This article is part of a series on the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act
2023 marks 50 years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a foundational law for ensuring people with disabilities have access to programs and activities that are funded by federal agencies and to federal employment. Section 502 of the law also created the U.S. Access Board (originally named the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) to develop and enforce accessibility standards to federal and federally leased buildings and facilities. On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” which includes a provision to amend the Rehabilitation Act with Section 510 that requires the Board to develop accessibility standards that address independent access to and use of medical diagnostic equipment by people with disabilities.
“Everyone needs access to health care to live prosperous lives, including people with disabilities,” Board Executive Director Sachin Pavithran remarked. “Medical diagnostic equipment has historically been, and continues to be, inaccessible to many people using wheelchairs, which can lead to misdiagnosis or barriers to basic care and examinations. The Access Board continues to dedicate time and efforts toward making sure people with disabilities have independent access through its accessibility standards for medical diagnostic equipment.”
In 2017, the Board developed the Medical Diagnostic Equipment (MDE) Accessibility Standards under Section 510. These standards provide design criteria for examination tables and chairs, weight scales, x-ray machines and other radiological equipment, and mammography equipment that ensure people with disabilities can access them. More specifically, they address transfer surfaces, support rails, armrests, and other features of medical diagnostic equipment.
When the standards were published, they included a low transfer height range of 17 – 19 inches for certain types of medical diagnostic equipment used by patients in a supine, prone, side-lying, or seated position. This range was established as a temporary measure in order for the Board to conduct more research. The Board commissioned an analysis of a database on wheelchair seat heights to estimate the number of people with seat heights within this specified range. In the “Analysis of Low Wheelchair Seat Heights and Transfer Surfaces for Medical Diagnostic Equipment” report, research estimates that 4.5% of wheelchair users have a seat height of 17 inches or less, 21% have a seat height of 18 inches or less, and 42% have a seat height of 19 inches or less.
Over the last year and a half, the Board has been working toward finalizing the low transfer height provision through rulemaking. Prior to initiating the rulemaking process, the Board held a public information meeting, and then recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that sought public comment on its proposed low transfer height of 17 inches, which closed on August 31, 2023.
The Board commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act and continues to work toward finalizing the accessibility standards for accessible medical diagnostic equipment.
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