Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

The ADA at 25: How One Law Helped Usher in An Age of Accessible Design

July 23, 2015


“What do you want?”


“When do you want it?”


There are 82 stone steps up to the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., a relatively minor bit of trivia for the majority of legislators, tourists, and visitors who traverse them every day. But for those unable to walk up those steps, they’re hallowed ground. In 1990, a group of activists and legislators were fighting to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a far-reaching piece of legislation that sought to guarantee equal rights for then roughly 40 million American citizens with disabilities, in part by changing the way architects designed buildings. The bill’s potential financial implications had led lobbyists and legislators to bog down negotiations and create a stalemate in the House of Representatives. Patrisha Wright, a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities who had earned the nickname “The General” for leading the ADA fight, felt it was time to make a statement.

On March 12, the Capitol Crawl, organized by ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), gathered a crowd of hundreds of chanting supporters at the entrance of the country’s legislature. They watched 60 activists drop their canes or leave their wheelchairs and pull themselves up each of those steps. Dozens strained at the task, as friends and family offered them water and encouragement. Cameras focused on eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had cerebral palsy. She made her way up, hands-to-knees. At one point, she told the dozens of reporters focused on her that “I’ll take all night if I have to!”

“Here you have one of the symbols of freedom and democracy, and it’s got these huge steps barring people from coming in,” says Wright. The building offered wheelchair access via side entrances, but she felt the steps made for potent symbolism. “We needed something inspirational to make sure that people knew that those who were disabled weren’t going to sit down,” she says.

The “stunt,” as a handful of annoyed senators called it, proved to be an important turning point in the battle for the ADA. But more importantly, it dramatized the difficulties that the built environment poses for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Wright, who herself was blind, wanted others to see how much design can change a person’s everyday actions and level of independence, and how poor design can create a form of what she called “second-class citizenship.”

The Ed Roberts Campus Project. Photo copyright Tim Griffith.

At the signing ceremony for the landmark bill later that year, President George Bush asked the nation to “take a sledgehammer to another wall.” A quarter-century after the law’s passage, the ADA has transformed the way we approach the built environment for people with disabilities and has inspired architects, and the general public, to keep broadening the way they define accessibility. In the process, many have discovered that more accessible design creates a better environment for everyone. Something as simple as a now-commonplace curb ramp makes mobility easier for cyclists, skateboarders, parents pushing strollers, and those with physical impairments. By removing barriers, inspiring advances in accessible design, and asking architects to focus even more on the diversity of human experience, the act changed the way we think about and build public spaces.

“The great thing about the ADA is that it covers almost everything,” says Edward Steinfeld, the Director of theCenter for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University at Buffalo. “It’s created a society in which people know they have to provide accessibility, and treat people with disabilities with dignity and respect. I think everyone has experienced the impact in some way, and it’s not because they have a disability.”

A landscape ramp outside a home in Buffalo, New York. Photo courtesy of the IDeA Center.



The Americans with Disabilities Act created a comprehensive civil rights approach to accessibility at the federal level. Before its passage, architects worked under a varying system of state and local buildings codes that governed design requirements. Federal laws that were precursors to the ADA, such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (especially section 504) and theFair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, mandated better access. But since they only applied to federal properties, those built with federal money, or housing programs funded by federal sources, they didn’t address varying codes for other structures, and had no impact on privately owned buildings. People with disabilities still had to navigate on unstable terrain, legally speaking. Wright told lawmakers the patchwork of protection was akin to a “piece of Swiss cheese” spread across the country.

“You needed to be able to travel freely from D.C. to Oregon to Michigan to Texas,” says Wright, “and find accessible bathrooms and places to work. Until you had that fluidity, you weren’t free in this country.”

Karen Braitmayer has witnessed how the act has changed the architectural profession firsthand. An architect, consultant, and policy advocate for accessible design, she has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic disorder that causes brittle bones and requires her to use a wheelchair. It makes “the architecture of my body wacky,” she says. When she first moved to Seattle in the late ’80s, looking for a job as an architect, she recalls touring office sites before she sent in a single resume, all to determine which had accessible entrances. Like many Americans with disabilities at the time, finding a job, or even traveling across town, required advanced planning and choosing from a limited palette of options. Imagine plotting your ideal daily routine on Google Maps, then clicking a button to find that a majority of your travel plans needed to be updated, changed, or eliminated altogether.

