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Learn how to ensure accessible housing for people with disabilities.


  • What do we mean by ensuring access for people with disabilities?

  • Why ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • When should you ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • Who should ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • How do you ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • How do you engage in disability advocacy?


Getting around in the physical world is something many of us may take for granted.  Curbs, thresholds, stairs, sidewalk gratings, obstructions, narrow passages – these are barriers we walk over, around, or through many times a day.  We may seldom think about signs, loudspeaker announcements, traffic signals, and other sources that direct us or give us necessary information.

For those of us who have some physical difficulties, however – a curb or a few stairs can be large barriers.  Airport loudspeaker announcements are often difficult to understand for people with perfect hearing; for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, they may not hear them at all.  Signs, no matter how well-placed they are and how much information they carry, do no good for someone who is vision impaired unless they are in predictable places and can be read by touch.

In other words, physical features that people without physical disabilities take for granted can present serious problems for people with different abilities, mostly because their needs haven’t been considered in designing those features.  That lack of consideration can also be extended to the ways people with disabilities can be treated when they seek employment, education, or services.  In over 50 countries, this situation has been recognized and addressed, at least to some extent, by laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination, and guarantee them at least some degree of access to public facilities, employment, services, education, and/or amenities.

This section is part of a chapter that deals with changing the physical and social character of communities. We will discuss making community changes that ensure that people with disabilities have physical access to buildings and other spaces that are used by the public, as well as changes to ensure their access to employment, services, education, the functions of government, and full civic participation.

What do we mean by ensuring access for people with disabilities?

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), “the term ‘disability’ means an individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities or an individual is regarded as having such an impairment.”  Caused by injury, disease or medical condition, or neurological, chemical, or developmental factors, severe disabilities affect about 12% of the U.S. population.

About 18% of the population has some level of disability, a figure that expands to 72% for those 80 and older, and shrinks to 11% for children ages 6 to 14. Four percent of the population over age 6 is severely enough disabled to need personal assistance with one or more activities of daily living.

Passed in 1990, ADA is the comprehensive law that covers most issues of accessibility for people with disabilities in the U.S., and disability rights laws in many other countries are based on it.  It applies to all state and local government offices and facilities (federal facilities have been covered by federal law since 1978) and all public facilities – buildings and other spaces that are available to the general public.  ADA guarantees both physical accessibility and non-discrimination in employment and the delivery of goods, services, programs, and education.  We’ll discuss some of the specifics of this and other disability rights laws and their application in more detail later in this section.

A disability is only disabling when it prevents someone from doing what they want or need to do.  A lawyer can be just as effective in a wheelchair as not, as long as she has access to the courtroom and the legal library, as well as to whatever other places and material or equipment that are necessary for her to do her job well.  A person who can’t hear can be a master carpenter or the head of a chemistry lab, if he can communicate with clients and assistants.  A person with mental illness can nonetheless be a brilliant scholar or theorist.  (John Nash, the subject of the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” is a Nobel Prize winner described by some as the most important mathematician of the second half of the 20th Century, despite being schizophrenic.)

Sometimes, on the other hand, a disability truly limits a person's actions and abilities.  If the building is on fire and the elevators aren’t working, a wheelchair user on the 14th floor could be in extreme danger.  In order to function effectively and safely in jobs, education, and everyday life, people with disabilities need to have physical and social access to the same spaces, employment, goods, services, entertainment, and community participation as everyone else.  When people with special needs are accommodated, their disabilities don’t limit their ability to fully participate in life.

Disabilities can be visible or invisible, physical or otherwise. Most can result either from hereditary conditions or pre-birth developmental issues; from injury; from disease; from chemical imbalances; or, in some cases, from environmental factors.

Types of disabilities


These are what most people think about when they hear the term “disability.”  They are usually visible in one way or another, and can include:

  • Mobility problems. Because individuals who have difficulty with mobility may be stopped by barriers most people don’t notice – a high curb, a flight of stairs – people with mobility problems are the ones who may come to mind when access is mentioned.
  • Limited use of hands and arms.  Difficulty using hands or arms may or may not accompany mobility difficulties. People with this disability can find themselves frustrated in a world where gripping, turning, or pushing something with a finger is required.

Again, it’s only a disability when it gets in the way.  Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, had a respectable ten-year pitching career in major league baseball, after starring for his high school baseball and football teams and playing college baseball.  By definition, he has a disability: in reality, he has nothing of the kind.

  • Speech difficulties. Posing challenges to communication may make phone conversation difficult or impossible, and often lead to frustrating exchanges in restaurants, doctors’ offices, and stores.  They can bring with them the sometimes mistaken assumption that someone who doesn’t speak clearly has either a cognitive disability a mental illness.  Causes of speech difficulties may include neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy, throat-cancer surgery, autism, and mental retardation.

In addition to these conditions, there are a number of “invisible” physical disabilities; conditions that aren’t immediately apparent, or that aren’t constantly present, but that can cause considerable difficulty.  As a result, they may be considered disabilities under the law, and are subject to the same regulations as more obvious issues, even if they’re controlled by medication.  Some examples include:

  • Back or joint problems.  Backs, knees, and hips, because of injury, arthritis, or aging, may be fine one day and non-functional the next.  Tripping on a cracked sidewalk or sitting for six hours on a plane might render someone unable to walk.
  • Chronic pain.  Nerve damage from injury, disease, or repetitive motion may cause intense and chronic pain.

Sensory limitations

  • Hearing difficulties or deafness. Some people are born totally or partially deaf. Many others develop hearing problems as the result of exposure to loud noise, injury, disease, infection, or aging.
  • Vision difficulties or blindness. Like deafness, blindness may date from birth, or may be a result of injury or a medical condition. Some people who appear to be sighted are in fact legally blind, but can see enough to avoid common obstacles. People who are totally or nearly blind may use a cane or guide dog to help them get around.

