The Access Board, established in 1973 as an independent federal agency, plays a pivotal role in advancing the cause of equality for individuals with disabilities. This agency distinguishes itself through its unwavering commitment to accessible design and the formulation of comprehensive accessibility guidelines and standards. Originally conceived to ensure that federally funded facilities are open and welcoming to all, the Access Board has evolved into a preeminent source of expertise in the field of accessible design.
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One of the Access Board’s primary responsibilities is the development and ongoing maintenance of design criteria that span various domains, encompassing the built environment, transit vehicles, public right-of-way, information and communication technology, and medical diagnostic equipment. These criteria are established under the umbrella of pivotal legislation, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and other pertinent laws. This multifaceted mission seeks to create an inclusive society where people with disabilities can fully participate and access essential services and spaces.
Moreover, the Access Board is not solely focused on the development of standards. It also dedicates itself to the dissemination of knowledge and practical assistance, actively engaging in the provision of technical guidance and training regarding these accessibility requirements and the broader principles of inclusive design. Furthermore, the Access Board maintains a role in the enforcement of accessibility standards that pertain to facilities receiving federal funding, pursuant to the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA). This dual function ensures that the principles of accessible design are not merely theoretical but are translated into tangible, real-world results.
The structure of the Access Board reflects its commitment to comprehensive representation. Serving as a vital coordinating body among federal agencies, the Access Board has a governing board comprised of twenty-five members. Twelve of these members represent key federal departments, ensuring that the perspectives of various government bodies are taken into account. The remaining thirteen members, appointed by the President, represent the public interest, with a special emphasis on including individuals with disabilities. This commitment to inclusivity ensures that the Access Board’s work is grounded in diverse and informed perspectives.
To execute its mission effectively, the Access Board employs approximately thirty dedicated staff members, distributed across four essential units. These units include the Office of Executive Director, which oversees strategic leadership and management, the Office of Administration, which handles administrative functions, the Office of General Counsel, responsible for legal matters, and the Office of Technical and Information Services, which plays a critical role in providing technical expertise and disseminating valuable information.
In summary, the Access Board is a dynamic and indispensable agency that champions the rights and well-being of individuals with disabilities by promoting accessible design, developing crucial guidelines, providing guidance, and ensuring that accessibility standards are upheld. Its comprehensive approach to fostering inclusivity and its collaborative structure underscore the vital role it plays in advancing the cause of equality and accessibility for all.
Evolution of the U.S. Access Board
1968 – The Architectural Barriers Act is Enacted
In a historic move, the United States Congress unanimously passed the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) on August 12, 1968. This groundbreaking legislation marked the nation’s first significant step toward addressing accessibility concerns. The ABA aimed to make federally funded facilities accessible to individuals with disabilities, thereby setting a precedent for state and local governments and private industry. President Lyndon Johnson, during the signing of the bill, emphasized the imperative of removing barriers to access, considering them as emblematic of government failure and “cruel discrimination.” The ABA was introduced by Senator E.L. Bartlett of Alaska, with the assistance of Hugh Gallagher, a wheelchair user who had experienced firsthand the barriers faced in government buildings.
1973 – The Birth of the Access Board
Recognizing the uneven compliance with the ABA due to a lack of oversight and accessibility design standards, Congress decided that a central authority was necessary to enforce the ABA and establish accessibility guidelines. This vision took shape during the discussions around the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandated access to federally funded programs, activities, and employment. Within this legislation, a provision (section 502) led to the creation of the Access Board, initially named the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. This newly formed board was tasked with ensuring federal agencies’ adherence to the ABA and devising solutions to address environmental barriers outlined in the ABA. The Senate committee asserted that while barrier-free design was mandated in existing laws, it had not been adequately enforced, and the Access Board was poised to rectify this.
1975 – Inaugurating the Access Board’s Work
In 1975, the Access Board commenced its mission with the appointment of its first Executive Director, James S. Jeffers. Jeffers was responsible for assembling key staff positions, initiating a concerted effort to make national monuments accessible during the Bicentennial celebration, and collaborating with organizations such as the National Park Service, Airport Operators Council International, and Amtrak. The Access Board expanded its public awareness initiatives, including the production of a film for a White House presentation and nationwide distribution, as well as public service radio and television announcements promoting accessibility.
