US federal law protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of nine protected classes. Similar protections are in place in Canada, the UK and elsewhere. These classes, or characteristics as they are sometimes know, include age, disability, race, sex, religion and so on. 

When we talk about this kind of protection, we tend to associate it with employment and perhaps housing. However, there are other areas in which some protected classes might face inequalities of opportunity. 

Mobility means freedom, independence, life

Age and disability are two areas that can face inequality, not through intention or prejudice, but through lack of consideration or forward thinking. Here, we will look specifically at the elderly, but many of the points raised will be equally applicable to younger people living with restricted mobility or sensory impairments. 

We focus on the elderly, however, as restricted mobility and fear of falling are among the top root causes of older people losing independence, and suffering all the consequences that this brings. The good news is that today’s seniors have more tools and aids at their disposal than any other generation gone by. 

These include manual and powered wheelchairs, rollators, walking frames and tri-walkers. Many of these are specifically designed to be easy to fold and lift into a car, meaning their elderly users can live life on their own terms without having to ask anyone for assistance. 

That’s fine as far as it goes. With some basic aids in place, seniors can confidently leave their homes, load up the car and drive wherever they wish. But what happens when they reach their destination? If they are visiting shops or other commercial businesses, then logically, they need to park the car. Then they must safely unload, and in some cases assemble, whatever they need, such as a wheelchair or rollator, to get from the car to their destination. They also need to make any necessary parking payments. 

That can be where the trouble starts. Businesses that have either their own parking areas or whose customers use shared parking lots need to be cognizant of the needs of elderly visitors, and it is important for three reasons:

  1. It is a moral obligation and the right thing to do. We all have elderly loved ones, and, while old age has its downsides, it is a state we all hope to one day achieve. 
  2. It makes sound business sense. 80 is the new 60, and seniors constitute an ever-growing demographic. In other words, these are customers who want to spend money. The last thing your business needs is to deter them from parking up and coming in.
  3. Failure to meet the safety needs of the elderly or others with limited mobility or other special needs could constitute a breach of federal law in the shape of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), potentially exposing you to a $75,000 fine for a first offense. There are also state rules that must be met. 

ADA Compliance is an absolute minimum

The ADA sets out minimum requirements for accessible parking. But for reasons set out above, these really are the minimum, and businesses need to look beyond simply doing what is necessary to avoid being slapped with a fine for breaching ADA rules. 

Nevertheless, ADA is an appropriate starting point. It is essentially concerned with provision of accessible spaces. In this context, accessible simply means larger. Accessible spaces come in two different types:

  • An accessible car space measures a minimum eight feet wide. 
  • An accessible van space measures a minimum 11 feet wide.

Both types of accessible space must have an access aisle at least five feet wide. These aisles can be shared between two adjacent spaces. That is to say, accessible spaces can be separated by such an aisle. 

There is an alternative permissible format whereby an accessible van space can be eight feet wide if the adjacent access aisles are also eight feet wide. 

The ADA also sets forth specific marking requirements for accessible spaces. Specifically, spaces must be marked as exclusively for the use of the disabled, including the International Symbol of Accessibility. Van-accessible spaces must be marked “van accessible.” the exception is with small parking lots of four spaces or fewer. Here, such spaces do not need any marking or labeling and can be used by anybody.  

Access aisles must be marked with painted hatch marks to discourage parking in them. This is particularly important in the case of eight foot aisles that could otherwise be genuinely mistaken for parking spaces.

The ADA further stipulates that accessible spaces must be surfaced such that they are smooth, stable and as level as is practically possible. This makes it as easy and safe as possible to load, unload and use wheeled mobility aids. 

Van-accessible spaces must have at least 98 inches of vertical clearance to allow the most common wheelchair lift vehicles to operate safely. 

The ADA doesn’t just specify the quality of accessible spaces. It also has plenty to say about quantity. It doesn’t matter how small it might be, you need think ADA compliance if you have any sort of customer parking area. There is a sliding scale in terms of minimum requirements, and it looks like this: 

Number of spaces in parking lotMinimum number of accessible spaces overall Of which, minimum number of van-accessible spaces 
1 – 2511
26 – 5021
51 – 7531
76 – 10041
101 – 15051
151 – 20061
201 – 30072
301 – 40082
401 – 50092
501 – 10002 percent of total 
1001 and over20, plus 1 for each 100, or fraction there­of, over 1000

Finally, the ADA has a few words to spare about the positioning of accessible spaces, too. No major surprises here, it states that they must occupy the prime spots, either closest to the business the parking lot serves or to the pedestrian exit and entrance to the parking lot.

