Twenty Years and Counting

The ADA has been in place for two decades. We’re still looking for design solutions that go beyond compliance.

Somewhere there’s a black-and-white photo of me shaking hands with a smiling Dan Quayle. It marks the moment when the former vice pres-ident took his victory lap around the country, landing briefly on the island of Manhattan, to celebrate the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. (The resounding bipartisan vote, 91 to 6, seems like a distant dream today.) He came to thank the many special-interest groups—ministers, politicians, educators, community leaders, media, and other advocates—for helping to push forward the ADA, which was signed into law by the first President Bush. The ADA was in many ways similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It extended legal access to the good life: the American Dream would now be available to everyone from wheel-chair users to the sight-impaired—people with any disability, temporary or permanent.

My moment in the spotlight with the vice president came around the same time that our November 1992 issue gave a full account of the first Universal Design conference, produced by Pratt Institute’s Center for Advanced Design Research, in New York. We built the issue around the idea of “Access for Daily Living,” starting with the dismal reality of millions of Americans who struggled to work, shop, and live like other human beings. We were convinced that the law would lay the groundwork for inclusion, and pinned our hopes on designers’ storied abilities to solve difficult problems beautifully. Words of encouragement came from Quayle’s special assistant for U.S. disability policies, George Covington, himself sight-impaired, who said, “The first barrier to universal design is the human mind. If we could put a ramp into the mind, the first thing down the ramp would be the understanding that all barriers are the result of narrow thinking.”

Has that ramp of the mind worked? Yes and no. While some fixes are now common—no city street gets paved without curb cuts, bathrooms in hotels and homes often have grab bars, and some kitchen cabinets are designed for people of many different heights—our built environment remains inaccessible for many. Blame this on our moral lassitude, our litigious society, or simply the snail’s pace at which change takes root. I blame the slow progress on our inability to think about whole-system fixes rather than piecemeal designs. What if, for instance, a restaurant designer thought about how a man with a walker moves from the street to the front door, how he finds a comfortable seat, and if he can read the menu with-out a flashlight? How would a whole system of interrelated design solutions create a pleasant place for everyone who came to dinner?

In 2010 we’re redefining design as a socially and environmentally sustainable activity. But green design, its critics claim, is not widely accepted because we don’t have a green policy. Yet we’ve had an accessibility policy for two decades now. So let’s decide to bring the two experiences together and admit that all design today must be about people, planet, and profit—and that this requires holistic or, as Bucky Fuller might say, systems thinking.

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