Accessible Design and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Accessible route from parking lot to building at Union College
Accessible route from parking lot to building at Union College. Photo (c) Jackie Craven

Accessible design has become so culturally ingrained that we hardly even see it when it's done well. Pathways flow into porch entrances. Door handles are attractive and easily maneuvered by anyone. Bright colors remind us what door we came from. Speaking to the thermostat is not exclusive to designing for the blind.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is federal legislation that has been described as sweeping, necessary, too broad, onerous, overdue, unenforceable, and a pain in the asphalt. It probably is all of these things.

Quite simply, the ADA is just another law passed by Congress—like the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, similar laws that came before the ADA. The 1990 statute, however, has affected how we build, design, and think about the spaces that everyone uses. Maybe even more importantly are the unintended consequences of the ADA—in protecting the civil rights of a minority group, a vast majority of people have benefited.

ADA Basics—What is the ADA?

The ADA is landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation that protects the rights of Americans with physical or mental disabilities. This federal law, signed on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush, consists of five titles, crossing areas from employment to public accommodations to telecommunications.

The law is implemented through rules and regulations developed by executive branch agencies and administered by federal agencies including the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ), US Dept. of Transportation (DOT), and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Individual complaints can initiate a federal investigation. For example, the DOJ has the obligation to investigate complaints and the authority to negotiate compliance agreements. The DOJ also has the authority to bring civil actions, including monetary penalties, to enforce the ADA. Enforcement Activities are published on the ADA website.

U.S. Access Board

The ADA named the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the US Access Board, as the agency to set the compliance standards for DOJ and DOT implementation. The Board is an independent federal agency established by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Its original purpose was to enforce the ABA. The first standards and guidelines published in 1982 became the minimum standards adopted by the ADA in 1990. By 1991 the Access Board had supplemented the accessibility guidelines and published ADAAG.

The Access Board also creates guidelines for Section 508, the 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that gives people the right to access information just as the ADA provides rights to access spaces.

Guidelines for Accessible Design

Architects and builders have long turned to the US Access Board for guidance in how to comply with federal regulations. The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) has long been used for ADA compliant construction and alteration standards and guidance, while individual federal agencies supplemented ADAAG with additional rules. In September 2010, the US Department of Justice revised their standards into one document, which has been used as a guideline for ADA compliance since March 2012.

The Guidelines and Standards created by the US Access Board continue to be a well from which many federal agencies can draw.

What Architects Should Know

  • ADA Guidelines are not building codes. State and local building codes are rules for building safe elements. ADA guidelines help you build those safe elements for everyone's use.
  • ADA Guidelines do not suggest aesthetics. The art of architecture is left to the architect. How beautiful can you build? One thinks of the solution Burnham and Root used in the 1888 Rookery Building to comply with a fire escape requirement.
  • Don't try to retrofit for accessibility. Internalize the concepts of Universal Design and design for everyone. Have a specialist on staff or hire a Registered Accessibility Specialist (RAS).

Widespread Benefits of the ADA

The sweeping effects of ADA legislation go far beyond curb ramps on sidewalks and Braille on elevator buttons. What if you were hard of hearing and wanted to take an architecture course from Harvard or MIT and the videos were not captioned? Does Netflix have to provide closed captioning on their streamed content? What are your rights under the ADA, even if you don't think of yourself disabled? The cases listed on the ADA website illuminate real-life situations.

Civil Rights Attorney Sid Wolinsky described the benefits for National Public Radio:

"The ADA offers protection for everybody....In fact, this is an enormous group of Americans—people who don't define themselves as disabled. The person who's in their 80s and moving really slowly, and can't manage a flight of steps, doesn't think of themselves as disabled — they're just a little older. A person with a mild case of arthritis, a person who can't manage a heavy suitcase when they're traveling—those are the people who are being helped by the ADA, and it's a large and growing population."

Spaces Built for Everyone - Universal Experiences

A blind visitor to Berlin's Jewish Museum walks on thousands of metal faces called Fallen Leaves by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman
A blind visitor to Berlin's Jewish Museum walks on thousands of metal faces called Fallen Leaves by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News Collection/2014 Getty Images

How do blind people experience a museum? The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany has specially designed tours—what they call A Multi-Sensory Architecture Tour for Blind and Visually Impaired Students and Adults. The museum was architect Daniel Libeskind's first important work of architecture.

German designer Ingrid Krauss tells us that the term barrierfrei has been part of German design since at least the 1960s. Krauss says that "design for all" or DfA is the more common words used to describe the belief "that all people, irrespective of their individual abilities, age, gender, or cultural background, should be enabled to participate in society."

Thinking Beyond Accessibility and the ADA:

"There is a profound difference between universal design and accessibility," writes architect John P. S. Salmen. "Accessibility is a function of compliance with regulations or criteria that establish a minimum level of design necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. Universal design, however, is the art and practice of design to accommodate the widest variety and number of people throughout their life span. It can be thought of as the process of embedding choice for all people into the things we create."

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed just to get us going in the right direction. Great design goes beyond minimum standards.

Sources and Further Reading

  • ADA Resource Page, American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • Accessibility Compliance by John P. S. Salmen, AIA (PDF), AIA, 2000
  • Disability, Accessibility & Liability: What an Architect Should Know by Jean A. Weil, Esq. Anthony D. Platt, Esq., AIA Trust, 2014
  • History of the Access Board and About the ADA Standards, US Access Board; Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, Federal Register.
  • In Helping Those With Disabilities, ADA Improves Access For All by Joseph Shapiro, National Public Radio (NPR) at, July 24, 2015
  • NKBA Kitchen and Bathroom Planning Guidelines with Access Standards, National Kitchen and Bath Association, Wiley, 2012
  • Open Tours, Jewish Museum.
  • The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities by Deborah Pierce, Taunton, 2012
  • "U.S. Accessibility Codes and Standards: Challenges for Universal Design" by John P.S. Salmen, p, 6.1 and "Manifestations of Universal Design in Germany" by Ingrid Krauss, p. 13.2,
  • Universal Design Handbook, 2nd edition, Wolfgang F.E.Preiser and Korydon H. Smith, ed., McGraw Hill, 2011.