Exteriors of homes in the Wounded Warrior Home Project in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture and Design.

Mainstream public perception had been informed by traditional but outdated treatment for people with disabilities, which focused on protection and advocated keeping many in restricted pastoral environments, a paternalistic approach that could lead to exclusion from community life and the workforce. Though these pastoral environments were more humane than the institutional life of decades past, they were still a form of segregation.

“That kind of treatment was for all disabilities,” says disability advocate Elaine Ostroff, a co-founder of the Institute for Human Centered Design. “It was a two-edged sword; protect people in the community from those who may have looked different and protect those who were different by placing them in isolating environments.”

Ostroff says that in the ’70s, there was a growing movement toward deinstitutionalization. Many human service professionals began to see a need for more openness, for integrating people with disabilities into society.

The Independent Living movement in particular, which opened the peer-run Center for Independent Living for people with disabilities in Berkeley in 1972, was a pioneer, part of a larger shift in the community toward channeling the civil rights struggle and one of many organizations that would form the wider coalition that supported the ADA.

Illustration by Suze Myers.



As she was trying to build a coalition to pass the ADA, Wright knew that the stories and experiences of people with disabilities weren’t widely known. Getting lawmakers to understand the community’s experiences became a key tactic in passing the law. Advocates reached out to supporters in Congress who had personal experiences with disabilities—an author of the bill, Senator Tom Harkin, used sign language to talk about his deaf brother during the bill’s signing ceremony—but they needed wider support. Wright’s secret weapon was the words of fellow supporters. The Discrimination Diaries project asked Americans with disabilities to document a week of their lives, and to explain how design could lead to discrimination, how they had to choose between different restaurants based on which had ramps, how a lack of accessible transportation altered where they could work, and so on. Inspired in part by the mailbag scene from Miracle on 34th Street, the tactic led to its own poignant moment, when 30,000 diaries were eventually presented to Congress.

“Only being able to choose from a few available options is second-class citizenship,” says Wright. “The advantage we had in negotiations was that people were talking about their life. You often don’t get first-person applications of public policy in Washington.”

The battle for passage, which foreshadowed many of the issues surrounding its implementation and eventual effectiveness, boiled down to three main issues, according to Wright: civil rights, an implicit part of the debate; architects’ desire to have freedom in their choice of designs; and the cost of retrofitting buildings. While architects eventually accepted the changes as another set of guidelines, like a code change, every section of the bill encountered different forms of corporate resistance. During debates over transportation, for instance, Greyhound complained about the cost of retrofitting buses and rebuilding all their stations. During months of negotiations, Wright was assisted by her “right-hand man” Ron Mace, an architect and designer with Barrier-Free Environments, who used a wheelchair due to polio. He continually gave her facts and figures on the costs of different alternatives and upgrades, helping to assuage fears and correct inflated cost estimates from the opposition.

The Ed Roberts Campus Project. Photo copyright Tim Griffith.

Pro-ADA forces decided to draw a line in the sand: nothing built going forward could be inaccessible for those with disabilities, which led to a series of rolling requirements that gave businesses time to adjust to certain aspects of the law. To Wright, that was reasonable; taking buses as an example, new models only last a dozen or so years. If a transit system just added compliant vehicles going forward, within a decade or so after the law’s passage, the fleet would turn over.

Wright also had to address concerns that the law, and subsequent building modifications, could bankrupt businesses forced to adapt to the new normal. A New York Times op-ed at the time titled “Blank Check for the Disabled?” summed up the sentiment of the business community. The solution, the “readily achievable” balancing act, said required alterations needed to be balanced by their ultimate effect and the company’s available financial resources. Financial arguments like these ultimately played a key role in the law’s passage, especially with Republicans. A more accessible America meant less people forced to use benefits and more independent, taxpaying workers.

“Generally, the career presented to those with disabilities was going on benefits, and we didn’t want to do that,” says Wright. “My goal was to no longer have people with disabilities be a hidden minority.”

Inside a home in the Wounded Warrior Home Project in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture and Design.



While the ADA got rid of the patchwork that Wright complained about to legislators, it also added a certain degree of complication to building and the architectural regulation process. Title II and Title III of the act require buildings and facilities in the public and private sectors to comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These standards, which became effective, for the most part, in 1992, apply to places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities (religious entities and certain private clubs are exempt from coverage).

