This month marks 30 years since President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. One of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in the country’s history, its guidelines and protections have changed the way we work, learn, and move through space. For architects and planners, it has meant a complete shift in thinking about accessibility and inclusive design. Now, on this landmark anniversary, experts weigh in on how far we have come and what a more equitable future might look like with the help of ADA.

A sculptural glass ramp surrounds the Joni and Friends International Disability Center Chapel in California by Gensler. Photo © Benny Chab/Fotoworks

Broadly, the ADA the prohibits discrimination based on disability. The act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and mandates that all spaces open to the public must be accessible. This includes government, civic, work, commercial, and entertainment facilities; housing is notably excluded.

But as architect and longtime accessibility consultant Janis Kent explains, there’s nuance to it. “The ADA is a civil rights act, but the application of it is not cut and dry.” As the founding president of the Certified Access Specialist Institute— a professional organization for this field— Kent emphasizes that the act most be approached as a civil rights issue, rather than just a matter of code compliance. Her company, Stepping Thru Accessibility, based in Long Beach, California, has provided accessibility consulting to architects, building owners, developers, property managers, and public agencies since 2009. In her books, lectures, and seminars on the subject, she also points out the true extent and spirit of the act. “When we are talking about the world of disabilities, it is far beyond mobility disabilities,” she says, noting that architects should also consider and address cognitive, hearing, and vision impairments, among others, even if they are not specifically covered by code or the ADA itself.

Subtle design strategies allow the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco by Mark Cavagnero Associates to better serve its visually impaired clientele. Photo © Jasper Sanidad

Dallas-based architect and consultant Marcela Abadi Rhoads, owner of Abadi Accessibility, echoed this sentiment. “Architects are becoming more sensitive designers for a broader group of people,” she tells RECORD. “And they do it because it is the right thing to do.” However, Rhoads is quick to point out that doing the right thing is not always easy: the complex (and overlapping) guidelines and requirements of the ADA, the American National Standards Institute, and local and national building codes can mean a lot of homework—or can lead firms to hire a consultant like her.

One architecture practice that has been embracing the challenge is Seattle-based LMN Architects. Known for designing institutional and civic spaces, the firm’s approach starts with listening. “Going beyond just the disabled community to every community we design for, we listen to those with the lived experience, to make sure our designs are truly inclusive,” says LMN principal Osama Quotah. For the recent State Route 520 infrastructure project in Seattle, which involves a large network accessible pedestrian and bike paths, this meant producing handmade tactile drawings for blind and low-vision community members during the design process. LMN has also found crossover lessons between its museum and educational work, where much thought is put into the social and communal experiences of not just individuals, but families, groups, and young people with disabilities.

Thirty years on, with continued focus on providing equitable space, much of the ADA’s guidance has been internalized by the many of those currently in practice, who have never designed without it. The result is architecture that does more than provide “second class” accommodations, but rather incorporates true accessibility to the most people possible. As Janis Kent puts it, “ADA has allowed people with a disability to just be people.”