For a person depending on a service animal, such as a “seeing eye” dog, access includes accommodations for the animal as well. The ADA requires businesses and other public facilities to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities on their premises, and forbids excluding people with service animals or isolating them from other customers. The law includes restaurants, which may be prevented by local or state health regulations from allowing animals. Federal law, however, overrides the others.

Most public facilities recognize guide dogs for the blind, but may be confused by hearing dogs (deaf people may not appear to have a disability), or by other species used as service animals.  Miniature horses and some breeds of pigs have become more popular as guide animals, for instance, and monkeys sometimes serve as personal care attendants for people who are quadriplegic.  All are covered under the law, and even allowed, in most cases, to ride with their handlers on planes.


Neurological means having to do with the nervous system. Many physical disabilities are in fact neurological in origin – migraines and cerebral palsy, for instance, spring from problems in the brain, rather than from mechanical problems in muscles, organs, or bones.  Among them:

  • Migraines. Long thought to be psychological, migraine disease is actually a neurological syndrome, the major symptom of which is usually incredibly painful and debilitating headaches, often accompanied by vision disturbances, weakness, and/or nausea. Apparently genetic in origin, migraine headaches can be triggered by weather, hormonal cycles, and/or various environmental factors, such as lighting and odors (the triggers are different for different individuals). The headaches and accompanying symptoms can last for hours or days, and can make work, travel, and other activities nearly impossible
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders. People with epilepsy may function normally most of the time, but occasionally may have seizures (technically called convulsions) – episodes in which there are essentially power surges in the electrical impulses in the brain. The result may be as drastic as loss of consciousness and/or motor control, or as minor as an involuntary twitch.  Most people with epilepsy and other similar disorders take anti-seizure medication, but many experience noticeable side effects, such as sleepiness.
  • Tourette syndrome. A neurological condition characterized by uncontrollable tics (twitches) of both body and voice, Tourette is famous because many people’s vocal tics include obscenities. Effects vary from person to person, but are almost always embarrassing and psychologically painful for those who have them, and can create problems at work and in social situations.

Cognitive limitations (including some developmental disabilities)

These disabilities are the result of genetic factors and development, often before birth. They tend to span a range of intellectual and other abilities, so that some people may be able to live independently and work, while others may need lifelong support.  Although aspects of these disabilities may be treatable to some extent by behavioral and/or drug therapy, they are permanent conditions.

  • Autism. Long thought to be a psychological issue, autism has only recently come to be recognized as lifelong, stemming from conditions in the brain, and perhaps other parts of the body as well.  Symptoms generally develop very early in life (by about age 3), and involve a difficulty in processing information that leads to lack of interest in interacting with others (as well as blindness to social cues and norms) and with the environment.  Autistic children and adults may engage in repetitive behavior. Some never learn to speak or interact, while others may, with behavioral therapy and other supports, eventually be able to function very well in their day-to-day lives.
  • Other intellectual limitations. Genetic defects (e.g., Down syndrome), lack of proper brain development, environmental poisoning (from lead paint, for instance), or brain injury can lead to difficulties in taking in and understanding information, acquiring speech, and other reasoning-based activities. Some individuals with such impairments may be able to learn to read and calculate, hold a job, and live on their own.  Others with more profound disabilities may need lifelong support, and may never develop past the intellectual capacity of a young child.

Psychiatric limitations

Many, if not most, of our psychological and emotional states and reactions seem to be the result of brain chemistry. Mental illness is much like physical illness in that it can be influenced by environmental factors and events, and is often treatable with drugs.  In addition, there are environmental factors that are so powerful – childhood abuse, severe physical injury, terrifying events, war, etc. – they can have lifelong psychological effects.

There are periods in almost everyone’s life and personal development that present challenges that can result in acting out, or in temporary states of depression, confusion, or anxiety, all of which may look similar to the symptoms of long-term psychological disabilities.They aren’t actual disabilities, however, because, in most cases, they are resolved relatively quickly through the natural course of living, and although they may cause emotional pain at the time, most people can continue to function as they cope. True psychological disabilities can include:

  • Schizophrenia. A condition once thought to be caused by bad parenting, since it often becomes apparent in adolescence, schizophrenia is usually characterized by an altered reality. Hearing voices is a classic symptom, but the range can include other hallucinations, both visual and auditory; delusions (of persecution, omnipotence, etc.); and dissociation (inability to make logical connections and to respond to reality). Schizophrenia can often be controlled to some extent by medication.
  • Bipolar disorder. Widely known as manic depression, bipolar disorder causes swings between depression and an overly optimistic and agitated state.  In some people, these mood swings are barely detectable, but in others they can be extreme. The manic state can bring feelings of great power and competence. Many people with bipolar disorder can be treated successfully with medication.
  • Chronic depression. Almost everyone gets at least mildly depressed occasionally, due to a life event or for no apparent reason. Those who are chronically depressed may struggle every day to get out of bed or perform the simplest tasks.  Bouts of depression can last for months or years, rendering people incapable of working or participating in family and civic life.  Relationships may suffer, adding to the burden. Many people with depression are treated with medication.

Multiple chemical sensitivity limitations

 Alcoholism is classed as a disability while illegal drug dependence is not. “The illegal use of drugs includes the use, possession, or distribution of drugs that are unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act. It includes the use of illegal drugs and the illegal use of prescription drugs that are ‘controlled substances.’” (A 1992 definition by EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The ADA prevents job discrimination against alcoholics and rehabilitated or former drug users.  It does not, however, prevent employers from firing workers who use alcohol or drugs on the job, from firing workers whose addiction renders them incapable of performing to the standards of the job (assuming that other workers are held to the same standards and would be fired for the same reasons), or from not hiring workers who are illegal users of drugs.

Learning limitations (including some developmental disabilities).

