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Reflections on 30 years of the ADA

We asked our Director, Edward Steinfeld, to offer some reflections on the importance of the ADA on its 30th Anniversary.  Here is his response…
ADA 30th anniversary cityscape with people

I will focus on the impact of the ADA on the practice of architecture….

The ADA had predecessors, earlier federal laws requiring accessibility, that are still in force. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required all new and renovated federal buildings to be accessible. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973-74 extended that mandate to buildings owned by state and local government and private entities that run federally funded programs, like universities. Further, it required making renovations to existing buildings when needed. But, the ADA took one crucial step further – it extended the mandate for accessibility to all “public accommodations,” including, but not limited to, neighborhood stores, office buildings, health facilities, sports arenas, hotels and restaurants.

Architectural barriers act 1968
The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968

The inclusion of public accommodations created a larger arena for activism, professional services, legal action, and education. It meant that almost every building an architect designed after the ADA went into force had to include accessibility features. Even architects who designed small projects like restaurants and stores, had to become knowledgeable. They had to think about it all the time or they could get tied up in litigation, lose clients, and get bad press.

All of this caused a major shift in design culture. Before the ADA, accessibility was usually an afterthought. If accessible entries were included at all, they might be added after the basic design of a building was already completed, e.g. a ramp off at the side of a monumental stairway, or, making one elevator or bathroom accessible. All too often, architects neglected to address the laws’ mandates entirely or failed to meet many technical criteria. Given the far-reaching implications of the ADA, the Department of Justice invested in both public and professional education but this took time to make an impact. In fact, architects are still having problems with understanding and following through. Ramped-up litigation, however, increased awareness within the profession of architecture. In response, the licensing exams for architects and accreditation requirements for architecture schools both added competence in accessible design to their requirements.

Before the ADA, accessibility meant something like we see in Figure. 1., a makeshift wooden ramp added to the back entry of a major museum. Ramps like these could be found in buildings all over the U.S. and some are still standing. In contrast, accessibility is now more likely to be addressed more creatively and with a concern for context. Figure. 2 shows recent renovations to the entries of Hayes Hall, the historic building where our School of Architecture and Planning and the IDEA Center offices are located. We had a hand in its design. The inclusion of two accessible entries respects the symmetry of the historic building and provides convenience for people entering from either side. Rather than very long ramps running across the front of the building, we showed the architects how the slope of the entry paths could be reduced to slopes you find on sidewalks so the ramp portions could be minimal. This eliminated the need for handrails, which the historic preservationists appreciated. Seating was added for socialization and landscaping to fit the building with the surroundings.

Figure 1: A makeshift wooden ramp added to the back entry of a major museum

Once people with disabilities were able to access buildings and participate in employment, social events, and leisure time pursuits, it became obvious that other design issues needed to be addressed to make buildings convenient, safe, and welcoming. The ADA increased attention to these issues and laid the groundwork for universal design. Many practitioners, building owners do not understand that accessibility regulations are minimum standards. They do not cover all the details of thermal comfort, acoustics, illumination, building safety, indoor air quality, and wayfinding, for example. They do not even address what we currently know about best practices in design for wheelchair use, vision impairments and deafness. Like the entry in Figure. 2, universal design expands on the ADA and other accessibility laws to address the entire domain of architecture.

Aerial shot of Hayes Hall showing front entrance
Figure 2: Hayes Hall, University at Buffalo. Photo courtesy Douglas Levere
So, where do we go from here? Universal design can be practiced at every level of scale, from national policy on land use planning and transportation down to the details of street lighting and toilets. And it also can be applied to the management of the environment, for example, how we deal with our waste. The way I look at it, the adoption of the ADA was actually an early example of universal design at the societal level. By widening the scope of accessibility to everything constructed in our communities, it represented the first time that a society encoded basic human rights into the fabric of everyday life. It embodied social change into concrete, steel, and stone. Of course, accessibility is not all that is needed to ensure those rights, but it is a prerequisite.
Family lounge
Family lounge in shopping mall with pleasant nursing alcoves, infant changing area, all gender single user bathrooms.
Ramped entrance
Ramped entry to patio becomes a multi level socialization space.
Raised Garden
Raised garden at elementary school is part of a farm to table program in a low income neighborhood. Photo courtesy Sally Swanson Architects.
Wayfinding signage wrapped around concrete post
Wayfinding signage intuitively wraps around the corners inside the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Synagogue sanctuary, all on one level, with choice of seating arrangements, adjustable height reading table, superior acoustics and lighting.

Recent events are now demanding an expansion of the universal design agenda. The LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter movements demonstrate how underrepresented groups can literally and figuratively have no safe space in our communities. The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us how critical design can be for everyone’s health. Economic insecurity, food insecurity, political violence, and climate change are all creating human rights challenges. Innovative strategies in land use planning, housing, transportation, health systems, education, streetscape design, and public amenities will be needed to address them.

So, I think that the ADA and the accessibility laws that proceeded it demonstrated that design policies and practices can make a difference on a societal scale; it created conditions for capacity building and knowledge dissemination; and, it led to the extension of design for human rights beyond regulatory mandates. Looking toward the future, the initiative started by disability rights advocates still has a way to go to reach its ultimate goal but it now needs to be expanded by building coalitions with other underrepresented groups and improving education to address issues that intersect with disability rights. This is a scope well beyond the purview of the ADA. That is where universal design comes in.

Edward Steinfeld

Edward Steinfeld

Director of the IDEA Center
Distinguished SUNY Professor of Architecture

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