Anti-discrimination legislation as a basis for barrier-free design: How could the Americans with Disabilities Act be adapted for the U.K.?

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Anti-discrimination legislation as a basis for barrier-free design:
How could the Americans with Disabilities Act be adapted for the U.K.?

Pauline Nee, London Borough Islington Architects Dept., United Kingdom

My experience is as a designer for a local authority in London and before that as a community worker. In autumn 1989 I spent three months in the USA looking at design for people with disabilities in that country. I am non-disabled myself so I do not speak on behalf of any disability group. I shall confine my presentation to the areas with which I am familiar and examine the relevance of legislation in producing accessible buildings. To summarize my position I feel that we in Britain can learn much from the U.S. experience. However I feel it would be wrong to confine this to an examination of their legislation. This positive legislation is a result of and response to the strong disability lobby and a developing philosophy on rights of access.

What I learnt in the U.S.

My stay in the U.S. proved to me that Americans are way ahead of the British in creating a barrier-free environment. Commentators on the contrast between the two countries have put this down to the differing political and cultural traditions. The importance of the individual and concepts of self-help are very much part of the American dream. This has lead to a demand by people with disabilities that they lead independent lives. Eliminating artificial barriers has always been a foremost demand. In Britain the attitude is different and provision for disabled persons is too often regarded as a charitable dispensation rather than an inalienable right. The story of bar owners who display 'Guide-dogs for the Blind' collection boxes while not allowing guide dogs in their pubs reflects a not untypical attitude.

The U.S. did not always have this positive attitude. During the last century some states had passed 'ugly laws' barring disabled people from public places on the basis that their presence was offensive and posed undue legal liabilities. By contrast, Britain took a positive approach, passing the Disabled Persons Employment Act at the end of World War II, to ensure troops of employment on their return from overseas. This act however was never seriously implemented. In 1970 and 1981 other acts were passed but as these encouraged rather than demanded barrier-free design, they had no significant impact on accessibility in the U.K. It was not until 1985 that mandatory legislation was incorporated into the Building Regulations and this is minimal in scope.

Since the 1960s the U.S., by comparison, has produced a significant and extensive body of legislation which has had a very real impact on the lives of people with disabilities. This legislation has been backed up with extensive powers of enforcement and monitoring. In true American fashion, it has also lead to successful litigation. When I was in San Francisco a student at the University of California, Berkeley was awarded over £250,000 because she could not enter a newly renovated restaurant.

The disability lobby

I came away from the States convinced that we could learn important lessons from the disability lobby. Action which had lead to success included high profile campaigns; direct action; intensive networking across the country, incorporating independent living centers, pensioners' groups, enforcement agencies, architectural practices; and perhaps most importantly, leadership of the movement by people with disabilities.

We can learn from their philosophical and their pragmatic approach, the latter being they do not want separate facilities as these will not be attained or repaired if they serve a small proportion of the population.

The effect of legislation

Not least we can learn from American mistakes and make sure that we avoid them. It has a bearing on the subject matter of this seminar that many of the mistakes are related to the role of legislation. Legislation has created many of its own problems:

  • Those agitating for legislation had to compromise with other vested interests so standards adopted by statute are invariably minimum standards.
  • Designers have adopted these minimum standards and designed down to them.
  • Those minimum standards have become a textbook for future generations of architects.

In essence, legislation falls far short of perfection if it does not win the hearts and minds of designers. If designers are not convinced of the need for access and feel their design is being compromised it will result in half-hearted accessibility. I empathized with the director of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board who claimed, at a public meeting I attended, that architects had developed punk designs in order to make access an unacceptable aspiration. I saw very many ugly ramps, probably installed resentfully, during my stay in the U.S.

Legislation can also mean expensive - designing special features for a minority group. In U.S. trade literature, products complying with the standards are highlighted with the access symbol. I was told by many designers that the symbol signifies to them expensive and unattractive.

Universal design

So we can learn from U.S. mistakes but we can also learn from their changing philosophy and adopt the concept of 'universal design'. The development of language reflects the changing needs and aspirations of society. When the disability lobby got under way in the 1960s, it demanded 'design for people with disabilities'. In the 1970s the demand changed to 'a barrier-free environment' to reflect the notion that people were as handicapped by the built environment as by their individual disability.

Today the American disability lobby uses the term 'universal design' to reflect the notion that it is possible to design an environment which benefits a whole society rather than designing for a proportion of the population and adapting this with special features to cope with the physical limitations of the rest.

Universal design stresses that most people will at one time or another benefit from accessible design - children, parents with baby strollers, people recovering from an accident or anyone who is carrying a heavy bag, and of course the family, friends and associates of anyone with a disability. Following this philosophy one can think of designing for people with disabilities as an opportunity, not a restriction on creativity.

To conclude, as a designer, I think we need to go beyond legislation in creating an accessible environment. I am however aware that there is a growing demand from disability groups, trade unionists and others to pass strong anti-discrimination legislation and I would support the notion, based on our experience in Britain, that encouragement of good practice is not sufficient. In Britain we already have sex and race equality legislation enforced by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. These have had some limited success. I believe that if we are to go along this path for people with disabilities, we can learn much from examining the extent and depth of American legislation and enforcement procedures. the detailed requirements encompassed in the ADA, as outlined by Marilyn Golden, would reflect a huge step forward in accessible provision.


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