  • Dyslexia and other learning disabilities.  Dyslexia is actually a term that refers to a broad range of neurologically-based learning difficulties, all of which affect an individual’s ability to read and/or calculate.  In addition, there are several other types of learning disabilities, some affecting only a particular area – language learning, for instance – and some affecting learning in broader ways.  These are not connected to intelligence: dyslexics, in fact, tend to be somewhat above average in IQ, and many learn to read well in spite of their disability.  Others – often those not diagnosed in childhood, or those with other problems unrelated to their disability – may continue to struggle.

Access for people with disabilities

Physical access

This means access to buildings, public spaces, and any other place a person might need to go for work, play, education, business, services, etc. Physical access includes things like accessible routes, curb ramps, parking and passenger loading zones, elevators, signage, entrances, and restroom accommodations. For more details: ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

The Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru provides services to children with different abilities, but lacked the technical skills and information to become entirely accessible. With the consultation and help of a colleague, Dr. Glen White, they were able to make the needed modifications and become completely accessible, thereby better serving their children.

Now, Dr. White is working with international colleagues to make San Isidro (a municipality of Lima, Peru) entirely accessible. Architect Sr. Jaime Heurta, a person with paraplegia and also a practicing architect, has been a key player in this movement in San Isidro. Independent Living leaders in the United States are working with colleagues in Peru to set up the first Independent Living Center in Peru, with the ultimate goal of making Peru more accessible to people with different abilities.

Access to communication and information

Signs, public address systems, the Internet, telephones, and many other communication media are oriented toward people who can hear, see and use their hands easily. Making these media accessible to people with disabilities can take some creativity and ingenuity.

Program accessibility

People with disabilities have, in the past, often been denied access to services of various kinds – from  child care or mental health counseling to help in retail stores to entertainment – either due to lack of physical accessibility or because of discomfort, unfamiliarity, or prejudices regarding their disabilities.


Discrimination in hiring on the basis of disability – as long as the disability doesn’t interfere with a candidate’s ability to perform the tasks of the job in question – is illegal in the U.S. and many other countries, and unfair everywhere.


Everyone has a right to an education appropriate to her talents and needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the U.S., as well as laws in many other countries, guarantee education to students with disabilities. In the case of IDEA, that guarantee extends through high school, while ADA covers undergraduate and graduate students (without discrimination) at colleges and universities.

Community access

Everyone should have the right to fully participate in community life, including attending religious services, dining in public restaurants, shopping, enjoying community park facilities, and the like. Even where there are no physical barriers, people with disabilities still sometimes experience differential treatment.

In general, ADA requires that public and government facilities, cities and towns, educational institutions, employers, and service providers make reasonable accommodations to serve people with disabilities. “Reasonable accommodation” means making changes that don’t cause unreasonable hardship to the party making them or to others that party deals with (students, customers, employees, program participants, etc.).

Why ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • In many countries, it’s the law. Fifty-five countries (see Tool #1) have either passed specific laws concerning the rights of people with disabilities, or have enshrined those rights in their constitutions.
  • It’s a matter of fairness and respect. People with disabilities have the same rights as others, including the right to fully participate in community life.
  • Failing to ensure accessibility wastes talent and energy. Many people with disabilities are competent at important jobs and may do remarkable work. Denying people access to employment, education, or services is not only unfair; it wastes human resources and makes society poorer.
  • It makes good business and economic sense. For commercial operations of any kind, accessibility means that people with disabilities can become customers, increasing sales volume and profits.  Furthermore, if a firm is a good place for customers with disabilities to do business, their reputation will be affected positively.
  • Many people with disabilities already have a difficult life. It’s simple human decency not to make people’s lives any harder; as a civilized society it’s our duty to help those in need.
  • People with disabilities add diversity to the community, and that diversity enriches the community. If they can integrate  into the  community, they will have the opportunity to make more friends and more people will have the opportunity to know them.​
    • Access for people with disabilities improves access for everyone. Making public spaces and facilities physically accessible for people with disabilities also makes them more accessible for people who may not have disabilities, including families with baby strollers, skateboarders, and bicycle riders. Making ramps a built-in feature of the environment benefits everyone.

“Baltimore seats,” which came about after a lawsuit for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, are now often included in newly constructed major league baseball stadiums. This type of seating allows for a stadium seat to fold out of the way for wheelchair access when needed. According to the ADA, there should be enough accessible seating to accommodate at least 1% of the capacity of the stadium (so, for example, this would be at least 1,000 accessible seats in a stadium that seats 100,000).

When do you ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • When new public facilities are being designed and/or built. Any new building used as a public facility (e.g., parks, sports stadiums, other public facilities) must be accessible. Minimally, the design should be functional to accommodate people with different abilities, but good design can make accessibility total and essentially invisible.   
  • When there’s an addition, renovation, or repair made to a public facility. This is the time to make sure that accessibility means total accessibility. Even buildings and other facilities that fulfill all the requirements of ADA aren’t always totally usable for people with disabilities.  It’s important that designers, builders, and people with disabilities themselves think about how best to provide access.  If over 25% of a building is being remodeled, ADA requires the entire building be made accessible. In addition, some states have a tax incentive for owners who bring their buildings into compliance with ADA.
  • When a historic building is rehabilitated for a public use. This is an easy sell, since not only is it the law to make such a project accessible, but the developer can get back a good bit of the money spent on accessibility improvements through tax credits. Additionally, modifications can be made so that they do not look obvious, helping to maintain the historical building and its façade.
  • When a community group is working on improving or rehabilitating a public facility or space. A grassroots group may be trying to bring back a neighborhood park or restore an abandoned warehouse as a community center.  Especially if the project is being accomplished largely with volunteer labor, it’s important that they think about accessibility. The old entrances to a neighborhood park may have several steps up from the street, for instance: accessible entrances need to be designed that don’t take away from the traditional look and feel of the park, and still make it easy for people with disabilities to enjoy the space.

Don’t forget to solicit help from people with disabilities to help with these projects. Get their input and participation and they will become stakeholders in these projects. They are their public spaces, too.

