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ADA vs. Barrier Free Design

Happy Disability Pride Month! July is a month dedicated to disability pride & awareness. Disability is a really broad term that affects an even broader demographic. It is truly a blanket term to encompass so many diagnosis's, yet it is treated with a "one size fits all" method for all disabilities. Here I will explain the difference between what The American's with Disabilities Act of 1990 states versus what we can "barrier-free design".

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26th 1990. This pivotal legislation gave rights and access to disabled people. It implemented hard requirements in many areas such as building codes, employers, transportation, public health and services. There are many areas of focus within the ADA but for now we are going to be referencing our bread and butter, accessibility needs.

Many people know public accessible spaces to be disabled parking and "the big stall in the bathroom". Accessibility is so much more than those two things. In order for a space to be ADA compliant a public building must have a list of requirements including step free access, at least 36 inch paths of travel, 5 foot turning radiuses, lowered countertops. automatic doors, the list really does go on. The goal of ADA building codes, when followed correctly, are designed to benefit a variety of different people with different disabilities in public areas. It is a law that should be viewed as a living document and improved upon constantly but it is also a law that should be triumphed for its existence.

Now, there are MANY and I mean MANY of public spaces that are not up to ADA code and it causes problems for a lot of people. If you see any direct violations of the ADA you can file a complaint here on this website:

While the ADA is great for public spaces, it does not always work for private homes. Residential design has vastly overlooked the concept of designing for disability. If you can find anyone to accommodate to disability needs, they usually use general ADA guidelines and call it a day. My reference to the ADA building codes being good for wide ranges of persons with disabilities is not the same case when we design for homes. Home design is much more personal in every way, so why not for the homeowner's specific accessibility needs? This is where we use the concept of "Barrier Free Design".

Barrier Free Design is just as it sounds, removing any barriers from a home. What is a barrier? Well that is different for every person. The technicalities of barrier free design are much more loose than ADA guidelines, and that is intentional. As designers we are hired to look at a space and imagine the how the space is going to be used and plan around the function and style of the family who lives there. A single individual using a manual wheelchair is going to have different needs than a family of 5 with a child using a power chair. Of course concepts will overlap and repeat, but the mind set of treating each project with whole new parameters is important when designing in a barrier free way.

The ADA guidelines may be too much or too little for an individual or family. For example a 5 foot turning radius is required in every transfer zone or turn spot and for some homes accomplishing that with renovation is a big feat. Of course if that is what is needed then we will always go for it, but many times those using walkers or manual wheelchairs dont need that full 5 feet therefore we can use space in the best way. There are dozens of examples like that between ADA and Barrier Free Design, it is all about maximizing the design in a way where it makes sense for the family and the home.

There is a myth that accessible housing is not valuable or needed and that can not be further from the truth. We are in a crisis of need for accessible housing and when a space is well designed it will always be desired. About 26% or 1 in 4 adults in America have a disability. Fewer than 5% of "accessible" housing can accommodate someone with moderate mobility issues and less than 1% of "accessible" housing can accommodate a person using a wheelchair to live independently. Almost 2% of Americans use a wheelchair full time, which doesn't seem like a lot but that means we have less than half of the housing needed to allow people using wheelchairs to live independently.

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All too often people with disabilities are forced to compromise. Compromising in areas that able bodied people do not have to simply because of design elements. People with disabilities have historically been overlooked and it has been my personal goal to create a world where people living with disability have the same options and opportunities as able bodied people.


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