Many people think that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) primarily covers workplace accommodations. The only public accommodations they associate with ADA are handicapped parking spaces and Braille numbers on elevator buttons. In fact, the ADA's public facilities rules, as outlined in Title III of the act, are far more comprehensive than that. All sorts of buildings and businesses fall under Title III: restaurants, schools, office buildings, banks, doctors' offices, and movie theaters, to name a few. Accommodation can include anything from adjusting store shelves to constructing special ramps and entryways.
Some people mistakenly believe that ADA requires businesses to make all sorts of prohibitively expensive changes or else face stiff penalties. The truth is that ADA is designed to benefit the disabled, not to punish business owners. The key to understanding ADA is knowing what is and is not required, as well as what constitutes an acceptable accommodation.
In years past, "disability" was not something people dealt with publicly; it was understood that those who were blind, deaf, paralyzed, or otherwise "handicapped" would not participate in ordinary life activities, such as school or work.
Attitudes changed slowly but steadily, and by the twentieth century such notable people as Helen Keller and Franklin D. Roosevelt helped break down stereotypes about disabilities. Accommodating the disabled was another matter. Only important public figures such as Roosevelt (who could not stand or walk unaided after his 1921 bout with polio) could expect that structural accommodations would be made for them, and even then those accommodations were limited in scope. There were simply some places that the disabled could not visit freely.
Although most people think that ADA was the first federal law regulating public facilities, in fact it was an earlier law that set the stage. The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was passed in 1968, and it mandated that any buildings designed, constructed, altered, or leased with federal funding had to be accessible to the disabled. This included post offices, national parks, some schools, some public housing, and mass transit systems. Because it dealt only with federally
funded structures, it was (and still is) less well known than ADA, but it was an important early step.
As important as ABA was, it was met with a certain degree of apathy that undermined its effectiveness. Congress, eager to improve ABA compliance and equally eager for the government to create new and more comprehensive design standards, passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973. Perhaps the most important element of this law was Section 502, which established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (later called simply the Access Board). Originally created to develop as well as enforce design requirements, its role later became more focused on ensuring compliance. Beginning in 1976, the Access Board started investigating ABA non-compliance complaints against a variety of public buildings. The law covers any facility that was designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds after 1969.
The design requirements that are supposed to be followed under ABA are spelled out by the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standard (UFAS), which was first published in 1984. These guidelines served as a precursor of sorts to...