An ADA Perspective After 30 Years


James V. Vitale, AIA, LEED AP, CASp, ACTCP


Even after over two thousand years, words of old still effect our mis-perceptions of disabled individuals. Old Testament references to the blind, lame, deaf, crippled, sick and diseased would have us believe that these afflictions were the results of demonic possessions or curses. From this distorted view, came individuals preying on this ignorance by claiming to possess the ability to “heal” these manifestations. Individuals like Merlin, Rasputin and Nostradamus come to mind. Some, using herbal remedies, could actually do so. Others, claiming the ability to call upon Divine intervention, likewise attempted to do the same; even up to present times.

With the advent of modern medicine during the latter half of the twentieth century, we have begun to identify the origins of many of these historic mis-perceptions.

Institutions for those misperceived to be possessed, warehoused these individuals under abominable conditions all over the world.

Many of the founding states of our Union created the first American institutions for the often primitive treatments for deafness, children with weak minds, cripples and blindness. Society then and up until the Regan years warehoused many of those allegedly perceived as imbeciles, hopeless cases or physically distracting.

Were it not for wars to render hundreds of thousands of veterans and civilians, crippled or in firmed, the rights of the disabled might continue to be ignored or minimized. Had not the son of a prominent Republican been a victim of Polio, and a similarly impacted son of an electrician who was denied a union apprenticeship due to the ignorant perception that he was a cripple; he had a withered arm, become a civil rights attorney; we might never have seen a champion for disabled rights step forward.

1861 was marked by the founding in Faribault, Minnesota of the Feeble Minded and Epileptic Colony for “children of weak minds” that being those perceived as imbeciles, natures mistakes.

In 1945 the Colonies name was changed to State Hospital for the Mentally Retarded.

The names, descriptions and perceptions of various disabilities have changed over the ages. Yesterdays retarded individuals have been found to be, hyperactive and dyslexic. Others the victims of institutions to which they were committed as hopelessly in incorrigible.

Colonies, asylums and institutions have been replaced by foster and group homes, and independent living centers (ILC’s).

Consider that early in the twentieth century, supposedly educated individuals suggested that the best remedy for defective individuals was eradication by elimination or legalized sterilization. At one point twenty-five states had legalized euthanasia, a policy later adopted by Nazi Germany.

The end of World War II left many American veterans with disabilities requiring specialized care; this and the outbreak of Polio brought further visibility to the plight of the disabled. Until the advent of television disabilities were not as visible to the general public. 1947 saw the first telethon seeking to raise funds and awareness of MSD. Since 1966, Jerry Lewis has raised over a billion dollars for research with his annual telethon.

Returning veterans with disabilities sought education under the GI Bill but colleges and universities were unprepared with programs and dormitories to house them. Early efforts to accommodate them were lead at the University of Illinois by Ted Nugent. A similar effort, concurrent with the early days of the civil rights movement in the sixties was led by Ed Roberts at UC Berkeley.

It became apparent that without physical modifications to buildings and sites, programs for the disabled could not be readily accommodated. In 1961 the American Society for Testing and Materials, ASTM, together with a group of concerned organizations, created 117.1-1961, the first attempt at a national standard for the inclusion of access into building design. As there was no national building code at the time, it met with limited success. A major rewrite underwritten by HUD and chaired by Robert F. Lynch, FAIA, a polio surveyor, followed in 1980. It remains the adopted standard though it has been revised as recently as 2017 but not yet adopted by DOJ.

President Ronald Regan founded the “National Council for the Handicapped” in 1984, chaired by Justin Dart, son of a prominent Republican fund raiser who was a polio surveyor. Dart and another polio surveyor, attorney Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr., who was denied an apprenticeship by the electrical union as he was perceived to be disabled due to a withered arm; drafted the early language for the Americans with Disabilities’ Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. Since that time progress has been made but the built environment continues to remain only partly accessible. Try as we may, it appears that a resistance to comply remains. This may be  because the ADA is civil rights law with a set of guidelines (the ADAAG, based on ASTM A117.1 – 1980) for its implementation by local agencies. Implementation requires states to draft building codes reflecting their understanding of the guidelines. ADA Guidelines are just that, non-specific minimum recommendations, in this case however, they have the force of federal law behind them.

As of 2000, the three national code agencies: UBC, SBC & BOCA have merged into one agency, the ICC and drafted a national model code, the International building Code (IBC). Revised every three years and now in its sixth edition; it incorporates in Chapter 11 model language with regards to the ADA. Acceptance of the IBC, if used without amendments is pending DOJ approval. Similar DOJ approval is available to each state, subject to the submission of their codes for review.

Application of the code and law to individual projects is the responsibility of owners, architects, building and government officials. It is here, due to conflicting interpretations, that issues remain; what does and does not constitute compliance is a cause of constant disagreement.

Claims of ADA non-compliance can only be made by disabled individuals to the DOJ or in California to the civil courts per the Unrhu Civil Rights Act of 1959. California was an early leader in the development of statewide code provisions for access, preceded by Massachusetts in 1967 and North Carolina in 1973. Responsibility for its administration is with the State Architect. Code issues related to access compliance for alterations and  new construction remain an ongoing source of discussion. The DOJ released the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design (ADASAD) as a revision to the initial ADAAG Standards in an attempt to bring further clarity to its guidelines.

Advocates for disability rights, though not nationally organized, continue to file a number of lawsuits each year in Federal and State courts. They are sufficient in number to create backlogs in some courts, to the degree that thirty years after the passing of the ADA, legislatures continue to be faced with bills seeking prior notice of intent to file a claim against a building owner. These run contrary to the intent of the ADA for building owners to voluntarily remove barriers to accessibility.

While much barrier removal in pre-ADA structures remains to be accomplished, the ADA has resulted in significant improvements in access to our built environment for those with various levels of disabilities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *