When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 30 this month, everyone whose work impacts the built environment — architects, engineers, urban designers, town planners and public officials — should be scrambling to observe the landmark federal civil rights legislation.
While the ADA is not a building code or some kind of zoning that can be ignored via variance, its biggest impact by far has been on the civic realm. Buildings, streets, crosswalks, trains, buses, parks, natural trails, city halls, schools, malls, libraries and much more have been made more accessible because of the ADA’s adoption on July 26, 1990.
We still have a long way to go toward removing old barriers and approaching accessible design in a creative way, but we certainly are ahead of the game compared to the way life was before the ADA.
My wife and I are only in our mid 50s, but we remember many buildings at the state university we attended being totally inaccessible to wheelchair users in the mid-1980s. And some of the worst offenders were not old red brick halls from the early 20th century — they were modernist monstrosities of inaccessibility built not long before we went to college.
The ADA made things better, but it did not wave the magic wand. Despite billions in explosive real estate development that could have supported desperately-needed redesign and retrofitting, only a fraction of New York’s subway is accessible. Even the accessible stations often have broken down elevators — and what use is a system that has an accessible station near your apartment, but none close to where you work?
The New York City American Institute of Architects chapter dedicated virtually all of its recent Oculus quarterly publication to exploring issues of accessible design. Renown writers and experts in design, disability, shared vivid words and images on progress, challenges, pitfalls and trends. A topic important to our family was explored: how to create design that is so universal, so creative, so seamless, that it doesn’t look like institutional “ADA architecture.”
In a nearly four-decade career as a journalist, public policy researcher and marketer, I have worked with hundreds of architects, planners and designers. As an advocate for inclusive design, I see the self-fulfilling negative prophecy, from inception to epic failure. If the professional’s attitude is anti-ADA, their designs come out complicated, costly, confounding and non-compliant.
These same masters of their fields have awards on their walls for innovative projects that dealt with myriad fire, HVAC, flood, wind, life safety, commercial/residential building and zoning codes — all while being creative. But toss the ADA at those individuals and they feign that it is impossible to integrate human-friendly design into their master work.
When planning is done at the 11th hour for accessible entrances, hallways, bathrooms, offices, work spaces, break rooms, exercise rooms and more, nothing good will result.