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Access at takeoff: Expert helps find accommodating design for terminal

January 10, 2005

Your spouse attempts to drop you off at the curb and unload your wheelchair as an airport cop who seems to mistake you for a terrorist barks an order to drive away immediately.

Once inside, you get separated from your travel companions because you had to take an out-of-the-way wheelchair ramp. And heaven help you if the checkpoint screener is having a bad day.

Gregory S. Fehribach has to imagine such scenarios-not that the life-long wheelchair user hasn't already endured his share of aggravation while traveling. But the Indianapolis attorney and access expert is helping architects of the city's new airport terminal visualize every conceivable problem for the physically challenged even before blueprints are drawn.

If that isn't hard enough, given the range of human frailties, the access-friendly terminal must not call attention to itself.

"We don't want you, the customer, to realize we've created an accessible environment. Then you say, 'Wow, that was absolutely seamless.' We're not trying to create a monument to disability,'' said Fehribach, who has a $27,000 consulting contract with the Indianapolis Airport Authority.

Though financially modest as far as airport contracts go, Fehribach's efforts could help millions of people for decades starting in 2008, when the $974 million terminal is scheduled to open.

Even those who are able-bodied today have reason to care as a generation starts to grapple with the infirmities of age.

"The baby boomers this year will hit 60," Fehribach noted.

Designing for accessibility is almost always cheaper than retrofitting a building later.

"It's about the opportunity to do this right. It doesn't provide a terrible financial impact because we're doing it from the start," said James A. Schellinger, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based CSO, one of several architectural firms designing the new terminal.

One might figure, a dozen years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, that such an approach is common. There is no shortage of regulations governing the particulars of parking spaces and wheelchair ramps and water fountains.

But, Schellinger said, "The literal interpretation of what's in the book can steer you to a minimum requirement."

The infamous wheelchair ramp is a good example. A building may meet code as long as it has a ramp, but a person in a wheelchair may have to roll circuitously around while others in his traveling group walk straight through.

Sometimes a person in a wheelchair endures much worse at an airport. Returning from a vacation earlier this month, Fehribach was wheeled out of a plane and onto a mobile platform that was raised skyward to the fuselage. The platform was then lowered onto the tarmac, as if removing a piece of freight from a cargo plane.

The extreme measure was necessary because the international arrivals terminal at Indianapolis International has no jetway. Yet such a disembarking procedure could have been sheer terror for someone afraid of heights.

The accommodation, though effective, not only alienates the person in the chair by making him or her stand out, but also, "It's not an inclusive design," Fehribach said. "You want everybody moving together."

Once people are moving, can they easily access what they need?

One need for quick access at the new terminal will be for rest rooms. Some of those aging baby boomers who've just driven to the airport will need to find a rest room, pronto. So Fehribach's team is looking carefully at the best places to put rest rooms on the land side of the terminal.

Conversely, how about passengers with bursting bladders on the air side of the terminal whose planes have just arrived from the West Coast?

Fehribach knows from experience that he's usually among the last people to get off the airplane, as he has to slide out of his seat and into his wheelchair once the aisles are clear.

"You do not want to be asking or looking around for a lavatory after getting off the plane," he said.

And not to belabor such needs, but a significant problem for those with physical challenges has been the need for help once in the lavatory. An elderly person may need assistance from a spouse in changing incontinence garments, for example. But a wife can't exactly walk into a men's room with head held high.

So in addition to traditional rest rooms, the new terminal also will have what are called "family restrooms," which essentially are unisex facilities.

Finding such a facility can be difficult for those with visual impairments or even those who don't speak English.

Early planning on the terminal includes designing signs, right down to the best typeface to use.

"If you're not careful with the number 3, it can look like a 5 or an 8 at a distance," said Rodney Reid, president of Indianapolis-based RLR Associates, who is working with Fehribach.

The two also had a hand in the accessibility designs at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Even the color contrast of signs is being reviewed. White-on-black lettering is easiest to see, but the design must still allow for aesthetic considerations of the rest of the building, Reid said.

So one idea is to go easy on the use of signs when subtle changes in flooring or wall materials can convey boundaries, such as going from a hard floor surface to carpeting. "That can be a cue as to where you are as opposed to a sign."

Mindful that not everyone at the airport will speak English, Reid also is studying where pictograms might be more appropriate. Airports already have pictures depicting rest rooms and baggage claims.

But how about depicting a security checkpoint? A pictogram of a National Guardsman toting a machine gun or screener grabbing a passenger by the hair wouldn't look welcoming.

"There's usually some angst or some fear" regarding security, Reid said.

Indeed, good design may only help so much at security checkpoints.

Whether it makes sense or not, harmless Grandma's stuff still must go through the X-ray machine. After all, for as little as $35, one can buy a cane with a built-in stiletto, security experts note.

To at least minimize the intrusion of security, Fehribach is thinking through scenarios such as what can be done to ease the discomfort of a cancer patient with a colostomy bag. He or she would likely be subject to a search by hand.

"How do you create a space where we can meet the necessity of security but also respect that person's privacy?" Fehribach asked.

CSO's Schellinger had to go through a special screening line at another airport because a recent artificial joint replacement makes him light up metal detectors like a Christmas tree.

In front of him was an older man with a problem hearing and walking. The man didn't hear the security screener's repeated requests for him to place his walking cane on the belt of the X-ray machine. When the man finally heard, Schellinger recalled, "He said, 'I can't walk without that cane.'''

Federal security screeners pounced with the melodrama of a TV cop show.

"It was an incredible ordeal," Schellinger said.

That's where good building design reaches its limits and where better training of humans comes into play, said Bob Alexander, president of Denver-based Access and Training Consultants.

Alexander has been involved in a number of projects in Denver and said the Indianapolis Airport Authority was smart to tap someone like Fehribach.

"A lot of times you need someone with practical experience," he said.

Some design projects Alexander has worked on enlisted representatives with a number of physical challenges. The problem with that level of consulting is that competing interests often struggle to agree on a design solution.

One scenario involves curb cuts in sidewalks that allow street access to a person in a wheelchair. Some designs have included bumps placed in the ramps to help visually impaired people get their bearings. Wheelchair users complained the bumps interfered with wheels.

But at airports, the conflict often comes down to improving access vs. the demands of scheduled airline service.

"This transportation issue is time-sensitive," Schellinger said.
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