  • When an organization, institution, or agency that provides services or education is moving or renovating its facility. A move can be one to a more accessible location and building.  A renovation can include accessibility accommodations.
  • When there are complaints about lack of access. For non-federally funded buildings, there are not usually ADA inspections. Often, someone must file a complaint in order for ADA to be enforced.  If you’re connected to an organization that’s getting complaints because it’s not fully accessible, it’s to your advantage to do something about those complaints before someone calls the Department of Justice.  If you’re an advocate or a concerned party – or a person with disabilities – who knows about the problem, you can save everyone a huge amount of trouble by suggesting or brokering reasonable accommodations.

Who should ensure access for people with disabilities?

  • People with disabilities themselves. People with disabilities have often been incredible self-advocates. They can demonstrate how lack of accessibility affects them, and speak eloquently about their experiences.  As participants in planning the design and construction of new buildings and facilities, they can bring their experiences to bear to make projects as accessible and usable as possible.
  • Organizations concerned with disability rights. Besides the fact that ensuring access is one of the reasons these organizations exist, the folks who staff them – often themselves people with disabilities – know both the political and the architectural territory, as well as the laws concerning accessibility.

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) work with many community organizations to make them more accessible. They also teach people with disabilities how to do personal and systems advocacy. See a directory of CILs in your area.

  • Legislators and other public officials. Legislators and other public officials can craft laws and policies that ensure not only access for people with disabilities, but raise consciousness about their issues. This makes political sense as well, since people with disabilities not only contribute to the community, but also vote.
  • Enforcing agencies. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and other agencies concerned with enforcing all or part of ADA can do more than simply respond to complaints.  DOJ, for instance, conducted a survey of state and local governments to determine whether they were in compliance with the law, and then worked with those that were not to draft agreements about how they were going to reach compliance.
  • Employers. It makes sense for employers to make sure they can hire the best person available. Making their workplaces accessible allows them to do just that, without worrying about accommodating a person who happens to have a disability.
  • Educators. Educators, by and large, care about learners, and want them to do well. Accessibility is not only the law, but it vastly increases the chances that learners with disabilities of all kinds will be successful.
  • Organizations that provide public services. These organizations are obliged to be accessible, but they also often act as advocates for participants.  Moreover, being as accessible as possible reflects the value that many of them put on diversity, equity, human rights, and fairness.
  • The court system, when necessary. When an individual or enforcement agency can’t come to a satisfactory agreement about accommodations, a court may have to settle the dispute according to the law.
  • Architects and planners. Architects and planners can incorporate accessibility into all their designs if they’re aware of the issue and attentive to the needs of people with disabilities.
  • Developers. It’s to the advantage of a developer to consider accessibility for a number of reasons. First, it makes economic sense to build it in to begin with, since it’s likely to be less expensive than trying to make over a building or facility later. Second, it increases the value of the project, as well as increasing the number of people who’ll be able to use it as residents, customers, or however the project is intended. And finally, the developer can get a tax credit for part of the expense associated with creating accessibility.

How do you ensure access for people with disabilities?

There are a number of aspects to assuring access for people with disabilities. The obvious one is the physical: designing and building or changing structures and spaces to conform to the needs of all members of the community, including those with disabilities. In addition, however, there are social aspects, such as non-discrimination in employment and service delivery, and equal treatment in all situations of people with and without disabilities. And finally, there are political considerations: working to strengthen and enforce the laws that do exist, and working for laws to protect people with disabilities in countries that don’t have them. Perhaps most important is raising the consciousness of those who design and/or build facilities, employers, and the community and society about the rights and needs of people with disabilities.

When most of us think about a building, a park, or even a sidewalk, we sometimes don’t think about people at all. When we do, we often consider only able-bodied adults, leaving out children, elders, and people of all ages with disabilities. Ensuring access for those with disabilities involves changing attitudes. ADA has started the process simply by mandating access, so that now everyone in the U.S. is used to seeing ramps, handicapped bathrooms, etc. After a certain amount of time, accessible buildings and spaces become the standard in construction  and are no longer an issue.

But that’s only physical access. What about access to job, services, and programs?  What about being treated with respect and being offered assistance in retail stores, restaurants, and theaters?  All of that involves changing attitudes as well. The more people with disabilities are able to access physical facilities, the more they will be part of the general population. Rather than generating embarrassment, discomfort, or even fear, they’ll be seen more and more in the same way as anyone else – as individuals, with unique personalities, strengths, and problems.  That is, after all, the goal: for people with disabilities to be able to live their lives just as everyone else does, struggling with daily challenges, enjoying the high points, and not having to worry about the simple things like getting up a flight of stairs.

How do we ensure various kinds of access?  We’ll examine the different aspects of access one at a time.

Much of the material that follows in this and the last part of the section is based on ADA, because that law is the most comprehensive – it covers most areas of concern to people with disabilities, and attempts to set out clear and specific standards for access.

Physical access

As explained above, this means access to any indoor or outdoor spaces a person needs to use. Under ADA, it is expected that the government body, the owner or tenant of the space, the service provider, the employer, or the school must make a “reasonable accommodation” to enable access for people with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to whatever barrier prevents access that doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the individual, business, organization, or institution providing the accommodation, or on its other users or participants. Thus, a grassroots human service program isn’t expected to install an elevator, since the cost would be out of the organization’s reach.  It would be expected, however, to try to find some other way to deliver services to a participant who uses a wheelchair (equivalent to those services offered to others).

By the same token, a large corporation might be expected to make over a building, or many buildings (a chain of retail stores, for example), in order to come into compliance with the law, because for such a large business, the expense would be reasonable.

The U.S. government tries to make accommodation (as well as access in new construction or rehabilitation) easier by offering tax incentives for money spent on equipment, materials, and labor leading to increased access for people with disabilities.

