The ADA in Context

We talk about the “ADA” and “ADA compliance” a lot in our industry, forgetting that not everyone we interact with understands what it’s all about.  We have collected some information to contextualize what ADA means to us and to you.

ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law in 1990 by George HW Bush. In the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, ADA seeks to make public spaces inclusive for all, including people with disabilities. According to, “The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.”

To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered, but maintains standards that are intended to make public spaces accessible to people with disabilities of all kinds.

But what about private spaces, like houses and condominiums? Private residences must comply with ADA guidelines only in accordance with the Fair Housing Act, amended in 1988: “Detached single family houses as well as duplexes and triplexes are not covered by the Act’s design and construction requirements. Condominiums that are not detached are, however, covered.” ADA compliance is required for residences in multifamily (more than 3) buildings, but not required for single family homes.  Nevertheless, we can apply many of the ADA design standards to residential design to make our homes more accessible and safe for all ages and abilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that covered multifamily dwellings be designed and constructed with the following accessible features:

All doors designed to allow passage into and within all premises of covered dwellings must be sufficiently wide to allow passage by persons with disabilities, including persons who use wheelchairs;

Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls are to be located in accessible positions;

Reinforcements must be located in bathroom walls to allow the installation of grab bars;

Usable kitchens and bathrooms such that an individual using a wheelchair can maneuver about and use the space must be provided.

We have found that these guidelines set great goals to meet when we design residential spaces, even though they are not required. Accessible homes are easier homes for all.

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