September 26, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires access to programs and activities that are funded by federal agencies and to federal employment. The law also created the U.S. Access Board to ensure access to the built environment.
Specifically, the Board was established to enforce a law passed a few years earlier, the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968. One of the first laws on the books to address accessibility, the ABA aimed to make the federal government a model of accessibility by requiring access to all facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds. In passing the Rehabilitation Act, Congress determined that the ABA needed better enforcement. As originally written, the ABA effectively left compliance up to each agency with little oversight. Further, comprehensive standards for accessibility were not available at that time. It was clear that a central agency was needed to both establish and enforce accessibility requirements for facilities covered by the law.
According to Access Board Chair Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, "In creating the Access Board, Congress recognized that you can't guarantee accessibility until you clearly spell out how it is to be achieved and have a process in place to make sure that those requirements are met." In fact, the lessons learned from the ABA and the Rehabilitation Act would not be lost on later laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
"With accessibility, it's fair to say that the Federal government essentially started in its own backyard," states David M. Capozzi, the Access Board's Executive Director. "The Rehabilitation Act and the Architectural Barriers Act helped lay the groundwork for the landmark ADA and coverage of accessibility beyond the federal realm."
To this day, the Board continues to do what it was created to do. It develops and keeps up-to-date the accessibility requirements of the ABA and enforces compliance with them through the investigation of complaints. If a member of the public is concerned about access to a facility that may have received federal funding, it can file a complaint with the Board. The Board then opens an investigation to determine whether the facility is covered by the ABA and, if so, whether it meets the applicable standards. If a covered facility is not in compliance, the Board will pursue a corrective action plan and monitor the case until all necessary work is completed. The Board typically opens about 50 to 100 cases each year, and has ensured access to all types of facilities covered by the ABA, including post offices, national parks, and social security offices, among others. Since the ABA also applies to non-Federal buildings that are federally funded, the Board's casework has encompassed many other types of facilities as well, such as schools, transit stations, local courthouses and jails, and public housing.
The Board's mission has grown tremendously over the years under later laws. Its work developing and maintaining accessibility requirements is no longer limited to buildings covered by the ABA. Now, the Board is responsible for design requirements for facilities and transportation systems covered by the ADA, electronic and information technology in the federal sector under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, telecommunications equipment subject to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and, most recently, medical diagnostic equipment under Section 510 of the Rehabilitation Act. Through this work, the Board has become a leading resource on accessible design.
"The Board has eagerly accepted the responsibility to address access in new and unchartered areas," says Capozzi. "The Board maintains a very active and varied rulemaking agenda. In fact, just today, the Board is releasing new guidelines that address access to federal outdoor recreation sites." The Board is also developing new guidelines or standards for public rights-of-ways, shared use paths, passenger vessels, emergency housing, classroom acoustics, and medical diagnostic equipment. Having previously developed and updated its guidelines for facilities under the ABA and ADA, the Board is currently refreshing its ADA guidelines for transportation vehicles and its standards and guidelines for information and communication technologies covered by section 508 and the Telecommunications Act. In addition to rulemaking, the Board provides technical assistance and training to the public on its guidelines and standards on a regular basis and funds research on accessible design.
"Often people ask which department the Board is part of, but in fact it is an independent federal agency with authority to report directly to the President and Congress," says Braitmayer. Its governing Board includes 13 members from the public appointed by the President to four-year terms. Over the years, almost 100 people have served on the Board as public members. Since the Board also coordinates policy government-wide relating to accessible design, 12 federal departments are represented on the Board as well.
Recollections from Former Board Members
In recognition of the Rehabilitation Act's 40th anniversary, the Board thought it was worth looking back to reflect on what the law, and its establishment of the Board, have brought about. It reached out to former public members and asked for their thoughts and recollections from their service on the Board.
Hale Zukas, Board Member (1979-1984)
"The biggest accomplishment during my tenure was the development of the Board's Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design. These were the first design requirements for accessibility laid down by the federal government, and they were instrumental in comprehensively defining architectural accessibility and giving teeth to the ABA so that there was a clear and distinct means for enforcing compliance. They served as the basis for the first mandatory standards issued under the ABA known as the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). If an entity covered by the ABA didn't meet the standards, it violated the law. UFAS certainly had a useful span and long run. It was used to measure enforcement with the ABA for over 20 years and remains in effect at this time for housing facilities. It also was the basis for the first standards issued under the ADA and was permitted as an alternate standard for state and local governments until last year."
Steven A. Diaz, Board Member (1985-1987)
"During my tenure, the Board came to terms with its obligation to provide an effective enforcement mechanism. The Board had a difficult time recognizing that setting technical standards was only half the work. We confronted the Board's role in providing a forum for those denied access and a channel for redress through its Compliance and Enforcement division."
"The Federal role in an accessible society is a fundamental premise of our notion of civil liberties. The Board sets the tone with its standards and commitment to the goal of maximum feasible accommodation. It is the attitudinal barriers that are the hardest to break down and which require diligence and leadership from the Board. Working towards universal public awareness and education as to why we aspire to be a fully accessible society, with all of the accompanying benefits for everyone, is an enormous task. The Board's writ to deal with "attitudinal barriers" opens the way to such awareness and education efforts which must embrace collaborative efforts between the Board and educators, veterans, parents, employers, and transportation officials as well as all of the constituents and components of the disability communities."
Pamela Holmes, Board Member (1994-2002)
"What was impressive with all the work the Board did during my tenure while developing these guidelines and standards was the meticulous gathering of all the impacted stakeholders in the community to discuss and have substantive input on the guidelines and standards as they were being developed for consensus building early in the process."
"An ongoing challenge for all those in the federal sector in improving accessibility for people with disabilities is to do so in a way that is nimble enough that it keeps up with the current technological solutions and needs, yet careful enough that all sides of the situation are thoroughly explored. As our country becomes more and more immersed in technological solutions, we do not want to set standards that limit the advancements of better solutions that emerge within the timeframe of the development, comment period, creation of final rule and implementation."
"Enforcement is as critical as the careful crafting of the guidelines and standards themselves. People are living longer and the population of individuals with disabilities has grown substantially since the original laws were enacted. As we 'build out' a new more accessible America, we must constantly be vigilant of how to minimize barriers before the lawsuits and complaints can even surface. Without the public seeing strict enforcement, barriers will continue to exist and the good work of all the stakeholders who came to the table to help avoid such obstacles will be in vain."
Douglas Anderson, Board Member (2003-2011)
"I will always consider my work on the Board among the most significant offerings I have had the opportunity to give to society. I served on the Board during its update and release of its ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines in 2004, which was a big accomplishment. Since passage of the ADA, one of the biggest changes we've seen is the integration of access into the design of buildings that allows people with disabilities the opportunity to use buildings in the same way all users do. Accessible design has become a standard practice within the design and construction industry instead of just a specialty."
"Of course, with the Board's responsibility to address accessible design not only in the built environment, but also transportation, communication, and information technology, challenges remain, such as making both ambient and interactive technology fully accessible to people with disabilities. These continuously evolving systems offer amazing potential for equal access, yet are also very vulnerable to missing the opportunity to building access into the system."
For further information on the work of the Board and the Rehabilitation Act, see:
Access Board Mission
Enforcement of the ABA
History of the Access Board
Access Board Rulemaking
Laws Concerning the Access Board