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Why American Cities Still Aren’t Accessible After 33 Years of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act has made a positive impact on the built environment — but there's so much more left to be done.

12:01 AM EDT on July 26, 2023

Today, the Americans With Disabilities turns 33. A third of a century for the farthest-reaching federal civil rights legislation for people with disabilities ever passed in the history of our nation. 

I have covered the disability community since before the passage of the ADA. When it first became law, I thought that, surely, three decades later, attitudes would have changed. And they have a bit — but not nearly enough. 

As I transitioned from daily urban affairs journalism to a career in public service as a senior urban policy advisor in Miami, I’d often politely point out accessibility barriers to city planners, architects, engineers, public works, transit and capital projects department heads.  

“But it’s technically compliant,” they’d bark back. “We passed inspection. It meets the building code.” 

“If you broke your leg, and the emergency room handed you a bandage and two aspirin and said, ‘We’ve given you medicine; now go home,’ would you be happy?” I’d reply.   

Three epic #ADAfails, via Disability Thinking

Over the course of my career working in all aspects of planning, I’ve seen ablelist design in virtually every city I’ve spent more than half a day in — and despite 33 years of the ADA, a lot of it was “technically compliant.” 

I’ve seen final building plans where the accessible restroom is too small, the hand dryer is mounted far out of reach of a wheelchair user, and the grab bars are in the wrong place and blocked by a waste receptacle. 

I’ve seen cities close a sidewalk for two to three years of construction, forcing people with disabilities to cross dangerous traffic four times just to run an errand on the same side of the street.

I’ve seen micromobility companies flood the streets with dockless scooters, without anyone requiring them to build marked docking stations out of the pedestrian pathway, or hire round-the-clock staff to remove scooters that block sidewalks, curb ramps, crosswalks, transit stops and building entrances. 

I’ve seen cities bow to developers who want to build fewer than the required number of units accessible to people with disabilities, even when that housing is publicly funded. 

I’ve seen wheelchair ramps tucked into the backs of major office buildings far from the main entrance, leading to locked doors with no way of alerting the occupants to come open it.

I’ve seen cities allow outdoor lifts as the only means of egress/ingress into a major public space like a library, only to see those lifts get broken within a month and never get repaired — much less replaced with a ramp.

I’ve seen cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sports arenas and stadiums to enrich billionaire owners, all while claiming to have no money to repair broken sidewalks, replace missing ones, and fix curb ramps that flood every time it rains.  

I’ve seen developers cut corners to save dollars, and met far too many architects, engineers and planners who seem to resent the ADA as something constraining. 

Graphic: ADATA

But people with disabilities are not outliers, and designing for a wide variety of needs is not a constraint. The CDC has documented that one in four Americans have a permanent disability, and the United Nations has estimated that 1.3 billion people on Earth have a significant disability, too. 

And those numbers aren’t likely to go down, especially as our population ages. By 2030, one in six people in the world will be aged 60 years or over, and the World Health Orgnization expects the sheer number of people over that age to double to more than 2.1 billion by 2050.  

The massive task of redesigning housing, parks, transportation, the workplace and much more to allow people to age in place is already one of the greatest challenges of the 21stcentury. And Universal Design — the concept of making our world more welcoming, comfortable and easy to use by everyone — is the framework through which we can confront it.

Along with being the most sustainable, flexible, durable and cost-effective approach to planning and building, Universal Design gives people with disabilities a better shot at dignity and independence. People with disabilities are by far the most under-employed, unemployed and impoverished of all marginalized groups, in part because of barriers to their mobility in many workplaces, even in brand new buildings constructed long after the passage of the ADA. Less than one percent of housing stock, meanwhile, is move-in ready for people who use wheelchairs.

Far too many people responsible for designing our built environment leave disability out of the conversation because no one on the planning and implementation teams belongs to the disability community. Far too many others mistake the ADA for a type of building code — which can and should allow for waivers and variances under certain circumstance — rather than the iron-clad, non-negotiable, federal civil rights legislation that it is. 

I could fill a large room with people who have shamelessly asked me “Hey, Steve, you work with people with disabilities and design; how can I get away with having no ramp at the entrance to my new building? How can we avoid the cost of an elevator?” Even if that building is, of all things, a four-story medical office. 

Dehumanizing people with disabilities by seeking waivers and variances that would exclude them is as off base and bigoted as asking your human resources director if the fourth Tuesday of each month can be “Civil Rights-Free” day, so you can harass or fire workers on the basis of race, gender, orientation, religion. Subjecting human and civil rights to a cost benefit analysis is never the right approach — and it’s time we all open our eyes, see the problem, and become a part of the solution. 

Miami-based Steve Wright is an award-winning writer, public policy expert and advocate for people with disabilities who Jane Jacobs biographer Jenna Lang once dubbed “the Jane Jacobs of Universal Design.” He created and taught a groundbreaking Universal Design course University of Miami and has lectured on the subject nationally and globally. Along with conducting Universal Design workshops for dozens of clients, he has published thousands of articles on planning for an inclusive built environment.

Visit his daily blog at http://urbantravelandaccessibility.blogspot.comFollow him on Twitter at @stevewright64.

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