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ADA Requirements: What Are They and What Do They Do?

When providing comprehensive design services, teams endeavor to design buildings that are beautiful, functional, and most importantly, safe. Architects work with their clients to understand their goals and objectives, while strictly adhering to all applicable codes and requirements. The ADA is a big part of that. Accessible buildings promote safety and inclusivity for everyone. But before the principles of accessible design can be successfully implemented, it’s helpful to first understand how the ADA came to be what it is today.

In its infancy, the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] officially began in January of 1988 when the National Council on Disability issued a report to the President of the United States and Congress, entitled ‘On the Threshold of Independence’. This report was a requirement of the 1986 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The contents of the report sparked the creation of the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities. The first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced to the US Congress at a joint hearing in September of 1988. In 1989, a revised version was brought before Congress. By 1990, it had been ratified by the Senate and the House of Representatives and was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26th.

The purpose of the Act is to protect disabled Americans from discrimination by mandating equal rights, equal opportunities, and integrated access to buildings, services, transportation, and other public amenities. After many years, and numerous Supreme Court rulings, those protections had been greatly diminished. But in 2008, President George W. Bush restored the Act’s original intent by signing The ADA Amendments Act [ADAAA] into law.

The ADA Standards for Accessible Design have undergone an evolution of sorts, as well. In 2009, the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Accessibility Guidelines [ADAAG] went from guidelines to a legally enforceable document. The International Code Council [ICC] released the A117.1 – 2009 Standard: Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. In September of 2010, the US Department of Justice adopted the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. And in March of 2012, compliance with the accessibility standards became required for all new construction and alterations of existing buildings.

Ultimately the standards provide architects with detailed accessibility information including, but not limited to the following:

  • Accessible routes (into/out of buildings)

  • Ramps (incline / slope)

  • Stairways/handrails

  • Wheelchair maneuvering clearances

  • Restroom layouts / clearances (plumbing fixtures / grab bars)

  • Kitchen layouts/clearances (appliances / counter heights)

  • Door operation, hardware, approach clearances

  • Signage/wayfinding

  • Parking requirements

There are over 54 million Americans who have a disability. That’s nearly 19% or one in every five

residents. This number continues to grow as a larger percentage of our population acquires disabilities, often as a result of aging or disabilities incurred in combat or other life events. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the United States is much more accessible and accepting than ever before. Implementation of these accessibility standards, as applicable to each project, ensures that architects can confidently design buildings that are functional and safe, but also equitable, inclusive, and fully accessible to all people.



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