Just How Inclusive Is Accessible Design?


The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 30 years ago. Here’s what it achieved, and where it still falls short.

One of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The act was written to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and was packed with intentionally broad implications on everything from hiring practices to access to government services, and from discrimination in housing to the design of sidewalks, bathrooms, and kitchen sinks.  

Some of the most meaningful stipulations of the ADA had to do with how disabled people moved through space: their places of work, parks, buses and trains—and, crucially, their homes. For architects and designers, it “unquestionably changed the way the built environment is designed,” says Donald Strum, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. Strum began practicing architecture in the 1980s and in recent years has focused on design services for the aging and physically disabled population. 

But the road to the ADA was long, complex, and arduous, paved with decades of discrimination; sit-ins and demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; protests inside and in front of the Capitol Building; and the very real, physical injustices presented by design and architecture. 

Many trace the act’s origins back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the United States was undergoing deinstitutionalization—an era in which the government stopped funding state-run psychiatric hospitals and instead focused on federally funded community mental health centers. The policy, which helped cut government budgets, meant that its patients, who were usually diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability, were instead cared for in a much more public environment: at home, in halfway houses and clinics, or in local hospitals.

The public wasn’t ready for this transition, however, says Valerie Fletcher, the executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD)—both in terms of societal acceptance as well as physical and environmental preparation. By the 1970s, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had passed, guaranteeing certain rights to people with disabilities, but it was primarily applicable in federally funded programs. The IHCD, she explains, was founded in 1978 with the idea that “accessible design was a necessary addition to our understanding of civil rights.”