President George H. W. Bush signing the ADA

July 22, 2015

July 26th marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law ensuring equality for people with disabilities. Broad in scope and coverage, the ADA bans discrimination based on disabilities in programs and services, employment, buildings and facilities, transportation, and communication in the public and private sectors.

The drafters of the ADA understood that guaranteeing equal access to the built environment and to transportation would mean little without detailed design requirements establishing what, at a minimum, accessibility means. The statute assigned the U.S. Access Board the critical task of establishing accessibility guidelines for buildings and facilities, as well as transit systems, covered by the law. The Board’s ADA Accessibility Guidelines set the baseline for standards used by other agencies, specifically the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), to enforce the law. They govern the design, construction, and alteration of all types of sites and facilities covered by the law, including places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities. They also address the manufacture of transit vehicles, including, buses, vans, and rail cars.

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)


ADAAG cover



 David M. CapozziDavid M. Capozzi, Access Board Executive Director


Marsha MazzMarsha Mazz, Director of the Board’s Office of Technical and Information Services


Hammer Award poster


“President George H.W. Bush’s signature was barely dry on the statute when the Board began work on the original ADA guidelines,” states David M. Capozzi, the Board’s Executive Director. “The law gave the Board a short time frame to complete this work, and it issued the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities exactly one year later on the first anniversary of the ADA’s enactment.”

Often referred to as ADAAG, this document was implemented as enforceable standards by the DOJ on the same day, July 26, 1991. A couple months later, the Board and DOT jointly followed up with ADA accessibility guidelines covering transportation facilities and vehicles.

“It’s amazing to recall what the Board and its partners at DOJ and DOT were able to accomplish in one year’s time,” says Capozzi. “The Board drafted and released for public comment the full text of the ADA guidelines which were based on those it previously established for buildings that receive federal funding. During the comment period, the Board held over a dozen public hearings across the country. In short order, the Board received and reviewed over 1,800 comments from the public, finalized the guidelines accordingly, assessed their cost and benefits, and obtained all the necessary administrative clearances within those 12 months. It was quite a hectic and heady time, to say the least.”

Additional ADA Rulemaking (1992 – Present)

Not long after issuing ADAAG, the Board proceeded to develop supplements covering access to certain types of sites or facilities, most of which had never been substantively addressed by an accessibility guideline before. Among them are guidelines for state and local government facilities, including courthouses and prisons (1998), building elements for children (1998), play areas (2000), recreation facilities (2002) and, most recently, emergency transportable housing (2014). This work continues as the Board is currently developing new ADA guidelines that will cover public streets and sidewalks and passenger vessels.

In 2004, the Board completed a comprehensive rewrite and refresh of ADAAG. Through this update, which garnered over 2,500 public comments, the Board coordinated extensively with code and standard-setting bodies in the U.S. As a result, the current ADA Standards are now largely harmonized with building codes and industry standards, including accessibility provisions in the International Building Code.

“It was an incredible undertaking to review through an advisory committee long-standing criteria for accessibility and to do so in a way that engaged code and industry groups, advocates, and other stakeholders and provided a forum for honest discussion and eventual consensus,” recalls Marsha Mazz, who led the Board’s ADAAG review and who currently serves as the Board’s Director of its Office of Technical and Information Services. “In addition to updating accessibility criteria, this review offered a platform for coordination with code and standards groups that has resulted in a high degree of consistency between ADAAG and counterpart codes and standards.” This work and the cooperation with stakeholders achieved through the ADAAG Review Advisory Committee earned the Board a Hammer Award for Reinventing Government from Vice President Al Gore.

The Board is currently conducting a review of its ADA guidelines for transportation vehicles. It previously released for public comment updates to its criteria for buses and vans and is reviewing provisions for rail cars through an advisory committee.

