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What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

The effects of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act are visible throughout the built environment—on sidewalks, on buses, and in almost every building and public facility in the country.

Wheelchair ramp

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The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was approved by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.  The law, usually referred to by its acronym, is intended to prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities—similar to the anti-discrimination measures of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By requiring the removal or retrofitting of all barriers to the physical accommodation of people with disabilities, the ADA has tremendous consequences for the fields of planning, engineering, architecture, and every other profession working to shape the built environment.

The most consequential sections of the ADA for the built environment are found in Title II and Title III of the law. Title II prohibits discrimination of people with disabilities by all public entities at the local level. For example, the ADA requires any public transit agency providing fixed route services to provide paratransit services (i.e., individualized rides). Public transit agencies are required to allow space and accommodations for wheelchairs on all buses and trains serving fixed routes. Public transit agencies operating subways are also required to offer elevator access instead of stairs and escalators. New York City's subway system is notoriously lacking ADA access to facilities, requiring a costly station improvement program.

Sidewalks provide another prominent example of the kind of accommodations required for ADA conformity. Curb cuts, or the ramp at the end of sidewalks, ensure that people in wheelchairs or with other mobility disabilities can navigate the public realm. ADA advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice continue to litigate in cities that have failed to fully implement curb cuts on publicly owned and maintained sidewalks, forcing some cities (e.g., SeattleCedar Rapids, and Portland) to meet ADA requirements by retrofitting sidewalks. Importantly, the implementation of programs to retrofit curb cuts on sidewalks at intersections has revealed a benefit called the "curb cut effect," which describes the ability of ADA requirements to benefit a much larger population than just people with disabilities—like parents with children, runners, and business owners. The curb cut effect reveals how addressing the needs of a specific group can provide a broad, public benefit.

Title III of the ADA requires accessibility improvements in privately owned properties. People with disabilities have the right to full and equal enjoyment of any privately owned property with public accommodations, including commercial, retail, and other kinds of land uses. Every building constructed since the ADA took effect in 1992 required full compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. Buildings constructed before the ADA took effect have obligations to retrofit facilities for accessibility, such as by adding ramps and elevators where previously only stairs offered entrance to facilities.