Olathe & Southwest Joco

New Johnson County Courthouse will be accessible to all

The rendering shows a plaza view of the new courthouse, which will be accessible to those with disabilities and special needs.
The rendering shows a plaza view of the new courthouse, which will be accessible to those with disabilities and special needs. Image provided

The new Johnson County Courthouse, which is slated to be completed by late 2020, has this in common with the structure in use now: It will still be the venue where the Johnson County judicial process transpires.

But in one exceptionally significant way, the building will differ. Unlike the current facility built in the late 1960s, the new building will be accessible to those with disabilities and special needs.

Approved by voters in 2016, the $182 million project, which encompasses a 320,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms, has an occupancy date slated for 2021.

Currently in the concept and design phase, this project is the collaboration of many partners, including the Johnson County commissioners, the City of Olathe, TreanorHL Architects and Olathe’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board.

Appointed by the mayor, this 13-member board serves on the Human Relations Commission and provides advice on issues regarding the disabled and elderly. In its advisory role, one of the board’s key tasks is to help improve access to public facilities for citizens with disabilities.

“Members of our board have a wide variety of disabilities, or awareness about disabilities and special needs,” said chairman Mark Gash. “They can bring a wide range of expertise, understanding and recommendations to the project.”

Public buildings, Gash says, must be accessible to everyone from plaintiffs and defendants, to those serving jury duty and attorneys.

“It’s a privilege, and it’s privilege that’s not extended to those with special needs when a building is not accessible.”

Jeff Lane, project architect, adds that it’s especially important for the courthouse to be accessible.

“If the courthouse is cumbersome or not user friendly, potential anxiety can occur,” Land said. “These buildings already bring some anxiety to persons using them and we want to help limit those feelings.”

According to Lane, many of today’s active courthouses were built before the Americans Disability Act was passed in 1990, meaning they were not designed to accommodate those with disabilities. The Johnson County Courthouse was among them.

In late March, Kim Washington, a Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board member, faced problems when she was called for jury duty. During the jury selection process, she was asked to leave after a court representative told her that her wheelchair could not be accommodated in the courtroom.

“I was shocked,” Washington said. “My heart sunk to the floor. I was embarrassed.”

She told the clerk that she had a walker, and the judge agreed to let her use it. She was chosen for jury duty, but the encounter brought stress.

“I felt like a second-class citizen. Being a handicapped person, I came close to not being able to fulfill my duty as a Johnson County juror.”

The Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board, along with the entire courthouse planning team, is focused on ensuring challenges like those Washington experienced do not occur in the new courthouse.

Just a few of the many accessible design elements planned for the new courthouse include outside ramps and non-slip, zero-stair entries. Exterior and interior entrances, as well as restrooms, will be fitted with wheelchair-accessible automatic doors.

Sinks, restroom stalls, coat and hat racks, and light switches will also be wheelchair accessible. Both audio and visual fire and tornado alarms will be installed throughout the facility, along with audio loops for the hearing impaired.

Walls and floors will feature high-contrast materials for those with limited vision, so they can navigate the spaces more safely and easily.

“We all want the same thing. Everyone wants to a see a world-class accessible courthouse,” Gash said. “It’s fundamental to who we are that everyone has rights to this branch of government and can access that branch.

“The best barometer of the value of a community is how it treats its vulnerable. That’s the starting point for our board and our work.”