The spirit of the law is voluntary compliance. The law works on an “after-the-facts” system known as injunctive relief; developers can build whatever they want, but architects and builders can and will be held responsible for violations and can be sued (up to $75,000 for a first violation, $150,000 for subsequent violations).

According to David M. Capozzi, Executive Director of theUnited States Access Board, the agency empowered to write all the specific guidelines for architects, the initial set of guidelines were written by the board during a 12-month sprint. Mandating everything from ramp entrances to bathroom sizes, they were released to the public in 1991. Since then, the board has issued supplements covering state and local government facilities, building elements for children, play areas, recreation facilities and emergency transportable housing, and in 2004, completely revamped the original ADA guidelines. Capozzi says the questions his colleagues received were pretty general at first, but as they’ve continued to refine and add new guidelines, architects have clearly adapted.

At first, architects greeted the ADA as just another code change, according to many in the field. Patrick Burke, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design who started there in the ’70s, admits that his colleagues at the time rarely thought about people with wheelchairs. But a few years after the ADA was introduced, it quickly became “part of design DNA.” While sustainability often provided a quantifiable, monetary impact, accessibility, which almost always requires a bigger building and more money, is just the right thing to do.

“It’s a civil rights challenge,” says Burke, “and the law handled it.”

A Wounded Warrior Home Project floorplan. Image courtesy Michael Graves Architecture & Design.



Twenty-five years later, the ADA, as seen in new additions and functionality, touches nearly every building in the country: service animals are accommodated, braille signage has been posted at entryways, push levers instead of handles greet us when we enter a building. But the act has also been a catalyst for stylistic changes in building design, subtle and unsubtle, that have filtered out across the architectural profession. Very visible applications, such as wider, more open bathrooms (once almost an afterthought), no-step entrances to buildings, and curb ramps and warning tiles on street corners, are important indicators of bigger shifts.

“Design and accessible design—there’s no difference,” says Braitmayer. “That’s the change we’ve seen in the last 25 years. People thought this was going to negatively impact the quality of our buildings, due to specific things being done for a special group of people, but everyone benefits from this. It’s good quality design, and that idea has become much more commonplace.”

Many architects suggested that, even more than the specific regulations, it was the spirit of the ADA that eventually led to more integrated buildings and design. After an initial adjustment period, it became a way of doing business and increased awareness. It’s been cited by designers for creating a sea change in our nation’s consciousness around disabilities.

“It’s changed the way we enter buildings, and the way we design for monumentality,” says Steinfeld. “The ADA has created a new way of thinking, a much more convenient, egalitarian approach. It’s no longer like the days of imperial Rome and England, with the elite of society standing up on the second floor, watching the peons go by below.”

Entering the old (left) and new (right) Whitney museums. Photo of the new museum by Max Touhey.

To illustrate his point, Steinfeld points to the New York Public Library, a Beaux-Arts beauty by Carrère and Hastings that opened in 1911. An architect designing such a key public building in a post-ADA world would never create such an imposing flight of stairs, which would make it so hard for many with disabilities to use the main entrance.

Across town, the new 60,000-square-foot, Grimshaw-designed Lower Manhattan transit hub at Fulton Center that opened late last year bathes commuters in light due to the dramatic, elliptical glass-and-steel dome at its apex. But amidst the crisscrossing train lines, wider lanes, elevator accessibility, and improved signage make this bustling space not merely ADA compliant, but a striking and smartly designed way to direct the estimated 300,000 daily riders who pass through each day.

“It’s not just about accessibility for people with impairments,” he says about the transit center, “it’s better mobility for everyone that enters the building, offering a better sense of where you are and where you need to go.”

The Fulton Center reinforces the importance of better wayfinding, more and more of an imperative as both buildings get bigger and the population ages. Easier-to-use door handles, better lighting, and signage have made improved mobility for everyone, from little kids to grandparents with arthritis to someone carrying a package.

“Everything we interact with our hands has been impacted [by the ADA],” says Steinfeld, “in addition to improving visibility and mobility. The contrast with an older city in Europe is just amazing.”

Another point of comparison would be the two homes of the Whitney Museum. Breuer’s 1966 design for the original location, a self-contained ship of granite stones, boasts an entryway experience akin to entering a ship. The new Renzo Piano design that opened early this year offers a sunny, open means of ingress.

