A Win For The People

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News May 2017

An accessibility facelift to the more than 200-year-old Virginia Executive Mansion has earned the landmark PVA's Barrier-Free America Award.

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People with disabilities visiting one of America’s oldest executive residences in the heart of Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, now have an easier, more stately and award-winning way to tour this historic home.

Virginia’s Executive Mansion sits within the gates of a park-like area that includes the state Capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson. It has been the home to governors of the “Old Dominion” state since 1813.

Until last year, however, visitors with mobility issues had to tour the building via a less-than-dignified entryway. Those who couldn’t climb the steep steps to the historic portico had to use an elevator located at the basement level on the back of the home to access the first floor. 

The People’s House

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That all changed when Virginia’s 72nd governor, Terence R. McAuliffe, approved an accessibility facelift for the national historic landmark.

Now, all those with disabilities can enter the mansion via a ramp that is connected to an existing breezeway leading to the southern entrance on the mansion’s first floor.

Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) helped consult on the facelift, which earned PVA’s 2017 Barrier-Free America Award. Established in 2001, the award honors and promotes leadership, innovation and action in the architectural, design and construction communities for advancing accessibility — an advancement that improves the quality of life for everyone. 

“When people with disabilities have no alternative but to enter buildings through back or side entrances, using service or freight elevators, or by other circuitous routes that separate them from the general population, it only serves to make them feel isolated and uncomfortable,” says PVA’s Director of Architecture Mark Lichter. “Wheelchair users should be able to enjoy the same activities as able-bodied individuals, particularly in public access dwellings that exist to welcome visitors from all over the country.”

Lichter and the PVA architecture team were among the experts who consulted on Virginia’s Executive Mansion project, reviewing the design and assisting with the accessibility features during the design and construction phase.

A wheelchair-accessible ramp at Virginia’s Executive Mansion allows a “most accessible and dignified welcome for all Virginians,” said Virginia Gov. Terence McAuliffe.

PVA veteran members were then invited to attend the celebratory ribbon-cutting when the accessibility ramp was opened on March 24, 2016. McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, also attended, along with other Virginians with disabilities, to celebrate the mansion’s enhanced access and safety for all guests.

“The Executive Mansion is the people’s house, and this ramp will ensure the most accessible and dignified welcome for all Virginians, from our wounded warriors to our disabled citizens,” said McAuliffe during
the ceremony.  

Feeling Welcome

Seeing veterans and others enter the house easily and comfortably motivates the PVA architecture team to consult on hundreds of such projects around the country. They provide accessibility design consultation and support to ensure the use and enjoyment of facilities for all people with disabilities. That sentiment is clearly echoed by Dorothy McAuliffe. 

“We want everyone who visits the Executive Mansion to feel welcome, and to achieve that goal, every visitor must be able to enter on the main floor,” she said during the ceremony. “Through thoughtful collaboration with architectural and preservation experts, we were able to provide enhanced access that complements the historic character of the home.” 

The historic landmark was officially presented with the Barrier-Free America Award during a private celebration at the Executive Mansion this spring.

“As Gov. Terence McAuliffe remarked when the ramp opened, ‘The Executive Mansion is the people’s house,’ and we applaud the work that was done to make it more enjoyable for all of the people,” Lichter says. 

Previous Barrier-Free America award recipients have included architects, business people, philanthropists and television personalities.

“Through our work, we play an extremely important role in removing the barriers that people with disabilities face everywhere, every day,” Lichter says. “The Barrier-Free Award exemplifies excellence in the philosophy and execution of these principles.”

A Fundamental Right

From a historic governor’s mansion in Richmond to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings’ stadium to countless veterans’ homes, Lichter and his team donate thousands of hours per year supporting and informing design and structure renovations that accommodate special needs and circumstances.

PVA’s architecture program is on a daily mission to promote an accessible, barrier-free environment. The program advocates for accessible design in architecture and construction industries, helps develop building standards for the nation and serves on federal advisory committees to further define Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.

“These standards and laws extend beyond veterans’ rights; they benefit all people,” Lichter says. “Access to public buildings and structures should be a fundamental right and requires architectural design that makes public and private buildings, structures, entrances and other facilities wheelchair accessible.”

PVA is the only veterans organization with on-staff architects who provide design assistance to veterans, specialize in accessible design and have extensive experience in all aspects of architecture.

“We are proud of our service to veterans  and to all people living with disabilities,” Lichter says. “With our work, many public buildings, stadiums, courthouses, memorials and other structures are made more accessible and enjoyable by the public. We will continue to strive to enhance the quality of life for all people living with spinal-cord injury or disease and all people with mobility impairments.”

PVA’s team of architects is currently focused on two key areas — removing barriers with accessible design and setting standards for accessibility laws and codes.

The architecture department works with other architects and design teams to remove barriers from large public projects, such as sports venues and national memorials, as well as to advise individuals on home accessibility.

Since 1986, PVA architects have worked with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) design teams on all VA medical centers involved with spinal-cord injury and disease. They’re part of the design team for new medical center construction and recommend improvements to existing facilities. The team’s objective is to ensure that not only are these facilities wheelchair accessible but also to encourage the use of design and architecture to foster independence and promote healing environments that produce better outcomes for patients. 

PVA architects have also made recommendations that contributed to the recently revised ADA guidelines and serve on the committee that writes the specific code that provides accessibility details, dimensions and specifications to building designers. It is the most widely used model building code in the United States.

For more information on the Executive Mansion, visit, or for more information on PVA’s architectural  department, visit


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A Win For The People


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