25 Years After the Americans with Disabilities Act, Has Accessibility Improved?

Accessibility expert Carl Lewis discusses the current state of affairs regarding Americans with disabilities and their slow, but progressive, integration into University spaces and society.

This article was originally published on ArchDaily. Read it here.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, had sweeping consequences for all persons with disabilities as well as all those in the building and construction industries, especially architects. In 2015, its 25th anniversary was commemorated with special events in cities and states across the USA.

Yet despite the ADA’s widespread impact on the built environment, few schools of architecture have full-time design studio faculty with disabilities to teach their students about accessibility first-hand. I am most fortunate to teach at one of those schools and to have had Carl Lewis as a longtime colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We have known each other ever since he first enrolled in my graduate seminar, and our friendship spans well over a quarter century, just like the ADA.

The milestone anniversary of the ADA, my ongoing research on diversity, personal experiences with family members with disabilities, and numerous occasions reviewing students’ design studio projects alongside Carl prompted me to interview him and to share his expertise with ArchDaily readers.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign played a major role in sparking the disability rights movement thanks to the pioneering work of Tim Nugent (1923-2015), a visionary who spearheaded the goal of enabling persons with disabilities full and equal access to attend the university and whose programs and ideas served as models for colleges and universities around the world.

Following in Nugent’s footsteps, Carl is also creating his own lasting legacy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as on the national stage. Having taught at Illinois for over two decades, he has had a profound influence on a generation of students. He is founder and principal of Access Solution Group, a consulting firm on access and recreational design. His special expertise and longtime advocacy for accessibility led to his appointment by President Bill Clinton to the Architecture and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, USATBCB also known as the US Access Board from 1996-2004.

Carl Lewis. Courtesy of Kathryn Anthony


Kathryn Anthony: Many argue that we’ve come a long way since the passage of the ADA back in 1990, and yet we still have a long way to go. In what ways and why?

Carl Lewis: Let me go back to what the ADA was intended to do. It’s a civil rights bill with the minimum standards for accessibility being stipulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). The act says if an individual is unable to pursue employment, education, and recreation opportunities because of barriers in the built environment that person is being discriminated against by denying them their civil rights guaranteed by the US Constitution. So, what that means is basically the enforcement of it is complaint driven, meaning that someone has to say that they’re being discriminated against for the law to act.

The individual has to file a complaint through one of the two enforcement agencies, the Department of Justice (DoJ) or the Department of Transportation. More than likely, the DoJ will address the complaint via an investigation, and if the allegations are founded, it is forwarded to the Federal court system for further review and enforcement. So in that lies the problem. It is already an arduous process that can easily become bogged down by frivolous and unnecessary claims. In so doing, the legitimate claims are unable to be resolved.

We’ve made miraculous strides towards accessibility over the years, but the ADA is a living document that is revised, nurtured and built upon continuously. It takes a long time for those revisions and changes to be enacted. Case in point is the 2010 revision, which was started over 25 years ago and was just enforceable during the Obama administration.

Courtesy The US Access Board (image in public domain)


KA: I bet most architectural students, educators, and practitioners are unaware of the battles that take place behind the scenes every time the ADAAG is revised. And you’ve had some unique professional experiences, in particular your appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Access Board for two terms (1996-2004) that have given you an insider’s view of the evolution of the ADA. What was that like for you?

CL: Overall, it was a phenomenal experience because I was able to interact with very bright people, bipartisan in nature and mission oriented! It was a great honor to have been appointed, then reappointed for a second term and finally when I was voted to the vice-chairship by the committee as a whole.

Although the 2004 revisions were passed by the Access Board at that time, the road to enforcement was indeed a rocky one. The second Bush administration was not an advocate of enforcement. It wasn’t until the Obama administration that the passage of those revisions were implemented, as the 2010 ADAAG revisions.

I learned many political lessons during my tenure with the Access Board, one of which was in my capacity as chair of the executive committee. I saw to it that those revisions were passed, which in turn motivated the second Bush administration to find a loophole to terminate my position a year early that circumvented my ascension to the chairship.