The Board’s rulemaking responsibilities are not limited to the ADA. It develops and maintains guidelines for federally funded facilities covered by the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), one of the first measures passed by Congress to address access to the built environment. In 2013, we issued requirements that are now part of the ABA Accessibility Standards and apply to national parks and other outdoor areas developed by the federal government. Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Communications Act, the Board has issued and is currently refreshing accessibility requirements for information and communication technologies. Most recently, the Board gained responsibility to issue standards for medical diagnostic equipment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Technical Assistance, Guidance, and Training

The Board not only writes accessibility guidelines and standards under the ADA and other laws, but also provides technical assistance and training on them to the public. One of the first things the Board did after passage of the ADA was set up a toll-free help line that it maintains to this day.

“The calls started soon after the law was enacted as designers, architects, engineers, consultants and others across the land learned of their responsibilities for accessibility under the ADA and the new nationwide design requirements it brought about,” notes Mazz.

Whether it’s a question about architectural access, vehicle design, information and communication technology, or other aspects of accessible design, people turn to the Board for answers. Many inquiries concern how a specific requirement can best be met in a certain situation or seek clarification on what a particular provision means. Every day the Board provides technical assistance on its accessibility guidelines and standards through its toll-free line as well as by email. The Board fields thousands of questions annually and has responded to over 275,000 inquires since passage of the ADA.

Online Guides and Animations on the ADA and ABA StandardsGuides and handbooks on accessibility promote compliance and best practices. The Board has launched a comprehensive web-based guide to the ADA and ABA Standards. Last year, it released guides covering the first three chapters of the standards. This material features illustrated technical bulletins that explain and clarify provisions, answer common questions, and offer best practice recommendations. It also includes a series of animations on various subjects, including access to toilet and bathing facilities.

The Board also maintains an active training program on accessible design and its accessibility requirements. It conducts a popular webinar series and also regularly travels across the country to provide training at different events and conferences. Since introducing its monthly webinar series in 2008, the Board has conducted 80 webinars attended by a total of over 27,500 people. Most training sessions focus on the Board’s design criteria for facilities, transportation vehicles, information technology, and medical diagnostic equipment. Training sessions, which are targeted to the needs and interests of each audience, attract designers and architects, code officials, advocacy groups, transportation operators, the information technology industry, and other professionals in assorted fields. During the past 25 years, the Board has conducted over 1,750 training sessions and has reached more than 215,000 people through its training program.

Legacies of the ADA

The effects of the ADA in the design realm have been fundamental and lasting. Prior to its enactment, accessibility was too often inadequate or an afterthought, if not completely overlooked. There was a patchwork quality to accessibility nationally as some states had access codes but they were not consistent and their enforcement varied. The ADA established for the first time a mechanism for the Board to create a consistent level of accessibility coast-to-coast by setting national design requirements for accessibility.

“A true legacy of the ADA is reflected in the questions people ask,” notes Capozzi. “Years ago, before the ADA, the common response to accessibility was ‘why?’ as in ‘why is this needed’ or ‘why do I have to do this?’ Now, the questions focus on ‘how.’ People get it; they know accessibility isn’t just required, but that it’s the right thing to do, so questions now get at finding out the best way to achieve it.”

In setting nationwide design requirements, the ADA acknowledged that while equal access for people with disabilities is a powerful and inspiring concept, its fulfillment depends in large measure on detailed specifications. Barriers to accessibility resulted not just from attitudes, but also from a lack of information and detailed guidance.

According to Mazz, “It is fair to say that accessibility in the U.S. has been effectively mainstreamed into building codes and industry standards, and most of the credit goes to the ADA for bringing this about.”

Further, the ADA has established the U.S. as a global leader in accessibility. Many countries and international organizations have looked to the ADA and its design requirements for guidance in addressing accessibility and ensuring equal access for people with disabilities.

“As a nation, we can be very proud of the ADA and what it has brought about in its first 25 years,” says Capozzi. “However, it’s just as important that we not lose sight of the work and progress that remains to be done.”