Just How Inclusive Is Accessible Design?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 30 years ago. Here’s what it achieved, and where it still falls short.
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One of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The act was written to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and was packed with intentionally broad implications on everything from hiring practices to access to government services, and from discrimination in housing to the design of sidewalks, bathrooms, and kitchen sinks.  

Some of the most meaningful stipulations of the ADA had to do with how disabled people moved through space: their places of work, parks, buses and trains—and, crucially, their homes. For architects and designers, it "unquestionably changed the way the built environment is designed," says Donald Strum, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. Strum began practicing architecture in the 1980s and in recent years has focused on design services for the aging and physically disabled population. 

Architect Erick Mikiten helped Melanie and David Maher build an accessible house in Livermore, California.

But the road to the ADA was long, complex, and arduous, paved with decades of discrimination; sit-ins and demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; protests inside and in front of the Capitol Building; and the very real, physical injustices presented by design and architecture. 

Many trace the act’s origins back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the United States was undergoing deinstitutionalization—an era in which the government stopped funding state-run psychiatric hospitals and instead focused on federally funded community mental health centers. The policy, which helped cut government budgets, meant that its patients, who were usually diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability, were instead cared for in a much more public environment: at home, in halfway houses and clinics, or in local hospitals.

The public wasn’t ready for this transition, however, says Valerie Fletcher, the executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD)—both in terms of societal acceptance as well as physical and environmental preparation. By the 1970s, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had passed, guaranteeing certain rights to people with disabilities, but it was primarily applicable in federally funded programs. The IHCD, she explains, was founded in 1978 with the idea that "accessible design was a necessary addition to our understanding of civil rights."  

At a prefab home in Cape Cod, the client told the architects that she didn’t want any stairs in her new single-story home, which is fitted with an entrance ramp.

Throughout the ’80s, disabilities rights activists, organizations, and other groups continued to fight for more inclusive design, protesting and demonstrating in some of the least accessible spaces in the country, like the dozens of steps that lead to the U.S. Capitol. Their work led to the creation of formal legislative recommendations to Congress like the 1987 report Towards Independence, which outlines the needs of the disabled community including the importance of reliable housing, the removal of architectural barriers, accessible transportation, and solutions that facilitate independent living. Finally, it seemed like the tide was turning: Two years later, the ADA was introduced in the 100th Congress, and was passed by the Senate the following year in May of 1989.

But, it would take nearly a full year before it was passed into law by the president, in part due to disagreements about penalties against companies that failed to apply. "Congress so seldom does something wonderful we should pause and salute it on those rare occasions," raved The Washington Post the day after the Act passed.

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990.

Since then, the act has been implemented in phases, updated, and amended, and has had innumerable impacts on the design of landscapes, parks, and housing. Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, founder and managing principal of Seattle-based Studio Pacifica who was involved in the development of building codes in Washington state in alignment with the ADA, was "looking forward to the unification of accessibility requirements for design and construction across the country." 

But what exactly did the ADA of 1990 mandate, and how did it affect design?

For their new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Arielle Condoret Schechter’s clients dreamed of a modest, modern, environmentally sustainable home in a natural, wooded setting. A ramp provides a zero-threshold entry to the front door for aging in place.

First of all, it set a series of minimum design requirements that focused on the nitty gritty, from the appropriate height of signage (which should include Braille) to the distance between doors in a vestibule. It dictated the difference between a sloped sidewalk and a ramp (which would require handrails), and outlined the dimensions and locations of grab bars in bathrooms. It designated a certain number of accessible parking spots in parking lots, provided audible and visual requirements for alarm systems, outlined the technical requirements for ATMs and fare machines, and much more.

From a design perspective, the act has had some major effects on the products that go into public buildings, says Strum, but it has had an even greater impact on spaces, buildings, and landscapes. It’s also impacted the way architects and interior designers consider the layout of a space, particularly homes—especially as more adults are looking for residences where they can age in place. These homes are created or renovated to have accessible kitchens, stair lifts, grab bars at bedside and in bathrooms, and hallways and floor plans that have clear floor space to enable unrestricted movement for those with canes or wheelchairs.

An wheelchair-accessible sink designed by Maegan Blau of Blue Copper Design.

