Prior to the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, people with disabilities had great difficulty in navigating public and private spaces. People in wheelchairs could not use public transportation without abandoning their wheelchairs. A restaurant could refuse to serve a person with disabilities and a grocery store could prevent a disabled person from buying food there. A business could refuse to hire a disabled person and they could be paid less. Even homosexuals were considered disabled.
Before the ADA was passed, people with disabilities found ways to make public spaces more accessible to them. Outside of the National Museum for American History, a street curb was smashed by people in wheelchairs to create a makeshift ramp and allow them to access the museum more easily. This act reflects an instance in history where urban design and architecture is influenced by people with disabilities.
My perspective on ADA as an architect is influenced by my mother. As a trained nurse, she managed to raise four children and devoted much of her time to helping the handicapped. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there was very little help available to disabled people. While my sisters and I were helping my mother with her volunteer work, we met a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down. Before being paralyzed in a car accident, she had been a librarian. Having spent the last 15 years confined in bed, she had a wish to get out and go to the theatre. When we tried to take her to the theatre, my sisters and I struggled to lug her up the theatre’s stairs and a passerby told us that people like her should not be allowed to go out. This rude comment would not have occurred if wheelchair-access to public spaces had been available.
Our family would also regularly open our home to disabled people to give them the opportunity to meet other people and feel more integrated into their community. One woman who came to our home had been admitted to a mental institution, as she had been labeled a murderer for killing her husband. A seemingly very normal woman, she likely had been abused by her husband before the murder. Meeting women like her opened my eyes to the gendered injustices of our criminal system.
As I celebrate the thirty year anniversary of the ADA, I still hear people voicing their complaints about the limitations of the ADA. While it may seem as if the ADA demands expansion, I would like to share these stories to remind people of how far we have come to allow disabled people to live reasonable, independent lives.