exterior ramp.

My experience as a caregiver taught me new insights and sensitivities to the architectural barriers that exist in schools — schools should go beyond the minimum.

James E. Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at Jrydeen@atsr.com.