Businesses Have Had 20 Years to Make Buildings Accessible, Many Still Refuse

After considerable pressure from disability rights advocates, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990. The legislation, passed in part due to activism from HIV/AIDS activists concerned about discrimination, banned discrimination on the basis of ability status in education, employment, public transportation, communication and governmental activities. Among its many provisions, for example, was a requirement to establish telecommunications relay services for the benefit of D/deaf and hard of hearing people.

More than 20 years later, the promise of access represented by the ADA still seems like a distant dream in many corners of the world. While more wheelchair ramps than ever are present at businesses, more accessible cabs are starting to fill the streets and more disabled people are finding employment (especially at government agencies), access is by no means guaranteed or protected. Part of the problem is that enforcing the ADA is up to the Department of Justice and individual disabled people filing lawsuits, and thus many entities don’t bother to comply.

Many wheelchair users, for example, who live and travel in the United States can chronicle access nightmares across the country, like struggling to navigate paratransit in a city with an inaccessible public transportation system, or waiting as scores of cabs pass by and refuse to pick them up. Meanwhile, disabled job seekers have been turned away on the basis of their disability status, while disabled students have been forced to fight for their basic right to an education. One might imagine that fundamental infrastructure issues like lack of ramps and elevators, poor spatial design and so forth would have been phased out over time as businesses built new buildings and remodeled, providing a great opportunity to get ADA compliant, but that hasn’t been the case.

The National Disability Rights Network just visited 94 Amtrak stations in 24 states and Washington, DC, finding accessibility issues in 89 of them — either Amtrak hasn’t remodeled in more than 20 years, or it didn’t consider access issues when it did. “[M]any stations did not offer ramps or elevators as an alternative to stairways, visual displays allowing people with hearing impairments to access announcements were lacking and accessible parking spaces at some stations were poorly marked, crumbling or uneven, the investigation found.”

Starting in 2010 in response to new amendments to the ADA and persisting through to this year, the hotel industry has been up in arms about an ADA requirement to have permanent pool lifts installed, claiming that it’s too onerous and will force them to close their pool facilities. Again, given that the ADA has specifically mandated access to areas like hotel pools for more than 20 years, it’s remarkable that hotels didn’t take earlier opportunities to design and retrofit with care so they’d be ready.

In New York, the allegedly accessible subway system is often a maze of broken or blocked lifts, doors and other access needs. When the Multiple Sclerosis Society invited journalists and elected officials on a tour to highlight the problem, many didn’t even bother to show up…and thus they missed the experience of being trapped underground without a lift.

Schools across the United States have violated ADA protections for students with service animals; one of the more recent cases involves Madyson Siragusa, who relies on her diabetic alert dog Duke to help her manage her condition. Her school district denied her access, claiming he would distract other students or make them anxious.

Online, services like Netflix viciously fought captioning requirements; it took a high-profile lobbying campaign led by Marlee Matlin to force online streaming services to caption their content as required by law.

It’s not just about these physical and communication access issues, which barely scratch the tip of the iceberg in terms of cases where people have been denied access to spaces they are entitled to enter or been refused communications they can actually use.

Despite outreach, education and public works campaigns to make people aware of the anti-discriminatory nature of the ADA, people are still denied access to jobs, public spaces (including schools), businesses and more, simply because they’re disabled. Restaurants, for example, have told families with disabled children to leave.

Of course, disabled people continue to face discrimination from members of the public, sometimes escalating to bullying, hate crimes and more. The ADA represents just one facet of the protections needed by the disability community, and it’s telling that even after more than 20 years, it’s still not taken seriously by many of those required to adhere to its stipulations.

Photo credit: Omer Ziv.


Azaima A.
Azaima A4 years ago

nobody wants to spend the $ if they don't think they'll make $ as a result

janet t.
janet t4 years ago

Tell me about it. I have a handicapped daughter who is in her early forties, and in all those years, I have never seen an actual increase in access to any building. Homes especially have not changed to accommodate handicapped people. All must be refitted after the fact. And handicapped parking hasn't really gotten better. In some cases they have actually gone back and made the handicapped slots smaller and eliminated the area on the side for wheelchair access.