The tax credit is available to businesses that have total revenues of $1,000,000 or less in the previous tax year or 30 or fewer full-time employees. This credit can cover 50% of the eligible access expenditures in a year up to $10,250 (maximum credit of $5,000). The tax credit can be used to offset the cost of undertaking barrier removal and alterations to improve accessibility; providing accessible formats such as Braille, large print and audio recording; making available a sign language interpreter or a reader for customers or employees, and for purchasing certain adaptive equipment. The tax deduction is available to all businesses with a maximum deduction of $15,000 per year.  The tax deduction can be claimed for expenses incurred in barrier removal and alterations.  (From the pamphlet “ADA Guide for Small Businesses”).

In addition to accommodations made in existing facilities, new buildings – with some exceptions, such as private residences – are expected to have accessibility designed into them, as are renovations of public facilities, or rehabilitations of industrial, historic, or derelict buildings that are to be used as public facilities. Some architects in the U.S. have become specialists in designing for accessibility, coming up with creative solutions for difficult problems posed by old structures, for instance.

Outdoor spaces also need to be designed for accessibility. The Project for Public Spaces uses accessibility for people with disabilities as one of its criteria for recognizing a great public space.  Accessibility means more than simply being able to get there in a wheelchair.  It implies having features and amenities that are usable by everyone, and being emotionally and socially accessible.

A nature trail in a park can be set up so that it not only can be traversed by someone in a wheelchair, but so that it can be walked – and the informational signs along it read – by a blind person, for instance. Furthermore, it needn’t be singled out and labeled a “handicapped” trail, so that it’s only used by people with disabilities.  If it’s just a “nature trail,” people of all sorts will use it, and the people with disabilities among them won’t be singled out.

A sensory garden can also be created with flowers and herbs to delight the senses (such as the interesting texture of Lamb’s ear and the fragrant leaves of mint and lavender). Plants can be in raised beds, making a hands-on experience easy for pedestrians and wheelchair users.

Spaces that need to be physically accessible include:

Public facilities

These are buildings or spaces generally used by the public. They can include restaurants, retail stores, hotels, conference centers, medical and other offices, theaters, sports stadiums, educational facilities, historic sites and other tourist attractions, etc. Access here includes not only access to the buildings, but also to the specific rooms or halls where events take place or where the public must go to conduct business or receive services.

An important feature of accessibility that may be ignored or forgotten is a plan for dealing with emergencies.  There should be an escape plan for people with disabilities in case of a power failure, or in case the accessible entrances are blocked by fire or rubble. In an actual emergency, adrenalin often takes over and people do whatever seems necessary.  Several people with mobility impairments were carried down many flights of stairs to safety in the World Trade Center disaster on Sept. 11, 2001.  In that case, that was probably about as good an escape plan as could have been devised, but it was strengthened by the fact that, after the less-drastic 1993 World Trade Center bombing, specially designed evacuation chairs were installed in the building for just such an emergency.  One man who is paraplegic stated that he doubted that he would have gotten out in time had it not been for the chair and the people who took him down in it.

Federal, state, and local government facilities

Although federal facilities are covered under a different law than those of other branches, all must be accessible to people with disabilities so that they can transact government business and participate to the full extent in civic life.

That includes voting.  Polling places have to be accessible, and accommodations have to be made for people who are unable to fill out their own ballots because of blindness or inability to manipulate voting machines or paper ballots. Voters with appropriate disabilities can bring another person into the voting booth with them to fill out the ballot for them, although it’s illegal for that person to influence their choices.

Outdoor spaces, such as public parks, monuments, squares, gardens, etc.

It may seem that these kinds of spaces would always be accessible, but, in fact, they often are not.  Parks may have stairs or other obstructions in paths, or be set above sidewalk level. Other spaces may have obstructions as well, and may be surrounded by streets that are difficult to cross, even for people without disabilities.  Paths and sidewalks may be too narrow to allow easy wheelchair passage, and badly maintained or designed paved or gravel paths may make walking difficult for anyone unsteady on his feet or with vision difficulties. Outdoor spaces may need renovations to make them good places for interaction

Public ways

Paths, streets and sidewalks, pedestrian passages are all public ways.  Accessibility here may involve curb cuts or ramps, traffic signals that can be both heard and seen, numerous crosswalks, signs, etc.

Public transportation

 People with disabilities are entitled to physical access to public transportation.  This is sometimes provided by lifts for buses, trains, and trolleys which require climbing steps to enter.  In general, subways, trains, and planes, at least at most U.S. facilities, are entered on the level, and elevators and or ramps are available to take people to platforms and gates.

Physical access, according to the ADA, encompasses a large number of very specific design features. The width of hallways (to the inch or centimeter), the size of elevators (and the positioning of elevator buttons), the height of drinking fountains, the size and position of grab bars in restrooms, the shape of door handles, the width and number of handicapped parking spaces, the slope of wheelchair ramps – all of these and many more are explained in detail in the ADA manual, “ADA Standards for Accessible Design,” part of the larger ADA website.  Additionally, the U.S. Access Board is responsible for developing and regulating the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) code.

Access to communication and information

Some types of disabilities have no effect on access to communication or information, but others do – some in ways most people without disabilities might not think of.

  • Signs, posters, and other similar features. We expect printed signs in buildings or on streets to tell us what we need to know, but for people who are blind or near-blind, they may not be helpful. Signs with raised letters or Braille, placed at heights that can be easily reached (specified in the ADA Design Standards), can provide an alternative.
  • Announcements. In public places where announcements may be important, and may target individuals – airports, for example – they should be both verbal and visual, so that they can be heard or seen by those with vision and hearing difficulties.

The advent of cell phones that can announce calls with vibration, and that have text-messaging capability, has undoubtedly made life easier for many people with hearing impairments.

