Inclusive Design 30 Years After the Passage of the ADA: The Ongoing Fight for Accessibility and the Struggles Faced in Complying with Requirements

By Kinga Fenikowska


July 26, 2020 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).[1] When the ADA was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, millions of Americans rejoiced at the prospect of a fairer and more accessible society.[2] The Act was meant to assure wide-spread equality, by “provid[ing] clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”[3] In fact, the Department of Justice published the 1991 ADA Standards for Accessible Design to specifically address architectural barriers.[4] These standards were later revised in 2010, and on March 15, 2012, the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design went into effect.[5]


The 2010 standards remain enforced to date and are what today’s architects, contractors, and developers use to plan future design.[6] One would think that designing to fit pre-determined standards would not cause too much trouble for these experts, but a look at the situation shows otherwise. In an article marking the 28th anniversary of the ADA, a discussion on the application of the ADA design standards shows that there is still a struggle to meet these requirements.[7] One major criticism of the ADA is that there is no leeway in the standards.[8] A building cannot “almost” meet the requirements; it is either ADA compliant or it is not.[9] That means that if a bath fixture is even an inch outside the range permitted by the 2010 standards, the fixture, and in turn the building, fails to be ADA compliant.[10]


Another major complaint is that there is actually more than one compliance standard.[11] In addition to the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, architects, contractors, and developers must also comply with the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA) and the ICC A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities.[12]On top of that, there are different building standards that correspond to different building types, and these varying standards are promulgated by different government agencies.[13] There is also the misunderstanding that compliance with local building codes and local accessibility standards is enough to meet the 2010 ADA standards. Such widespread compliance is rarely the case, since local building requirements and ADA building requirements are distinctly separate and should be addressed individually.[14] Given that there are so many distinct standards for architects, contractors, and developers to consider, it is easy to understand why there is still a struggle to meet ADA design requirements decades after the Act was passed.


It is worthwhile to note that there are international rules and regulations similar to the ADA. To list a few, there isAustralia’s Disability Discrimination Act, Britain’s Equality Act, and even the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[15] Although international legislation concerning disability rights intends to improve the lives of people with disabilities, not all of this legislation focuses as much on addressing the physical barriers this group faces. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Disability Code of 2000 is heavily dedicated to assuring equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities.[16] However, the only provision of Saudi law that addresses accessibility is the Saudi Building Code of 2007, and all that this code really does is give a general statement addressing accessibility without providing any specific standards.[17] Conversely, some parts of the world have adopted stronger legislation to address accessibility. One example of such legislation is the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005, which “aims to improve the process of identification, prevention and removal of the obstacles faced by people with disabilities.”[18]


As demonstrated above, international legislation concerning the accessibility of people with disabilities varies in its level of focus on the issue. However, the extent to which the legislation addresses the issue is not always a fair indicator of how well a locale is working towards accessible design. In Singapore, a city-state that has not been known to apply inclusive standards, there has been a shift by the Building Construction Authority towards the implementation of Universal Design principles.[19] In fact, Singapore was praised by the UN for this implementation and for its user-friendly environment.[20]


According to the National Disability Authority in Ireland, Universal Design is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[21] Considering the success in Singapore after the application of Universal Design, these principles may hold the key to minimizing the struggles American architects, contractors, and developers have faced in complying with ADA standards. If these individuals design with the goal of making society equally accessible for both those who are able-bodied and those who are disabled, instead of designing for just one particular group of people, complying with various standards might be achieved much more naturally.


Aiming for Universal Design could streamline the accessible design process. Most significantly, Universal Design could potentially consolidate the factors addressed in the ADA, FHA, and ICC A117.1, acting as a bridge between the different standards, as well as between local and federal codes. Of course, architects, contractors, and developers would still need to make sure that they are complying with the ADA standards and the others listed. However, using Universal Design as a baseline and as a tool to shift thinking towards inclusive design could make the process less stressful and daunting.


Recent statistics show that the fight for a more accessible America is still very much worth the effort. According to the United States Census Bureau, about 1 in 5 people in the U.S. had a disability in 2010, equaling to roughly 56.7 million people.[22] That number has continued to grow; in 2016, 61 million adults alone – 1 in 4 U.S. adults – had a disability.[23] In fact, mobility was the most common disability type, with 1 in 7 adults affected.[24] But it doesn’t stop there. Statistics further show that this fight is not, and should not, be limited to just the U.S. It is estimated that by 2050, 15% of about 6.25 billion global city residents will have a disability.[25] That is a staggering 940 million people worldwide that will require and demand more accessible environments.[26]


So, how should the ongoing shift towards a more accessible environment look like? In an article surveying people with disabilities, one participant stated that a move towards inclusive design requires “a holistic approach and a team of individuals with disabilities to actively consult and provide feedback.”[27] This method, along with the implementation of Universal Design principles, may be the ideal approach moving forward. Once architects, contractors, and developers start thinking of accessible design as the norm, meeting standards such as those outlined in the ADA may not seems as troublesome as before. Active discussion between such individuals and people with disabilities regarding inclusive design may also make the concerns more personal. Instead of looking at the standards as requirements that simply need to be met, industry professionals may connect with the cause once they see how these considerations are affecting people in society.


As the statistics above show, an active effort to increase accessibility is absolutely necessary. Significant progress has been made since 1990, but as the 30th anniversary of the ADA approaches, it is clear that much more can still be done to improve the lives of those with disabilities and to streamline compliance with ADA design standards. Working towards inclusive design will only make society better than it is today, both in the U.S. and abroad, so hopefully the fight for such positive change will continue on even stronger than before.


[1] ADA – Findings, Purpose, and History, ADA National Network, (last visited Apr. 21, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101‐336, § 2, 104 Stat 327.

[4] 1991 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, (last visited Apr. 21, 2020).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Michael J. Crosbie, Why Architects Still Struggle With Disability Requirements 28 Years After Passage of the ADA, Common Edge (Dec. 19, 2018),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Saba Salman, What would a truly disabled-accessible city look like?, Guardian (Feb. 14, 2018, 2:30 AM),

[16] Mohammad A. Mulazadeh & Talal S. Al-Harbi, Design of the Built Environment and the Integration of Wheelchair Users in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Commentary and Exploratory Study, 22 J. on Developmental Disabilities 121, 121 (2016),

[17] Id. at 124.

[18] Id.

[19] Salman, supra note 15.

[20] Id.

[21] What is Universal Design, National Design Authority, (last visited Apr. 21, 2020).

[22] Robert Bernstein, Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports, United States Census Bureau (July 25, 2012),

[23] CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability, CDC Newsroom (Aug. 16, 2018, 1:00 PM),

[24] Id.

[25] Salman, supra note 15.

[26] Id.

[27] Elle Hunt, ‘I feel like a second-class citizen’: readers on navigating cities with disability, Guardian (Sep. 22, 2017, 7:36 AM),

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