July 26: ADA

2012/07/26 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1990 Pres. George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

ADA addresses all kinds of potential discrimination against people with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”  It has had significant impact on architecture due to its Title III, which addresses public places.  This portion of the law prohibits discrimination “with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of . . . facilities or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”  New construction is required to be fully compliant, and existing facilities obligated to “remove barriers” as that goal was “readily achievable.”

That all sounds fair and reasonable, and it is.  The law required that places of education, entertainment and business would be equally accessible to all, and who could be against that?  Especially in democratic societies, it is shameful that such an ordinance had to be put into place, and was enacted so late.

Problem is, the law has been narrowly and, in some cases, stupidly interpreted, especially in the case of historic properties.  The law permits that bona-fide significant buildings should be made accessible to the “maximum extent feasible” unless necessary changes would “threaten to destroy the historic significance of a feature of the building.”  That is where interpretation of the law often goes off the rail.  A signature element of most historic public buildings is a staircase of some scale: it is a simple, standard way to literally elevate a building and articulate its importance.  Stairs are, of course, an obvious no-no under ADA, and in their quest for compliance, keepers of historic structures have vandalized their own properties.  Miles of serpent-like ramps slither around courthouses, hideous lifts stick out of library porticoes like mechanical goiters.  The aesthetic attack on these buildings is one thing; it’s another, and worse, issue when the original ascent of the building is simply negated.  Many state capitols and other great civic buildings, even Jefferson’s Rotunda, have been subject to this kind of desecration, the idea being, if a very, very small percentage of the population cannot make the symbolic climb into a higher communal space that through its architectural design represents the ideal of a democratic society, then everyone must schlep in through the cellar.

That’s not the intent of the law.  Accommodating differently-abled people differently is not an inherently evil thing.  Diminishing everyone’s path of access (not the access itself, just the path) is overkill.

In the hands (and minds) of rational building owners and architects, all structures can be made ADA compliant without diminishing their original architectural appearance and function.  That should be the goal, rather than taking the easy approach of girdling our public buildings with endless ramps or shutting down the stairs and front doors of our public buildings–those are meaningful things that should be utilized every day by those who can, and choose, to utilize them. Their significance was, after all, not lost on those who so dramatically supported the passage of the law in the first place.

Image: ADA demonstration in 1990 photographed by Tom Olin (from this source)


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