By mandating accessibility, one of the ADA’s most widespread changes has been making disabilities more visible and commonplace in society, creating a positive feedback loop that feeds forward-thinking design.

This kitchen includes Universal Design features like a variety of lighting levels and work areas at different heights. Photo courtesy of the IDeA Center.



But for all its impact, the ADA isn’t a set of best practices, only a series of minimal regulations. From a usability standpoint, designers can, and often do, go beyond expectations to improve safety and participation.

Many practitioners looking to advance accessible design subscribe to the concept of Universal Design, a philosophy of barrier-free design pioneered by architects such as Ron Mace that aims to accommodate the “broadest spectrum of human ability.”

“We’re trying to get people to address a larger paradigm, including health, wellness, and social participation,” says Steinfeld. “The bottom line is, if you have a library that’s ‘accessible,’ but people with disabilities can only be in certain parts of the space and need people to get a book for them, that’s not full social participation. You need to go beyond bottom line legal thinking.”

The Ed Roberts Campus Project. Photo copyright Tim Griffith.

In practice, those lofty ideals can co-exist with real-world requirements, often in unexpected ways. The Ed Roberts Campus, a community center in Berkeley, California, that opened in 2010, provides a home for 10 different organizations serving clients with disabilities, fulfilling a vision of its namesake, a pioneering activist in the Independent Living movement. But building a space that serves the blind, physically impaired, chemically sensitive, and cognitively impaired, among others, isn’t as simple as adding more features, such as kick-button elevators for wheelchair users. Architect Gregg Novicoff of the firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, who worked on the creation of this airy, 82,500-square-foot space, said creating a showcase of progressive design required navigating the tricky tightrope of “dueling disabilities.”

“In one public meeting, someone asked us how we were going to accommodate someone who is blind and deaf, and help them reach the front door,” he says. “That’s a sincere challenge we took very seriously, especially since the location on Adeline Street is very busy.”

The complexity of designing the most inclusive entrance possible for the Ed Roberts Campus speaks to the layers of thought that go into improved accessibility. Novicoff and the other designers needed to integrate numerous features without upsetting a delicate balance. The pavement texture for the entrance needed to be tactile enough provide a marker for blind residents using their canes, but not so rough as to bother those in wheelchairs and mobility devices. Bright colors assisted those with visual impairments, while the sound of a fountain offered acoustic cues to the hearing impaired. These types of balancing acts, case studies in reconsidering how different people interact within a space, carried over across numerous aspects of the building’s layout. The debate over the design of a refrigerator door (two doors or one, should it open vertically or horizontally, how high should shelving be set) shows how much people can often take simple things for granted.

“The goal here was to make something replicable,” says Novicoff. “We didn’t want to use any expensive technologies, but instead create an affordable model for others to follow.”

But it was just as important for designers that talk of access didn’t overshadow aesthetics. Historically, homes for people with disabilities were dark, uninspiring places. The building’s centerpiece, a spiraling ramp that runs like a red ribbon through the center of the entryway, fulfills a mobility requirement while putting what’s often an architectural afterthought into the foreground. For residents, it’s also become a potent symbol. The seven-foot-wide passage, which can accommodate two wheelchairs side-by-side, sends a strong message of self-reliance as soon as a visitor enters the building. It’s such an iconic feature that weddings have taken place on the ramp; it’s also not a bad spot for photos of the bride and groom.

“Everyone deserves great design as much as they deserve to be able to come in and work on the weekend,” says Novicoff. “It’s a social justice issue.”

A bedroom at the Wounded Warrior Home Project in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

Universal design advocates also point out that as the population changes and ages, more inclusive design becomes even more imperative to a great number of Americans who may have taken it for granted. The designers and architects Michael Graves Architecture & Design have firsthand experience understanding the importance of accessible design after changing circumstances. When their former principal became paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury in 2003, the months he spent in clinical hospitals and rehab facilities only reinforced his commitments to more empathetic design.

The Wounded Warrior Home Project in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, initially may have been designed by the firm for a specialized community of returning veterans, but the lessons on display have implications for the much wider world of design.