1978 – Signifying Changes for the Access Board
The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978 ushered in significant changes to the Access Board’s mandate, structure, and composition. In addition to amending sections of the Rehabilitation Act, this legislation empowered the Access Board to establish design guidelines under the ABA, thereby ensuring a minimum level of accessibility. The Access Board’s role in providing technical assistance was broadened to encompass the removal of barriers, including communication barriers in federally funded buildings and facilities. Furthermore, the Access Board was directed to offer technical assistance to private entities. These amendments resulted in the inclusion of public members appointed by the President, with a stipulation that at least five of these members must have disabilities. The first public members were appointed by President Jimmy Carter in December 1979, ultimately expanding the Access Board’s composition to 12 federal members and 13 public members.
1982 – Pioneering Accessibility Guidelines
In 1982, the Access Board made history by publishing the Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design, which established comprehensive accessibility requirements enforced by the federal government for the first time. These guidelines laid the foundation for the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), jointly adopted by several designated agencies in 1984. UFAS served as the enforceable ABA standard for over two decades and continued to be used by state and local governments under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
1990 – ADA Broadens the Access Board’s Role
The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George Bush. This pivotal legislation aimed to eradicate discrimination based on disability and ensure access to various sectors, including the private sector, state and local government, transportation, employment, and communication. The ADA bestowed upon the Access Board the responsibility of developing accessibility guidelines for facilities and transportation systems, expanding its mission to encompass a broader range of facilities in both the private and public sectors.
1991 – Publication of ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)
On the first anniversary of the ADA’s signing, the Access Board released the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) on July 26, 1991. These guidelines detailed design requirements for accessibility in new construction and alterations, with the Department of Justice adopting ADAAG as enforceable standards on the same day. The Access Board also introduced a toll-free hotline for inquiries about ADAAG and accessible design and launched a training program for the public.
Simultaneously, the Access Board unveiled guidelines for transportation vehicles and facilities on September 6, 1991. These guidelines covered various modes of public transportation, including buses, vans, rail vehicles, automated guideway systems, and trams. On the same day, the Access Board issued ADAAG for Transportation Facilities, which extended these requirements to include bus shelters and stations, rail stations, and airports. The Department of Transportation adopted these guidelines as enforceable ADA standards for transportation systems.
In subsequent years, the Access Board expanded ADAAG to address state and local government facilities, children’s environments, and recreational facilities, including play areas. Additionally, the board initiated rulemaking efforts to address accessibility in streets, sidewalks, trails, beaches, and picnic and camping areas.
1996 – New Responsibilities under the Telecommunications Act
With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Access Board gained new responsibilities regarding access to telecommunications equipment. Section 255 of the Act authorized the board to create accessibility guidelines to ensure the accessibility of telecommunications products and services wherever feasible. These guidelines outlined requirements for product manufacturers to design their products to be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.
In February 1998, the Access Board issued the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines, focusing on performance requirements for products and equipment. These guidelines were enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, which was responsible for establishing rules and policies to uphold the law.
1998 – Addressing Electronic and Information Technology Access (Section 508)
The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on August 7, 1998, fortified Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This amendment required access to electronic and information technologies procured by the federal government. The Access Board was entrusted with the responsibility of developing and maintaining accessibility standards to be incorporated into federal government procurement regulations. These Section 508 Standards, published in December 2000, addressed various technologies, including computers, hardware, software, websites, and electronic office equipment.
2004 – Updates to ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines
On July 23, 2004, the Access Board undertook a comprehensive review and update of ADAAG and the ABA Accessibility Guidelines to establish consistency between the two sets of guidelines. The revised ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines were largely informed by recommendations from an advisory committee, which included representatives from disability groups, the design profession, and building codes organizations. The final document was shaped by over 2,500 public comments and was updated to accommodate the evolving needs of people with disabilities and technological advancements. The Access Board collaborated extensively with model code groups and standard-setting bodies, achieving a significant level of harmonization between its guidelines and industry standards and codes.
2010 – Addressing Access to Medical Diagnostic Equipment
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010, included a provision to amend the Rehabilitation Act. This amendment charged the Access Board with developing access standards for medical diagnostic equipment in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration. The standards were designed to facilitate independent access to and use of this equipment by individuals with disabilities to the greatest extent possible.
Website link: https://www.access-board.gov/