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Provide Equal Access
Last updated: 07-06-2012
For Americans with disabilities, access means simply being able to use, enjoy, and participate in the many aspects of society, including work, commerce, and leisure activities. While removing architectural barriers may allow people with disabilities to circulate within and around a facility, other factors, such as transportation, affect their ability to fully participate in activities. Designers and other suppliers of services and goods need to provide equal access for all without undermining the needs of people with disabilities.
What is "Equal Access"?
Providing equal access means ensuring all individuals can make use of transportation, buildings and facilities, programs and services, employment opportunities, and technology. It also means offering all users the same provisions for privacy, security, and safety.
Design professionals can promote equal access by incorporating and integrating accessible and universal design features in a building's design program. Providing equal access begins at the programming and planning phase of a project and requires buy-in from all stakeholders involved in the project. Critical decisions are made during the initial programming and planning phase of a project which can greatly impact the cost of providing equal access and in some cases affect whether or not equal access can be achieved. For instance, a building’s orientation on a site can affect whether the installation of a ramp is necessary to access the entrance. All design professionals must be aware of the accessibility requirements that apply to the project. Design professionals may benefit from the assistance of consultants specializing in accessibility requirements.
Knowledgeable and detail oriented contractors are key to ensuring that equal access is achieved during the construction phase. If the contractor is not knowledgeable about constructing accessible features equal access may be compromised. In many instances, whether equal access is achieved during the construction process is dependent on a contractor’s installation techniques. For example, an accessible threshold designed to be a maximum of ½" high is typically installed with a sealer beneath which, if not installed properly, can result in a constructed threshold which is more than ½" high.
The renovated Post Office at Ronald Reagan National Airport provides equal access to the intake windows, Arlington, VA.
Note the accessible window on the far right.
Photos before and after the renovation by: Eric Taylor on behalf of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority
Why Provide "Equal Access"?
Providing equal access removes discrimination and protects human rights. An accessible built environment provides the opportunity for all people to fully participate in and contribute to their families, communities, and society. Equal access offers individuals the occasion to improve the quality of life and standard of living for themselves, their families, and other people in the world. Finally, providing equal access is required, to varying degrees, in order to meet applicable building codes, accessibility standards, and accessibility guidelines.
How Do We Achieve "Equal Access"?
Equal access must be an integral part of the life-cycle process:
- operation, and maintenance of buildings and facilities, not an afterthought.
Accessible features should blend seamlessly with the design. All stakeholders on the project should work together from the start to coordinate and optimize the design of the site and the building. A building and its site should be designed as an integrated whole, rather than as a collection of isolated systems (see also WBDG Functional—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration).
Design and construction decisions impact accessibility. Single building elements or systems should not be added, deleted, or modified anytime in the life of the building until they are coordinated and evaluated with the other elements and systems in the whole building package and with all parties involved.
Keep in mind that "equal access" applies to programs, services, benefits, transportation, fixtures, furnishings, equipment, employment opportunities, and technology. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in aspects of all programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, in the employment practices of Federal contractors, and in Federal procurement practices.
Relevant Codes, Standards and Guidelines
Codes and Standards
- ANSI A117.1 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities
- ASME A17.1 Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators
- ASME A18.1 Safety Standard for Platform Lifts and Stairway Chairlifts
- International Code Council (ICC)—ICC is the secretariat for the ICC/ANSI A117.1 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, International Building Code, International Existing Building Code, International Residential Code
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)—NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code, NFPA 101 Life Safety Code>
- Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards
Laws and Regulations
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Architectural Barriers Act (ABA)
- Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines
- Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA)
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 & Section 508
Products and Systems
Building Envelope Design Guide: Fenestration Systems—Exterior Doors
- International Code Council (ICC)—ICC is the secretariat for the ICC/ANSI A117.1 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities.
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)—NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code
The major resource for guidance on accessible design is the U.S. Access Board (Access Board). The Access Board is an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. Key responsibilities of the Board include developing and maintaining accessibility requirements for the built environment, transit vehicles, telecommunications equipment, and electronic and information technology; providing technical assistance and training on these guidelines; and enforcing accessibility standards for federally funded facilities. For additional resources, see the Access Board's Links Page.
- Department of Defense—ABA Accessibility Standard for DOD Facilities
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO)—HUD enforces the Fair Housing Act under regulations to the ABA and has issued guidelines under this law (the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines) which cover multi-family housing. Information is also available on how to file a complaint with HUD under the Fair Housing Act. HUD's website also addresses access under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
- Department of Justice (DOJ)—DOJ offers technical assistance on the ADA Standards for Accessible Design and other ADA provisions applying to public accommodations and commercial facilities, including businesses, nonprofit service agencies, and state and local government programs and services; also provides information on how to file ADA complaints. Many of its technical assistance letters are available online.
- ADA Information Line for documents, questions, and referrals:
(800) 514-0301 (voice)
(800) 514-0383 (TTY)
- ADA Information Line for documents, questions, and referrals:
- Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—Accessibility Program
- General Services Administration (GSA)—Accessible Facility Design
- U.S. Air Force—Air Force Center of Expertise for Accessibility
- U.S. Army—TI 800-01 Design Criteria, Chapter 7, Provision for Individuals with Physical Disabilities, Section 4, 20 July 1998.
- U.S. Navy—Accessibility Requirements for Navy and Marine Corps Facilities
- U.S. Park Service
- U.S. Department of Transportation
- U.S. Postal Service
- The 1995 Accessible Building Product Guide by John P.S. Salmen and Julie Quarve-Peterson. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995.
- Access by Design by George A. Covington and Bruce Hannah. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996.
- The Accessibility Checklist—User's Guide by Susan Goltsman, ASLA, Timothy A. Gilbert, ASLA and Wohlford, Steven D. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications, 1992.
- The Accessible Housing Design File by Barrier Free Environments, Inc. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
- The ADA Answer Book by Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA). 1992.
- Homes for Everyone Universal Design Principles in Practice by the Office of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, April 1996.
- The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0 by The Center for Universal Design. North Carolina State University: 01 Apr 1997.
- Universal Design Handbook, 2nd Edition by Wolfgang F.E. Preiser and Korydon H. Smith. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, September 17, 2010.
Special thanks to Lex Frieden for his inspiring words in the speech "Toward a Barrier Free World for All," April 5, 2001.