Understanding the Regulations of Universal Design

My favorite movie of 2020 was Crip Camp. This documentary follows the lives of a group of disabled teenagers and young adults who met at a summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s and went on to form the movement for universal access and rights for disabled Americans that eventually led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. For me, the ADA is the greatest design movement of the 20th century, as it caused sweeping changes to the ways civil engineers and architects design sites and buildings — it opened up these spaces to everyone for the first time in our country’s history. It’s easy to forget what our built environment was like before ADA, and the numbers of architects who practiced in that pre-ADA world are shrinking every year. In Crip Camp, the inequalities of the pre-ADA world are laid out in deeply personal terms by the campers. We learn about the lived experiences of people with a wide variety of disabilities too — it’s not all about wheelchair access. The filmmakers do such a good job capturing the importance of this overlooked movement for equality that Crip Camp should be required viewing for all architects and architecture students.

The movie also got me thinking about an aspect of practice that I’ve seen a lot of newcomers to architecture struggle with over the years, and that’s how to juggle the overlapping accessibility requirements of the ADA with state and local codes and regulations on accessibility. I see a lot of people mix up these overlapping requirements when they’re starting out, and most frequently, the mistake is that the state and local codes get followed to the detriment of ADA’s requirements. Sometimes, that’s okay if the state and local codes are more stringent, but most of the overlapping requirements represent a little bit of this code and a little bit of that ADA requirement — you’ve got to blend them together in your design to make sure you meet all the regulations.

Here’s how I look at ADA versus state and local codes and regulations:

For those I’ve mentored over the years I use this approach to explain the regulations of accessible design, and it seems to help people get past their misunderstanding of this topic more quickly.

Beyond the dry topic of law, code, and regulation you have the larger landscape of universal design. It’s rarely enough to simply implement accessibility law, code, and regulation. The most impactful part of Crip Camp for me as an architect was getting to see the discussions the campers had about their frustrations not just with the built environment, but with the way the world perceived them and their value to society. The design insights provided by these conversations provide powerful lessons in universal design for architects. It’s certainly changed the way I think about the access and usability of space, especially the weight of those considerations versus everything else one considers when turning a program into a design.