Disability Accessibility and the Failure of the Americans with Disabilities Act - By Shoshana Batson
Disability Accessibility and the Failure of the Americans with Disabilities Act
ENG 111 GYD18
13 December 2019
Imagine someone driving down the highway in their trusty vehicle. Suddenly, warning lights start flashing on their dashboard. They pull over to the side of the road just as their car comes to a stop. They go through the hassle of calling and waiting for a tow service. They make it to the car shop, but now they are stranded. There are no bus stops nearby. With the cost of repairs, there’s no money to pay for a ride, so they call a friend. The repairs take much longer than expected, and suddenly they are relying on other people’s help to do the things they used to be able to do independently. How might they feel; guilty for always needing help, resentful that their town infrastructure was built in a way that requires a car to get around? Many people with disabilities feel such guilt and frustration. Anyone can become disabled at any time, regardless of class, race, religion, gender or where they live in the world. People with disabilities are often frustrated that public spaces have been built in a way where people with disabilities are denied access. The first major attempt in the United States to address this problem is a piece of legislature known as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was passed in 1990. The ADA was intended to guarantee equal access for all. It “codified the concept of access as architects’ compliance with objective measures determined by law” (Hamraie 455). Aimi Hamraie closely studied the accessibility of the university campus where they teach, with the help of their students. They took a highly academic approach and focused on ways to initiate change for the places they found inaccessible as stated in their article. In contrast, in their article, Johnna Keller used their intimate knowledge of architecture to address how to initiate change for future buildings, rather than modifying existing ones. Both authors tackle the question of whether or not the ADA is doing its intended job. The ADA attempts to guarantee accessibility, but fails to, in large part because of the research the legislation was based on, as well as because most builders meet only the minimum legal requirements; meeting the minimum standards of the ADA does not provide wide-spread accessibility, which leaves many people with disabilities stripped of their right to partake in society.
Many people believe that ADA Standards provide accessibility for all disabled people. One reason this is a common belief is because when someone is able bodied, it is unlikely that they will notice the ways in which places are inaccessible for people with various disabilities.
Another reason for fairly widespread belief that the ADA provides accessibility for all is that people trust the legislation to be doing its job and do not have knowledge of the flawed research that was used as the basis of the ADA Standards. The ADA Standards are based on research of a very particular demographic, that demographic being “white, male disabled veterans who were seeking to ‘overcome’ their disabilities and return to productive work” (Hamraie 461). However, there are many types of disabilities, only some of which counted under the law at the time the ADA was written. Even within one type of disability, for example limited mobility, there is a range of needs. Two people with limited mobility may actually have very different situations. Perhaps one is a full-time electric wheelchair user, and the other is a part-time cane user. Their needs are going to have over-laps, but also huge differences. Because the ADA addresses only certain types of disability, it leaves other people without accessibility. Hamraie explains, “Because of my own disabilities, for example, I know that there were no official policies [at my workplace] about fragrance-free spaces or accessible (non-LED or fluorescent) lighting because the ADA does not address these issues” (457). So, while the purpose of the ADA is to provide accessibility, it often fails to due to the extreme limits of the research it is based on and what types of disabilities were considered.
Furthermore, when architects meet only the most basic requirements of the ADA Standards, they often end up with buildings that are not accessible.
For example, while the ADA suggests measures to improve accessibility in restrooms such as widening toilet stalls and installing grab bars, it does not specify where in the building the restrooms should be (United States Department of Justice 45). Thus if architects are only meeting the minimum standards, architects can end up “… [creating] architectural designs that border on the nonsensical – for example, locating accessible restrooms on the second floor of a building with no elevator” (Keller 955), or having wheelchair-accessible entrances that leave one needing to climb a flight of stairs (Hamraie 458). Therefore, the building standards should be treated as the absolute minimum. While meeting the standards set by the ADA is important, architects must go beyond and provide true accessibility to as many people as they can. To not do so is ableist as it leaves people with disabilities unable to engage with society and unable to effectively advocate for themselves. Architects shape the world of people with disabilities more than they may realize. When meeting only the bare minimum set by the ADA, architects often make decisions that render the building inaccessible, which is unacceptable.