For example, Alison Strickland, founder and design director of design studio Narratif, created a modest bungalow so that her client with multiple sclerosis "had full reign of the main floor." The main living space comprises an open-plan kitchen, dining, and living room, she details, and the kitchen has a dropped counter running around it at table height to accommodate her client. "It’s also where guests pull up with a chair, so it’s a very inclusive experience for everyone, and actually feels quite special," says Strickland.

Indeed, the ADA has made life easier, happier, and more fulfilling for millions of people. "The fact that I am able to spend my time being an entrepreneur and perfecting the world of interior design instead of constantly fighting for basic civil rights is a huge testament to what the ADA has accomplished in a short 30 years," says Maegan Blau, interior designer and founder of Arizona-based Blue Copper Design

Maegan Blau of Blue Copper Designs in the kitchen she designed for herself.

But all-inclusive and exhaustive? "There is no doubt the ADA was a significant milestone for people with disabilities," says Ricardo A. León, a Texas-based architect and graphic artist. But, he says, there needs to be more input from people with disabilities: "I've lost track of the number of times I take an ‘accessible route’ and am shocked by how not functional it is for me." Braitmayer agrees: After advocating for the ADA in 1990, she "had no idea [she] would still be advocating for good building design 30 years later." 

Jordana L. Maisel, senior research support specialist at the IDEA Center at SUNY Buffalo notes that the current ADA standards don’t meet the needs of the majority of the population that has disabilities. She points to turning radii in bathrooms, reach dimensions for coat hooks, and knee clearances under sinks and tables as specific requirements that don’t actually serve most wheelchair users, for example. What’s more, the types of disabilities that people experience today are different and more diverse than they were 30 years ago, says Fletcher. 

Having lived in, and loved, a modern house built in 1954 in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood since buying it in 1996, architect Karen Braitmayer and her husband, marine mechanic David Erskine, recently came to realize that the house was overdue for some modifications. Braitmayer, whose firm, Studio Pacifica, specializes in universal access space planning and ADA compliance for commercial and residential projects, is a wheelchair user, as is her and Erskine’s teenage daughter. 

At the same time, though, the implementation of ADA is something that benefits everyone, says Fletcher. Curb cuts and ramps benefit those with strollers, delivery carts, and luggage, she points out, and clear and reliable signage make everyone feel confident. But the act’s simple, straightforward requirements ultimately created a very prescribed, cookie-cutter approach, leading designers across the country to approach compliance as if it were a building code rather than a minimum baseline, she explains. León agrees, noting how ADA compliance is treated as a box to check rather than thought of holistically. "How do you truly make a space equitable?" he asks. 

One solution that has started to gain traction is the movement for universal design in the U.S., sometimes called inclusive design. Fletcher also points to the intersection of sustainability and socioeconomic status as part of the reframing of accessible design, noting that the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel movements are heading in the right direction. More recently, the IDEA Center has developed a certification program called Innovative Solutions for Universal Design, which is reminiscent of LEED accreditation for sustainable buildings. 

The new, more intimately scaled master bedroom leads to an adjacent patio, which was repaved to gently slope from the doorway to new drains, which solved both an access and a water issue. Braitmayer planted quick-growing bamboo in galvanized troughs for privacy. At right is the seamless passage to the master bathroom. "There are no longer raised thresholds in the house," notes Braitmayer.

So what does the future of accessible design hold, and where can it go from here? One thing is for sure: that it needs to go beyond curb-less showers and lever-style door knobs to truly consider human experience more broadly and deeply. It’s important to "not approach design through a lens of disability alone but take in factors of race, gender, age, and more. These factors are interconnected," says León.  

But, he notes, "it will not be up to ADA alone to make changes." And Braitmayer concurs: The key, she says, is working together. "We must continue to fine-tune what accessibility means in the built environment," she says, "and demand that we be treated fairly and equally as the citizens we are, as well as demand the right to utilize the talent, skills, ingenuity, and much more that we as disabled individuals bring to our communities."

Related Reading: 

Trend Report: Design for All Ages

9 Inspiring Accessible Homes That Champion Inclusive Design

The World’s First Fully Accessible Water Park Raises the Bar for Inclusion



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