“The places that Michael was in after his injury were very clinical spaces,” says Burke. “The key with the Wounded Warrior houses was not making it an institution. Often these places have massive atriums, but forget about including great living spaces for patients. We call it ‘atrium-it is.'”

The kitchen at the Wounded Warrior Home Project in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

According to Burke and his colleagues, these model homes were guided more by the spirit of the ADA than the letter of the law, often going well beyond requirements. Since soldiers are often deployed to other locations, the buildings had to accommodate not only the injuries or disabilities of the initial residents, but also those of soldiers who might move in later. Wider hallways accommodated the turning radius of larger, electric wheelchairs. Kitchen counters were height-adjustable. Entryways were built in-grade to eliminate the visual perception this was “just” a home for those with wheelchairs. Special temperature controls were incorporated into every room to accommodate the specific needs of burn victims.

“It was a really extreme project,” says Rob Van Varick, a principal at the firm who focuses on product design. “We discovered a lot of shortcomings in what was already being done, even in the products designed for those with disabilities. Objects like grab bars look so industrial.”

As the country continues to age, says Van Varick, a tipping point will be reached where more money flows toward design for people with disabilities. For some reason, he says, people think design for disabilities can be stylish or aesthetic. But why not both? He point to one of his favorite examples, eyeglasses. They’re designed for a disability, but they’re also a fashion statement.

“If you need something, it should be awesome,” he says.

Images courtesy the U.S. Access Board.



At the time of its passing, the ADA was promoted as a means to guarantee civil rights for the more than 40 million Americans with disabilities. While many think it has proven itself to be a great equalizer, others believe that many issues regarding the built environment still need to be addressed to achieve the goal of complete access, including better wayfinding and acoustic standards for the hearing impaired.

“The standards are limited and don’t address cognitive limitations to a great extent, or the sensory environment,” says Steinfeld. “We also need to address the changing wheel mobility population. The people who use mobility devices today are much more diverse, and because of the obesity epidemic, many people aren’t able to walk anymore without pain. The current space requirements don’t accommodate a good number of people, and we need to make changes there.”

But if you ask disability advocates and many of the bill’s initial supporters, the true challenge is employment. Congressman Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island), founder of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus in 2001 and the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, has introduced bills meant to help improve transportation for people with disabilities, a key barrier to hiring. Langevin understands what it means for a business to make accommodations; when he first served in the Rhode Island legislature, they needed to adjust his desk and voting machine so he could fully participate. He believes employers understand what it means to comply with the ADA, and many psychological barriers about disabilities have since fallen, but often the next step, hiring those the law was meant to help, is still a stumbling block.

“There’s still a misunderstanding that it’s going to be a complication,” he says. “And that’s not the case at all.”

“I’m not sure we have more people with disabilities employed now than we did 25 years ago,” says Wright, when asked to reflect on the law’s success. “If I could revisit the law, I would want to spend time on how you make employment an issue.”

In fact, some studies have even shown that employment for those with disabilities has decreased since its implementation, a broad-based decline across different communities due to a variety of factors, including some of the negative financial pressures the ADA puts on employers.  One scholar has even said that it serves as “a striking example of the law of unintended consequences.”

But while that analysis comes from a fairly broad consensus of researchers, it also leaves out many of the striking successes of the law. From sweeping changes in education for those with disabilities to the way it has reshaped the landscape to be more accessible for all, the ADA has made significant strides in altering the built environment. Capozzi, of the U.S. Access Board, can literally walk home and see examples of his work at just about every building or corner he passes.

Karen Braitmayer, left, and Congressman James Langevin. Photos courtesy of Karen Braitmayer and Flickr.

It’s also a point of pride for many involved that the law, the first of its kind in the world, has served as a model for disability rights activists and governments here and across the globe.

“It changed the face of the United States,” says Wright. “I remember when I first started doing this work a long time ago, and when I traveled, there might be one person on the plane with a disability, and I would probably know them. Now, there are so many more. It did change everybody’s life. To be able to take their kids to the park, or go to a Grateful Dead concert … the doors of society opened up to people with disabilities thanks to the ADA, and I’m proud.”

And Braitmayer sees her teenage daughter approach a post-ADA world with the belief that, as a wheelchair user, she can do anything.”I see so much sophistication with accessible design now,” she says. “We’ve gotten way past the idea of just getting into and out of a place. I think sometimes I’m training myself out of a job.”

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