Kristin Coe-West
Kristin West4 years ago

As a high school teacher who became handicapped while teaching full-time (losing left arm function), I had to argue with the school superintendent at the time to make the front doors (which were extremely heavy) and the door to my classroom (handle had to be turned with my left hand) accessible for me, so I could continue to do my teaching job. This required them to install an automatic door opener on the front doors of the building and also on my classroom door.

Even with my union rep present at our meeting, and even though I had contacted a Stanley door consultant about classroom door mechanism pricing (which he quoted as less than $500),and even though I told her that ADA funding was available to help pay for the cost, my superintendent told me that there was no way it (my classroom door) would cost less than $4000, informed me that the regular maintenance guy was on sick leave for a heart condition, and said she would try to accommodate my request as soon as possible, but she couldn't guarantee when the changes would take place. At that point, I was SO angry and disgusted, I responded, "Well, in that case, I guess I will have to talk to my lawyer, and I can't guarantee that there won't be a lawsuit..." She gave me a dirty look, and left my room, saying she would see what she could do.

This was in Oct. (I had been asking about it since the start of the school year) and I had to wait until the end of Feb. before anything happened! In the meantime, I was made to pack

Kathleen R.
Kathleen R4 years ago

Thanks for the article. There are a lot of places I don't go because it is too difficult.

CharlesAnnemari Martinez

ADA is NOT worthless and IS enforcable - Its a matter of KNOWING YOUR RIGHTS. I have and do use it all the time for reasonable accomodations.... It simply a matter of asking,and if you are not granted, you turn them in....Fines are levied.

Laws are made for people to abide by...and conform to. ADA is one of the best. There will always be businesses and government agencies who try to get away with breaking the laws, or not conforming,but,when they are hit in the pocketbook and fines, they know what they have done. If someone with a disabiity has a need for accessibility, ask, and if not granted report....

Ken W.
Ken W4 years ago

How can anyone say they believe in the teachings of Jesus and be a Republican the GOP actions go against everything that Jesus taught !!! The GOP is a disgrace to America and what America stands for !!!

Lynn C.
Past Member 4 years ago


Donnie H.
Donnie H4 years ago

The ADA is basically worthless. It was a feel-good bill that was passed, but never enforced to any meaningful extent. Complaining is pretty much a waste of time. There are very few stores, malls or even government buildings that are compliant in useful ways. Hospitals and labs are hard to deal with, too. No matter what the disabled needs to use them. Asking for help doesn't work, either.

Susan T.
Susan Tamanaha4 years ago

@StacyN - The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) requires that buildings and facilities that are designed, constructed, or altered with Federal funds, or leased by a Federal agency, comply with Federal standards for physical accessibility. U.S. Postal Service facilities are covered by the ABA. If you want more information or to file a complaint, contact:

U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
1331 F Street, N.W., Suite 1000
Washington, D.C. 20004-1111

CharlesAnnemari Martinez

ADA us the LAW. I don't care what the facility is. That health dept.bldg., had plans, and specs,and hopefully had to get a permit. The builder had to know the law, as well as the architect. Shame on them. But, they got caught. This expense should be on the part of the builder also.

These kinds of violations all need to be reported to the Federal authorities, not the people in charge. They already know they are doing wrong and violating the law. Simply report the violations to the Federal Authorities. You do not have to give your name.

As for public streets and sidewalks, it is a law to make them accessible. Report this to the Federal Authorities. States, cities, towns, etc..,all get federal dollars,and if they are not confoerming to the laws, they need to be cut off.

As far as a business goes,,any business, that is open to the public needs to be accessible to people with disabilities. NO ONE should have to call ahead of time,just to enter a business....the business needs to be accessible. There was money available to help with all of this in the beginning. So,now its time to report this....these businesses are cheaters,and are violating the law. Don't let them get away with it.