  • ASL interpretation. Deaf individuals may need an American Sign Language interpreter for meetings with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals; for lectures and classes; for business transactions; or for public gatherings, such as conferences, performances, or public hearings.
  • Readers. People with learning disabilities or vision difficulties may need readers in order to successfully complete courses. By the same token, deaf individuals may need to be provided with lecture notes, or to have an interpreter in lectures.
  • Internet. According to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the U.S. government is required by law to make its websites (including those of any organizations or institutions that are federally funded) accessible to the extent possible, and many agencies, organizations and businesses not required to are nonetheless concerned with doing so as well.  Accessibility includes monitoring content to make it is easily understood by software and hardware devices that make it possible for people with visual or hearing difficulties, or for those who can’t use a mouse or keyboard, to have full access to the content of a website. The relevant part of Section 508 is given on a Department of Commerce website, along with information on each of the 16 regulations for Internet access.

Devices used by people with disabilities to access the Web include screen readers, which translate on-screen text into speech, and voice-command software that translates spoken commands into mouse clicks and keyboard strokes.

The relevant part of Section 508 is given on a Department of Commerce website, along with information on each of the 16 regulations for Internet access.

  • Television. Since 1993, all TV sets sold in the U.S. are required to be equipped with closed-captioning receivers that can be turned on through an on-screen menu or a remote.  When turned on, closed captioning displays a text version of what’s being said (as well as relevant non-speech sounds) on the screen, enabling deaf or hearing impaired viewers to experience the any show with captions. Captions can also be helpful to people with some learning disabilities and to literacy learners.
  • Concerts and theater performances. Many venues that house performances, lectures, or public forums offer sound amplifying headphones to those who need them.

Access to services

People with disabilities cannot be denied access to services because of their disabilities, or because the services aren’t physically accessible. If the services can’t be made physically accessible, there has to be an alternative provided that’s equivalent to the basic service.

This issue often arises for human service organizations, but may also be a factor for community institutions such as libraries, and for businesses such as hairdressers and insurance agencies.  In cases where accessibility isn’t economically feasible, services can be provided in an accessible part of the building, for instance, or brought to the person in his home. Rules, such as those referred to earlier that affect service animals, can be changed or disregarded to enable people with disabilities to take advantage of the service.

Other kinds of accommodations can be made as well. Sales staff can provide help they wouldn’t normally provide to other customers – getting items off shelves or counters, or helping people try on clothes, for instance.  Programs can hire sign language interpreters to assist deaf participants, or have some or all of their staff members trained in ASL (or the sign language of their country, if it’s not the U.S. or English-speaking Canada).

ASL, or American Sign Language, is the first language of perhaps a majority of the deaf community in the U.S. Although it is spoken with hand gestures and facial movements and expressions, it is a distinct language, with its own grammar and nuances, as different from English as Japanese, whose grammar it has some things in common. It shares some vocabulary with French sign language, because the first teacher of sign in the U.S. was French.

Sign languages have developed as spoken languages do, and each country or isolated area generates its own.  Interpreters – hearing people who are fluent in sign – provide a linguistic bridge between the signing and speaking worlds, just as language interpreters provide the connection between hearing people who speak different languages.

In some cases, the best and most reasonable accommodation may be to make a programmatic change or rearrange the space (relocate, build a ramp, widen aisles, have the first-floor offices and the second-floor support group program switch places) or to change the way services are delivered for everyone (e.g., distribute more printed matter, as well as giving information verbally).

In addition to being physically accessible, services must be non-discriminatory. Anyone who’s eligible for services in the same way as other participants (by income, for instance) can’t be denied service except for reasons for which anyone else would be denied service. Some of those reasons might include active drug use, abusive behavior, or inappropriateness for the service offered.

A final note: accessibility should also include sensitivity to the concerns of people with disabilities on the part of both the organization as a whole and the people who work in it.  It is important to see every participant as a unique individual, regardless of her physical or mental condition.


Under the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against hiring anyone on the basis of a disability unless that disability interferes with the basic job function. A blind person doesn’t have to be considered for a job as a painter, or a deaf person for one as a music critic. Where the job function isn’t in question, however, someone with a disability has to be considered in the same light as all other applicants.  If she’s the most qualified and the best candidate, she should be hired regardless of any disability.

An employer can’t ask candidates if they have disabilities, however, except in the context of making sure that they can do the job.  A firefighter has to be able to carry 100 pounds up and down a ladder.  If a candidate has a bad back, that’s a problem – he may injure himself taking the physical test, or his back may go out on the job at the worst possible time.

Once an employer has hired a person with a disability, he’s under an obligation to make accommodations, to the extent possible, to enable that person to do her job as easily as other employees in similar positions. If she’s in a wheelchair, for example, the employer might ensure that her desk is at an appropriate height for her to work comfortably.   Her work space might be located reasonably near the office entrance, with a clear passage to the elevator, the accessible restroom, meeting rooms, and the offices of colleagues with whom she needs to collaborate. If her job makes it possible, she might be allowed to work from home some of the time. Accommodation also should be made for signage, communication, and other accessibility factors, including an evacuation plan with which her co-workers are familiar.

None of this means that a person with a disability has to be hired – only that she can’t be discriminated against because of her disability.  If she’s clearly the best-qualified candidate, and someone else is hired instead, she can question the decision, or even sue.

By the same token, she can be held to the same performance standard as other employees.  If she’s not doing her job well, she should be treated as any other employee would.  If she’s fired for not performing, that means that any other employee would have been fired for the same level of performance under the same circumstances – the same number of warnings, the same level of support to try to improve performance, etc.  Non-discrimination doesn’t mean favoritism, but it does mean fairness. Accommodations level the playing field so that everyone can play by the same rules.


Federal law requires that any child aged 6 to 21 is entitled to an education appropriate to his needs.  For children with disabilities this usually means an Individual Education Plan (IEP), arrived at with the participation of the school, the parents, and often other professionals, as well as the student, if he’s mature enough.  If the plan includes an alternative placement (in a private school or another public school with special facilities), the cost is borne by the school district, rather than the parents.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a child has the right to be educated “in the least restrictive environment possible,” which means placing children with disabilities in regular classrooms wherever possible.  Thus, a child with a learning disability that affects her math performance might have an individual tutor for math, but still participate with the rest of her class in other subjects.  A child using a wheelchair might have a regular class schedule, with help provided if necessary to get from one class to another (in middle or high school) or to assist with activities (in elementary school).