Beyond the minimum – making parking safer for seniors

As we said earlier, ensuring ADA compliance is only a first step. Optimizing safety and accessibility for seniors goes beyond providing a couple of wider parking spaces with hatch marks around them. Here are some areas to consider when going the extra mile to make things easier for elderly customers. 

Safe passage from the parking space

In many cases, accessible parking spaces are directly adjacent to the entrance to the shop or business they serve. However, this is not always practical or possible if the parking lot is, for example, to the rear of the premises and the main access is at the front. Businesses tend to be good at thinking about accessibility from the front door onwards and also in the parking lot. Don’t neglect the route that connects them.

Paths should be firm and as level as possible to make them easy to traverse with everything from a walking stick to a power chair. If the surface is old and uneven, an online search for “concrete company near me” will get you the professional support you need to put it right. 
Ideally, paths should be seven feet wide, with five feet the absolute minimum. Keep vegetation cut well back and allow for regrowth or you will be trimming it every few days in summer!

Also consider the use of tonal and color contrast. It is not necessary in every situation, but it can be helpful in assisting the visually impaired. Remember, disabilities go beyond mobility impairments, and just because somebody arrives by car, it does not mean they were driving and have the requisite eyesight. 

The main objective here is to reduce the risk of those with vision impairments from walking into obstructions. The way to do so is to make sure the colors they are painted contrast with their surroundings. The interesting thing is that colors that look quite different can be tonally similar. Try watching a game of snooker or 8-ball pool on an old black and white TV and you will soon get the idea when you try to differentiate the red and brown balls! 

That concept actually provides a good way to judge contrast. Simply photograph the area from various angles and view the images in black and white. Poor color contrasts will, in a manner of speaking, come into sharp focus. 

Seating and rest stops

Research has found that approximately one in three mobility-impaired people who can walk, for example with a cane or other manual aid, experience difficulty, pain or discomfort if they have to walk more than 50 yards without a break. 

If the distance from your accessible spaces to the main entrance exceeds this distance, strategically placed seating where those in need can take a rest stop is a wise investment. The seating should be adjacent to but not impeding the pedestrian route. Ensure the seating is securely attached to the ground and is on a firm, solid and level surface so that users can transition from sitting to standing with minimum risk. If in any doubt on this point, a concrete contractor can make everything secure and ensure surfaces are safe and smooth.   

Accessible control systems

When we talk about control systems we mean any system that is associated with the control or use of the parking area. These mostly include payment meters and barrier systems and the associated buzzers, intercoms or control boxes. 

First and foremost, information about any control systems used should be freely available to  users and potential users. The most obvious way to do that in this day and age is to post information on your business website so that potential customers and visitors know what to expect. 

This might include details on what parking charges are payable, how to pay them and whether there are any special allowances for customers, disabled or otherwise, such as receiving a refund on parking when making a purchase, and so on. 

Where payment is necessary, it is preferable to provide a variety of options. We all know the elderly can be set in their ways, especially when it comes to important matters like making payments. Some might be reluctant to use anything other than cash, while others could be the diametric opposite and prefer to take care of everything by mobile app. 

Where parking charges are paid using a machine, at least one should be positioned close to the accessible spaces. Machines need to be designed with older users in mind. This means buttons, coin slots and card readers at a height that is accessible for wheelchair users – so between 30 and 45 inches from the ground. Information notices should be centered five feet from the ground.

Touch screen controls should be kept to a minimum as these can be difficult to operate with arthritic fingers. Finally, ensure that any and all control units that might need to be used for whatever reason are fitted with an intercom or “help button” that directly connects users with human assistance in case they need it. 

Looking after our most valued customers

A very wise and pragmatic lady of 90 once remarked that getting old can be a nuisance, but it’s better than the alternative. That’s a philosophy that we can all get behind. We all have elderly loved ones in our lives, and with a bit of luck, we will be there ourselves one day. 

We are fortunate to live in an age when putting up with the “nuisance” of old age, whether it is arthritis, poor circulation or impaired visibility, doesn’t have to mean becoming reliant on the help of others. But ensuring that elderly people can enjoy that independence safely is a responsibility that is jointly shared between every shop, business or other facility that they might choose to visit. Implementing some well thought-through safety measures in commercial parking areas is a measure that you won’t regret.  

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