Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislation that grants the one in five adults and the 2.8 million American children living with a disability equal access to employment, transportation, and society. The ADA was hard fought and not easily won. After a long, dragged-out fight that included sit-ins and “discrimination diaries” to detail the daily struggles of those living with a disability, the ADA became law, removing a well-worn social prejudice against people with physical and cognitive disabilities.
The ADA has roots in less sweeping pieces of legislation that Congress passed to accommodate Americans with disabilities. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, for example, required newly constructed government buildings to be accessible to people in wheelchairs, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 deemed people with disabilities as a protected class with civil rights, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. But the ADA was the first law to bar discrimination in privately owned accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) established the rules of what barrier removal would actually look like in the real world. The key to understanding the arcane language of these accessibility codes is to assume that everything must be usable by a person in a wheelchair, unless there is an exemption. At its most basic level, ADAAG mandates an accessible route into and throughout a building, a clear path of travel to all amenities, clear floor spaces at fixtures and appliances, as well as accessible egress routes and areas of rescue assistance in stairwells. For a quarter century, architects and developers have had a prescriptive code with clearly illustrated technical standards to put the ethos of the ADA into place. But actually meeting accessibility codes remains a challenge for those tasked with implementing them. The question remains: Why?
First, there are a few black holes in accessibility laws. For example, the ADA does not prescribe who actually pays for accessibility upgrades to rental and for-sale housing. The National Association of Realtors informs its constituents that while accommodations must be allowed, the renter is ultimately responsible for paying for alterations to kitchens, doorways, and bathrooms. But the cost to upgrade reasonable accommodations can be burdensome. Reports show that only one third of working age people with a disability were employed in 2012.
The development community can also create confusion when they pre-sell units prior to permit approval to an initial buyer that is not disabled.
This is where a good designer who understands code is absolutely necessary. The code is intended to establish an accessible housing stock to provide for an aging population and people with disabilities regardless of the pre-designated renter or buyer’s desires.
It must be remembered that the ADA is a Civil Rights law first—a federal mandate to bar discrimination. Only a barrier-free environment constructed above the limits of code, with the intent of welcoming people of all abilities, can be truly inclusive. Architects, then, are integral to realizing the spirit of the law—they can, and must, do better in this regard.
If millions of adults and children report difficulty seeing, hearing, or understanding, and lack independent mobility, then easy access should be demanded at every hot dog stand, theater, and grocery store in America. One of the main frustrations with the ADA is that accommodating a person with a disability could place excess stress on a project’s budget. But if a building is designed at-grade with a no-step entry, there are no costly ramps or lifts needed. Ultimately, it comes down to designing with everybody in mind. If twenty percent of adults have a disability, then architects should be eager to design and sell accessible technologies, products, and places to people of varying abilities. Good design ensures that these do not necessarily have to look accessible—places should be designed and marketable to all.
There will always be new challenges to meeting accessibility. To truly fulfill the mission of the ADA, architects must also not lose sight of the aging population, and the growing number of Americans suffering from cognitive disabilities like Alzheimer’s disease. This remains a challenge because right now ADAAG only prescribes removal of barriers for people with physical disabilities, such as the blind, deaf, and people with limited mobility who use a cane, walker, or wheelchair. Organizations like Hearthstone and APLUS are researching and implementing design solutions to barriers for people with cognitive disabilities, but real legislation mandating equal access for the cognitively disabled to transportation, housing, and public places like parks and libraries is far in the making.
The implementation of the ADA has proved that architects have an instrumental role in improving the day-to-day lives of all people, and that in the struggle for ultimate equality for Americans with disabilities, the fight is far from over.