Institutions of higher education, as public facilities (private institutions) or government entities (public colleges and universities) have an obligation to provide admitted students with whatever accommodations they need in order to learn in the same way as students without disabilities. Thus, ASL interpreters, readers, notetakers, and other accommodations are often required, as long as they propose no undue administrative or economic hardship for the institution, and as long as they don’t disrupt the normal functioning of the educational program for others.

The fact that there are laws in the U.S. and other countries doesn’t mean that they’re enforced. Furthermore, there is still much to be done around the world.  In 1993, the United Nations passed the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities, a document that sets out what countries need to do to assure that people with disabilities can live their lives to their full potential.  While over 50 countries have laws or constitutions that guarantee disability rights to some extent, there are still nearly 200 that do not recognize disability rights.  Thus, knowing what needs to be done is only half – perhaps considerably less than half – the battle. The real work is in changing the social climate and in making sure that what needs to be done gets done.

As with most social change, advocacy has to play a large part here. It was aggressive advocacy on the part of people with disabilities and organizations that support them that made possible the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and advocacy continues to be important in refining what equal access and equal opportunity mean for people with disabilities in the United States.  Advocacy is what will change attitudes and laws in the countries that currently don’t recognize disability rights, or that don’t go far enough in pursuing equal opportunity and non-discrimination.

How do you engage in disability advocacy?

Demand enforcement

Where there are laws, they must be enforced in order to have any effect.  In the United States, the law essentially covers what is required for accessibility, but it’s not always enforced.  First of all, there are no ADA inspectors who make random visits to see whether facilities are accessible, although some state agencies may do that for entities they fund or oversee. Thus, in most cases, ADA standards aren’t brought into play until someone challenges a business, agency, or institution in the courts.

Sometimes just the challenge itself is enough to bring about an acceptable accommodation. When there’s a case of real hardship, however (a business that could suffer seriously as a result of the expense of compliance), or when an entity is simply resistant, and the complainant and the entity can’t come to some agreement, the case has to go to court before anything happens.  The more often this occurs, the more various entities pay attention to accessibility, as has been the case over the past several years.

In the case of Lane v. Tennessee, a man who had a crushed hip and pelvis had to crawl up two flights of stairs in order to get to a court hearing.  George Lane was no stranger to the court – he’d had previous trouble with local law enforcement.  When he was offered the opportunity to be carried up the steps, he refused, fearing that court officers, who, he felt, bore him ill will, might drop him on purpose.

When his case wasn’t heard that morning, he crawled down again, but refused to crawl back up to the courtroom after the noon recess.  He was then cited for failure to appear, arrested, and jailed.

When he sued the state of Tennessee for damages, the state claimed that individuals had no right to sue the state.  The trial court and the Court of Appeals both ruled in Lane’s favor, and the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court confirmed Lane’s right to access to the courthouse under Title II of the ADA, which grants access to government facilities for persons with disabilities, and also affirmed his right to sue the state for money damages.  Ultimately, the state settled with Lane, and also installed elevators in its previously inaccessible courthouses.

This was a good result for disability rights, and for Mr. Lane and his co-plaintiff, a court reporter who uses a wheelchair and who couldn't get into a number of second-floor courtrooms around the state, a circumstance which limited her ability to do her job.  On the other hand, the case dragged on for years before the Supreme Court ruling in 2004, and the state finally settled the damages in 2005.  Even when someone wins an ADA case, it can create great stress over a long period, and it takes dedication to see the process to the end.

Each state, most state funding agencies, most cities and towns, most corporations, and many other entities have an ADA Coordinator. That person is usually the place to start with a complaint or a demand for enforcement. If you get no satisfaction, go to the next level. If it appears that there’s going to be some major difficulty, find a lawyer who has experience in cases involving disability rights, or a disability rights organization that has such lawyers and others on staff, and let them handle the negotiation. In the worst case, you may end up in court, but most ADA complaints are settled long before it gets to that point.

Enlist other advocates to ensure opportunity for people with disabilities

There are many helpful advocacy organizations out there. To enlist help with your disability advocacy, it may be helpful to contact Client Advocacy Protection services (for clients of Vocational Rehabilitation). Additionally, many states have Disability Rights Centers that are often run by people with disabilities themselves and usually have several lawyers on staff to assist people with disabilities regarding legal situations (e.g., ADA compliance or discrimination).

Work with legislators to pass laws that guarantee equality of access and opportunity to people with disabilities

In the matter of access, it’s likely you can find a legislator who has a family member with a disability, or perhaps one who himself has a disability that occasionally makes life difficult. He may be a good candidate to become a champion on this issue, and can help convince colleagues to work on it as well.

If you or your group can become known as a good source of information– as the experts legislators can call on when they want to know about disability issues – you may be in a good position to persuade the policymakers to pay attention to those issues, and to draft laws to improve the situation of people with disabilities. That means always doing your homework, and always being available to answer questions and to make suggestions.  It also means being honest in your information and dealings, and being willing to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” and then following up.

An ideal here is to establish a citizen advisory group that includes people with disabilities and others with knowledge of the field.  If that group has a seat at the table when design standards, laws, and other similar issues are being discussed, it is likely that the needs of people with disabilities will be raised and addressed.

Work with architects, developers, building inspectors, etc. to make them aware of the concerns and needs of people with disabilities

Whether you have a disability or not, whether you’re an individual advocate or part of a group, whether your country has laws that address disability rights or not, this tactic can be extremely helpful.  If you can collaborate with those who design, construct, and inspect buildings and public spaces, and educate them about the needs of people with disabilities, they will be more likely to ensure accessibility in their projects.