Courtesy The US Access Board (image in public domain)


KA: In light of over 25 years since the passage of the ADA to what extent do you think a) architects, b) architectural educators, and c) architecture students are keeping the best interests of persons with disabilities in mind in their designs?

CL: Accessibility is often an afterthought. But these issues should be included in the architectural dialogue right from the beginning. Access should be integrated into the curriculum at every level, with a greater emphasis at the upper level. In the teaching of architecture, program, circulation, egress, environmental systems, and structure are all part of the learning process. Though in my estimation, accessibility standards sometimes get lost – they are not part of the pre-design learning experience. My major concern is that architects and students do not have an understanding of where these rules come from, i.e. how people with disabilities impact architectural space. I go on to ask questions like: Where does the 5-foot turning radius come from? Where does the 18-inch clearance on the latch side of the door come from? What about the 1:12 slope for ramps? And then I go on to say how do all of these rules impact trends in aging people with disabilities, trends like use of power-assisted chairs and scooters? What impact do these appliances have on the use or implementation of these rules? In my opinion there is not an understanding of how people with disabilities function in space.

Courtesy The US Access Board (image in public domain)


KA: What are some of the most glaring, most common mistakes regarding designing for accessibility that you see architects, architectural educators, and architecture students continuing to make? And how can these be corrected?

CL: I think the biggest mistake is that they don’t understand that compliance is just the basic standard – and they should always go beyond it. For example, consider a ramp that is designed to meet the 1 to 12 criteria – by understanding that people with disabilities use their appliances differently, based on the circumstance. Perhaps consider how simply decreasing the slope further will make it easier for a user if they are carrying something, or adapting to weather conditions.

Courtesy The US Access Board (image in public domain)


KA: It has to do with the scale at which students are required to present their work. What scale is best?

CL: The answer is the human scale.

KA: How well or how poorly do our current codes meet the wide-ranging needs of persons with disabilities?

CL: The current code’s primary function was to allow wheelchair users to function in that space independently, with the intent that future revisions would become more comprehensive. This fosters the need for research to be completed to better understand how individuals with other types of disabilities, or multiple disabilities function in the built environment. In essence, in over 25 years with the influx of modern day combat injuries, medical/technological advancements and aging the limitations of the codes have become more apparent.

Courtesy The US Access Board (image in public domain)


KA: Have you seen any ramps that look architecturally intriguing but that do not work? If so where?

CL: A ramp is a ramp is a ramp. I’m not an advocate that a ramp should be used for anything other than vertical circulation. When the impetus for the ramp shifts to prioritize aesthetics over function; problems can arise. In that regard, the Guggenheim ramp doesn’t work because it’s unsettling to sit cross slope for viewing purposes. In some cases, people can’t do that, which warrants it to be unusable.

“The Guggenheim [Museum New York] ramp doesn’t work because it’s unsettling to sit cross slope for viewing purposes.” Courtesy © Wikimedia user Wallygva licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

KA: What about a beautifully designed ramp that works exceptionally well?

CL: The Renzo Piano bridge that connects the Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park is a great example of something beautifully designed and functional at the same time. I think it’s a classic example that an accessible design doesn’t need to be institutional and ugly. It can enhance the aesthetics of the building.

This elevation of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago shows the gently-sloping bridge that connects to Millennium Park.. Image © Renzo Piano Building Workshop

This elevation of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago shows the gently-sloping bridge that connects to Millennium Park.. Image © Renzo Piano Building Workshop

KA: Persons with disabilities encompass a vast, diverse group of the population. Which type of disabilities do you think are BEST and WORST served by current building codes, how, and why?

CL: Best served groups are manual wheelchair users. I think the least served are people with severe or multiple disabilities or aging that need power assisted wheelchairs or scooters and survivors of modern day combat: traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and visual impairments.

Kathryn H. Anthony, Ph.D., is ACSA Distinguished Professor in the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she has taught for the past 33 years. She is the author of Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places (due out in March 2017); Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession; and Design Juries on Trial: The Renaissance of the Design Studio and over 100 publications.

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