30th Anniversary of the Disabilities with Disabilities Act (American with Disabilities Act (ADA))

It has been nearly 30 years since the signing and enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of today’s practicing designers are not aware of the history of this act, much less may not have even been born. Although the law was signed into law on July 26, 1990, the history of disabled requirements goes back before then. Discrimination against people with disabilities was not addressed by the Federal Government until 1973 when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act became law for Federally Funded projects. California was one of the first to have disabled access requirements written into their Building Code back in 1981. Much of what was used as the basis for the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Guidelines came from California and before that ANSI A-117.1 Standards, which dates back to 1961.

There is still a lot of misunderstanding on what the ADA is and what needs to be complied with. Compliance with the applicable disabilities access requirements is not all or just ADA, but includes the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) for dwellings, and local requirements found in the California Building Code. This is the reason we have
Chapters 11A/Privately Funded Dwellings and 11B/Public Accommodation to reflect this the two different Federal laws.

The ADA is not a building code. Although parts of it appear like building regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and the 2010 Standards are only guidelines for compliance with the Civil Right Acts. The ADA covers far more than the built environment; it includes employment practices and things that building designers do not normally or indirectly deal with, like telecommunications and transportation.

The following are some common questions asked about the ADA:

  • Enforcement – The enforcement of the ADA is only through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and by law suits. There is no agency that does plan review for compliance with the ADA. Compliance rests mainly with the facility owner, but because the designer is an agent to the owner, they will almost always be a party in the case.
  • Historic Buildings – The 2010 Standards does address historic buildings, much like Part 8 of Title 24, California Historical Building Code (CHBC). This section does provide for a more lenient approach to compliance to preserve historical features of a building or site.
  • Adaptability vs. Accessible – Under the ADA there is little mention of “adaptable” elements. This term mainly came from the FHA for items like cabinets or grab bars within a dwelling unit, and shows up in the California Building Code’s Chapter 11A for Privately Funded Dwellings.
  • Evolution/Changes to Regulations – It took nearly 20 years between the original ADAAG and the 2010 Standards for the guidelines to be changed. There have been other additions for elements for children, recreational facilities, and public entities. What continues are lawsuits with case histories that designers may be held accountable for (i.e. lines of sight associated with standing patrons in assembly venues).
  • Code Certification – Within the ADA, the DOJ has the power to certify code as complying with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). To date only a handful of codes have this title. The DOJ has stated that compliance with the IBC and compliance with the FHA for dwellings is a “Safe Harbor”. This means compliance with the IBC and FHA is a rebuttable defense in court for compliance with the ADA.

Back in 2003, the Certified Access Specialist (CASp) program was created in California and is designed to meet the public’s need for experienced, trained, and tested individuals who can inspect buildings and sites for compliance with applicable state and federal construction-related accessibility standards. The intent of this program was to increase the level of awareness, understanding and enforcement of the building regulations for disabled accessibility. That is why your State Architectural license requires a minimum of 5-hours of continuing education directly associated with disabled accessibility.

It was intended that all building departments have a CASp person either on staff or available for plan review. The latest count from the Division of the State Architects Office who administers CASp is a little over 800. From previous exams, less than 25% of people who took the exams (both open and closed book portions) passed. This number may have changed in recent times What does that say about the program or the material needed to pass the exam?

When it comes to the ADA, do NOT certify compliance with the ADA, even if you are a Certified Access Specialist (CASp). As a designer, always stay within your area of expertise. You are not a Civil Rights Lawyer. Your first responsibility is compliance with the applicable local building regulations, which is normally the CBC and any local amendments. Compliance with the CBC will bring you very close to compliance with the ADA.

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Comments by Erick Mikiten, AIA:
As a wheelchair riding architect, I’ve seen the good, bad, and the ugly of the ADA. The firm I worked for in 1989 sent me to the national public hearings in San Francisco where people were testifying about what should and shouldn’t be in the ADA, how steep ramps should be, how big a turning space in a restroom should be, and everything else in the ADA.

What I witnessed was a rag-tag group of individuals with disabilities going toe-to-toe with big business and established groups representing commercial and residential building owners – who were able to afford professional representatives and code experts to argue their case for looser requirements.

The ADA regulations that came out of that process were a compromise between those two groups…and skewed toward the desires of the powerful groups advocating for steeper ramps, smaller restrooms, and fewer accessible parking spaces. The take-away here is that just because we design a building or outdoor space to be “perfectly compliant” with the ADA, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are making places that are “perfectly accessible”.

In my work as a California Building Standards Commissioner participating in each new code cycle, I see the same dynamic at play today – but I’m happy to say that the building industry today (at least in California) is much more enlightened about and supportive of accessibility. But there is still much tension and debate between these  groups when new California Building Code (CBC) amendments proposed increases in accessibility in California.

So when you get the new CBC every three years, or the Intervening Cycle amendments in between those, and you see tweaks and adjustments to accessibility, remember that many of those are often still compromises.

It’s difficult to incorporate true improvements to accessibility that start to approach the ideas of Universal Design by going through a top-down code-creation process; there are simply too many cooks in that kitchen. But the amazing thing is that we, the architects, are not limited by the code; through a bottom-up process we can incorporate smarter and more-usable design solutions any time we want.

The ADA has only had one update in 30 years, and the process of improving the CBC
resembles Sisyphus forever pushing the boulder up the mountain, but I’m encouraged that architects are truly starting to see the value of Universal Design – that it’s about human equity and making places that are more comfortable and more usable for everyone. So rather than engaging in a Sisyphus-like code-improvement battle, let’s all just go around the mountain, and create no-compromise accessibility tomorrow!

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