Access Excess

Late last year, the federal Access Board announced its plans "to revise and update its accessibility guidelines for buildings and facilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act...and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968." Among its recommendations: Make fire alarms more useful to deaf people by adding a flashing strobe light to the devices' familiar shrieks.

As the May 2000 deadline for public comments drew near, the proposal was attacked by another disabled constituency: epileptics. It turns out, to quote the Epilepsy Foundation, that "strobe-equipped alarms have caused seizures in people in workplaces, apartment buildings, colleges and schools. Should a seizure be caused by stroboscopic alarms during an actual fire emergency, that person would be incapacitated, leading to even more danger both from the seizure and [from] the emergency itself."

In other words, the Access Board faces a choice: let deaf men sit unaware as their building burns around them, or condemn their epileptic cohorts to quiver uncontrollably on the floor, unable to crawl to safety. Or else—now here's a thought—let each landlord decide which trade-off he prefers to make, or even come up with a new solution of his own.

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