Iowa State professor advocates for the disadvantaged

Jacob Stewart

Arvid Osterberg, professor of architecture, is pushing for more.

He has dedicated much of his career to helping others decipher and implement the accessibility standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. He strongly advocates going above and beyond the guidelines.

Osterberg recently published a third edition of his manual, “Access for Everyone: A Guide to the Accessibility of Buildings and Sites with References to 2010 ADAAG,” featuring commonsense recommendations for inclusive design, based on Osterberg’s experience as a consultant.

Osterberg contracted Polio in 1950, and his brother was temporarily disabled by the vicious and infective disease years before there was a vaccine.

“You could catch it by just going to the beach … it was a terrible disease, and a lot of people I met in later on in life were still suffering from the effects,” Osterberg said.

His colleagues who caught the disease had varying symptoms, from crippling to early death. While this may not have single-handedly encouraged Osterberg to enter the field of accessible design, it was a driving factor.

Osterberg has been teaching at Iowa State for 33 years, but has only taught his integrated design course, Design for All People, for a few years. The class focuses on designing architectural facilities accessible to persons with disabilities and is one of only a few in the nation. 

Handicap accessibility has become more of a concern in the last two decades, since the Americans with Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. This act presented a great leap forward concerning the rights of disabled people, but, Osterberg argues, it still hasn’t done enough.

“People need to do things the right way, not the minimum way,” Osterberg said. “The government is cooperative, but does not want to endorse these guidelines.”

Osterberg conducted a campus study of handicap accessibility in the early 1990s using government-approved guidelines. He and his colleagues found that there was a lot of work still to be done to make Iowa State more accessible to disabled persons.

The first, unpublished edition of the handbook was simply a pocket-sized version of addendums and suggestions made by Osterberg and his associates; after several revisions, the first edition was published in 2000. Now, two major editions later, Osterberg has added more than 400 suggestions of his own to the current ADAAG.

“The problem with government standards is that when they are finally published, there is a one-and-a-half year grace period for incorporating the new standards,” Osterberg said.

He believes the Department of Justice needs to be stricter in enforcing new guidelines because, it’s currently too easy for people to get away with flouting the current standards. They can, for the most part, ignore governmental authority, Osterberg said.

His book includes innovations that have yet to take hold in the mainstream architectural marketplace. For example, the old government standard states that 50 percent of building entrances have to be wheelchair accessible. Thanks in part to Osterberg’s attention to the subject, the requirement is now 60 percent, so if a building only has two doors, both of them must be wheelchair accessible.

Another example of Osterberg’s revisions on the government-approved guidelines is ensuring the lengths of van accessible parking spaces is at least 19 feet. This revision provides extra moving space for disabled people moving in and out of vehicles.

Osterberg makes no profit from the sales of his book. All profits go back in to the budget for improving the campus.

“Iowa State has done a good job of helping students with disabilities, but it is a challenge to make older buildings accessible,” said Steven Moats, director of the Students with Disabilities Resources Office. He believes Iowa State is doing a good job, but there are always hurdles to overcome.

Osterberg is optimistic about Iowa State’s handicap accessibility, since all new construction projects are following the guidelines in the book. The biggest challenges are old buildings that require updates to meet the new guidelines.

Osterberg is currently teaching a class on historical preservation in regards to accessibility. He gives an A to A-minus for the campus’s disability friendliness in newer buildings, but asserts that older buildings should be updated.

“In regards to disability friendliness, we can do better, even though we’re in the top percentile,” Osterberg said. “I would love to do more to make these old building more accessible, but the budget simply isn’t there.”

Whatever the financial situation, Osterberg is committed to making Iowa State and the nation as handicap accessible and disability friendly as possible.