The ADA has shown that legislation, as it currently stands, is not the answer to accessibility issues as the ADA lacks proper guidance and does a poor job monitoring compliance. There must be meaningful inclusion for disabled people in society, which means having equal access. Though laws like the ADA attempt to guarantee equal access for all, they have failed because the standards can be met without the building being accessible. Part of the problem is that “the ADA Standards do not detail how to create equal access, which is why we often find the accessible entrance in the rear of the building or… elevators hidden in the back” (Keller 955). The other issue, as mentioned before, is the “limited range of the law (and qualified disabilities under the law)” (Hamraie 455). The ADA simply does not provide enough guidance, nor consider enough types of disabilities. The result is that even with full compliance, legislation such as the ADA does not provide equal accessibility to all.
Accessibility is important for a number of reasons. One primary reason is that people with disabilities have the same right to enter public spaces and be a member of society as able-bodied people. However, accessibility issues can prevent this. Ableism is a structural issue – both literally and figuratively. Just as people recognize racism as an oppressive system, so too is ableism. If the Town Hall is being held in a place that is not accessible to people with disabilities, how are they supposed to advocate for themselves? If visiting an art gallery requires navigating stairs, how can someone with limited mobility take part? It is important to “interrogate the taken-for-granted nature of access to public space at the heart of many diversity-affirming projects” (Hamraie 467) because it sparks conversations about what is expected from and by people with disabilities and their “public citizenship” (Hamraie 467). Though an unreasonable expectation, the current standard is that disabled people are expected to fight inaccessibility in each individual place they go to. Social equity is in society’s consciousness as it relates to other minorities yet leaves out people with disabilities. In fact, people who are part of other minorities as well as being disabled are often left out. One example is how many gay pride parades are not accessible (Kim). Accessibility matters because people who are disabled are still people, with a right to move freely through society.
The ADA fails to meet its purpose of providing equal access due to a combination of reasons including: being based on flawed research, having sub-par standards, and not guaranteeing architects’ designs follow common sense, which leaves people with disabilities without the access guaranteed them.
There is, of course, more research to be done. What kind of legislative reforms might help is a topic that should be looked into, as is what types of renovations would be necessary to make currently inaccessible buildings accessible. To start, one could do a deeper exploration of the ADA and exactly what the requirements are, how they are enforced, and what the exceptions are. Accessibility is a human right; therefore, equal access must be mandated and enforced.
Hamraie, Aimi. “Mapping Access: Digital Humanities, Disability Justice, and Sociospatial
Practice.” American Quarterly vol. 70, no. 3, Sept 2018, pp. 455-482. ProQuest Central, doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0031. Accessed 6 October 2019.
Keller, Johnna S. "The Politics of Stairs." The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings &
Handbook, edited by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 953-957.
Kim, Sarah. “Pride Month Too Often Overlooks LGBTQ Members With Disabilities.” Forbes, 24 June 2019, forbes.com/sites/sarahkim/2019/06/24/pride-month-too-often-overlooks-lgbtq-members-with-disabilities/#7d7fe5021ef8. Accessed 5 December 2019.
United States, Department of Justice. “Americans with Disabilities Act: Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations and in Commercial Facilities.” Americans with Disabilities Act, 15 September 2010, www.ada.gov/regs2010/titleIII_2010/titleIII_2010_regulations.pdf. Accessed 10 December 2019.
 In this paper the word “accessibility” is used to refer to if a place or building is easy to navigate for people with disabilities, particularly limited mobility
 Ableism, much like racism or sexism, refers to prejudiced beliefs about people based on physical characteristics, in this case how well the body does or does not work.