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Twenty Years Later…What Does ADA Mean to You?

By Leah Riley, ICC Accessibility Inspector/Senior Code Consultant

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law on July 26th, 1990. This was lauded as the first real declaration of equality for people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

To a person with a disability, the passage of the ADA opened doors that had been closed for a long time and acknowledged that a person with a disability had the right, just like anyone else, to participate fully in all programs and services available. While I am not a person with a disability, the passage of this law also impacted my life in ways that I never expected. Through some general awareness of the ADA, I have become directly involved in the enforcement of accessibility codes and laws. It has given me an opportunity to learn the laws, advocate on behalf of people with disabilities as well as educate and consult with architects designing spaces referencing these requirements.

Everyone can see the impact of the ADA as well as state and local accessibility codes, if they pay attention to the details. There are curb ramps at corners that also have detectable warnings. There are accessible parking spaces, entrances to buildings and toilet rooms. In addition to mobility disabilities, requirements also are included for blind, visually impaired and hearing-impaired persons. The ADA also has many other specific requirements that not only allow for access, but potentially benefit non-disabled persons. Elements such as a curb cut or ramp are helpful to a person using a stroller or cart. A push-button door operator or lever door hardware can easily be used by a person with their hands full.

The ADA and the corresponding Accessibility Guidelines set standards for not only new construction and alteration projects, but also existing buildings. It requires building owners to assess their condition and, where feasible, remove barriers in order to bring these to a usable level of accessibility for a person with a disability.

While the ADA requires compliance at a time of construction, design of large and small business and even government agencies to this day have neglected to include all required accessibility components. Unless a state of local municipality reviews drawings and inspects projects sufficiently, accessibility enforcement is challenging as the ADA is designed to be reactive. This has resulted in many lawsuits, which ultimately require compliance that should have been provided in the first place. In the past, some large hotel chains were required to provide upgrades at a significant additional cost because they failed to follow the accessibility code. After 20 years, it is surprising that compliance is not always being met.

The information regarding accessibility codes and laws is easy to find, especially with Internet access. The Access Board (an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities) posts requirements, bulletins and commentary to assist in understanding and complying with the code. The Design Professional must take responsibility to review, understand and design to meet compliance just like with exiting, occupancy and any other code requirement .

The Access Board has been actively involved in updating the ADA/ABA and Accessibility Guidelines.  This has been drafted since 2004 and is finally gaining momentum towards passage into law.  This may happen as soon as Fall of 2010.  Hopefully, 20 years later, the much needed updates to modernize the code and include elements such as Recreation and Children’s Facilities requirements will actually happen.  The passage of this should bring to light the fact that although 20 years have passed, there is still a ways to go.  There will be a number of new changes to learn and understand.  Per the 2000 census there are over 49 million persons with disabilities in the United States.  With the aging population, this number will continue to increase.

Think about it for a minute…what does the ADA mean to you, your family, your future?  What will you do to celebrate?


About the Author:

Leah Riley, ICC Accessibility Inspector/ Senior Code Consultant Burnham Nationwide, Inc./The Code Group.  Ms. Riley has over sixteen years of experience in interpreting and providing consulting services for a number of local, national and international building and accessibility codes.  She has gained recognition throughout the construction industry as one of the foremost experts in ADA interpretation through her years of service for the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office for Peoples with Disabilities.

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