When accessibility is part of a new construction project, especially if it’s an integral part of the design, it generally costs about the same as, or only slightly more than, an inaccessible design. The more buildings and spaces are designed to be accessible, the more accessibility enters into the public consciousness and becomes expected. When people are accustomed to seeing individuals with disabilities get around easily, they’ll be more inclined to think of access is a right, rather than a privilege or a concession to political correctness.

Enlist the media to help change attitudes and expectations

Using the media is one of the most important – and most effective – activities an advocate can engage in. Human interest stories and radio and TV interviews can put a human face on disability and dispel myths, introducing individuals who become not just “people with disabilities,” but distinct and likable human beings with real needs and real problems. Ignoring such individuals and their needs is harder than ignoring a faceless population of “people with disabilities.” Once the issue of fairness becomes personal, most people will respond positively.

The media can also point out that the real people with disabilities cover a broad swath of society.  Many are people who were born with their disabilities, but many others acquired them through war, car accidents, job-or-sports-related injuries, violence, or the simple business of living (aging probably disables more people than any other single factor).  Most of us will either temporarily or permanently experience a disability at some point in our lives.  A clear understanding of that statistic can change public perceptions very quickly.

Media stories, interviews, and articles can highlight accessibility problems that people with disabilities face every day which most of the general public never thinks about: difficulty opening a restroom door with a doorknob; the impossibility of a hearing-impaired tourist being summoned over an airport loudspeaker; the frustration and terror of a person with a speech problem trying to report a fire in an emergency phone call. Media coverage can inform people about what needs to be done to increase access, and about pending laws and regulations the public can support.

They can also present high-profile spokespersons who themselves have disabilities, such as Max Cleland, former Senator from Georgia, who is a multiple amputee as a result of Vietnam War wounds, or actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease.  Perhaps most importantly, they can offer people with disabilities as positive role models: Chief of Detectives Robert Ironside, played by Raymond Burr, solved crimes from a wheelchair every week for eight years in one of the most popular TV shows of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

When talking to the media and having them report on issues, it may be helpful to refer to the Research and Training Center on Independent Living's 8th Edition of the Media Guidelines for Writing and Reporting on People with Disabilities. Over one million copies have been distributed.

Call attention to lack of access whether you have a disability or not

As we’ve mentioned, sometimes a mere notice or complaint will be enough to prompt action on the part of a building owner or business. Even if not, you’ve at least made them aware of the issue...and aware that someone else knows about it as well.

Keep at it indefinitely

Until people with disabilities are hardly noticeable as having disabilities, because they have universal physical, social, and political access, disability advocates and people with disabilities themselves need to keep working for a world where everyone’s needs are addressed and met. Even if that is achieved,  it will still take effort to maintain those state of affairs, and to ensure that the world doesn’t return to the olden days when there were places that people in wheelchairs weren’t able to go, messages that individuals with hearing or sight difficulties couldn’t get, and employers, service providers, and businesses who shut out people who weren’t exactly like the general population.

In Summary

In the latter part of the 20th century, the rights and needs of people with disabilities were increasingly understood and addressed.  In 1990, the United States passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, recognizing and codifying those rights and needs into a set of standards for access to both physical areas (the ability to enter, move around freely in, and use the facilities of buildings and public spaces) and opportunity (access to jobs, services, education, entertainment, etc.) for people with disabilities. The U.N. followed in 1993 with the United Nations Standard Rules on Equalization of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities.  At this writing, over 50 countries worldwide have either passed laws or interpreted or rewritten their constitutions to address disability rights.  More recently, as of 2008, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by at least 21 countries (although the United States has yet to pass this).

Ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities means more than building ramps and accessible restrooms. It calls for a change in basic attitudes, a change that has been at least partially accomplished in the United States and many other countries, but which hasn’t even started in some others. That attitude change won’t have been accomplished until a great majority of people around the world understand that individuals with disabilities are individuals who are not defined by their disabilities. To achieve that end, we have to demand enforcement of laws and regulations that protect those individuals’ rights, work for policy change and the passage of laws and regulations in places where they don’t exist, collaborate with those who design, build, and fund projects where accessibility can be built in, enlist the media to influence public opinion, and keep at it as long as necessary. Only when people with disabilities can live their lives free of unjust barriers will the work be done.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

The ADA website has a huge amount of information, including the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

Access Unlimited provides helpful information on how a low-tech tool can be used by almost anyone to determine if building features such as toilets, door widths, and ramp slopes are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

The DOJ provides information on Accessibility of State and Local Government websites to people with disabilities, with tips for developers and links to a number of sites with more information.

Anniversary of Americans with Disability Act: July 26 provides facts on disabilities in the U.S. population from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (part of Canadian Constitution) provides information on the rights that all people are guaranteed, including for those with disabilities.

Canadian Human Rights Act states that all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was established to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

The Disability Resource Network of British Columbia offers descriptions and explanations of various kinds of disabilities and conditions, among other resources.

Frequently Asked Questions about ADA.

The Home Usability Network from the University of Montana's Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC: Rural) is a group of individuals and organizations that bring together their knowledge, resources, and creativity to develop customized solutions to individual usability problems.

Job Accommodations Network offers helpful tips to people with disabilities about the accommodations that they might take advantage of as an employee.

List of various ADA publications detailing regulations and technical assistance.

Making Homes Visitable details how to make homes visitable for those with mobility limitations and why it is important to do so. 

Project Civic Access details settlements with various municipal and state governments concerning accessibility.

SF's New Ballpark: Beautiful Access discusses a recently built ballpark that was created to be accessible for all.

Standards for Website Accessibility is from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and sets out regulations for Internet Accessibility for government agencies, with links for each regulation to explanations and suggestions for web developers.

United Nations Standard Rules on Equalization of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities (1993) is an international document intended to focus worldwide attention on the need for equal rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities.

United States Access Board lists the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (alternative to ADA Standards for state and local government entities).

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission provides information about federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It also provides information for employers on Prohibited Practices.

Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, with detailed information about accessibility for web developers.