Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act

The Architectural Barriers Act, passed by Congress, was the first federal legislation calling for the removal of physical barriers that prevented the access of disabled people to publicly owned buildings. The act marked a change in attitude about the disabled: from persons needing to be serviced because of their “inabilities,” to persons recognized for their abilities to overcome barriers, both physical and symbolic.

Summary of Event

Architectural barriers often block the access of disabled people to post offices, museums, houses of worship, concert halls, and other public buildings. Although the number of physically disabled people is large, the efforts to remove barriers have been slow. These efforts were first advocated by a few organizations and concerned individuals, then supported by local and state laws and later federal laws. Compliance has been lackluster, and the problem of architectural barriers has only slowly entered the public conscience. Architectural Barriers Act (1968)
Disability rights legislation
[kw]Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act (Aug. 12, 1968)
[kw]Architectural Barriers Act, Congress Passes the (Aug. 12, 1968)
Architectural Barriers Act (1968)
Disability rights legislation
[g]North America;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[g]United States;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[c]Architecture;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[c]Health and medicine;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
[c]Urban planning;Aug. 12, 1968: Congress Passes the Architectural Barriers Act[09880]
Chatelain, Leon J., Jr.
Cohen, Wilbur J.
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;disability rights

In 1957, Hugo Deffner Deffner, Hugo , a disabled man from Oklahoma City, was named the Handicapped American of the Year for his one-person crusade against unnecessary barriers. Ironically, because there were steps, but no ramp, leading to the building where he was to receive his award, two Marines had to carry him to the stage in his wheelchair. Four years later, the American National Standards Institute American National Standards Institute , in cooperation with the National Society for Crippled Children National Society for Crippled Children, U.S. (now Easter Seals), issued American National Standards Specifications for making buildings and facilities accessible to and usable by the physically disabled (the A117.1 ANSI standards). These set forth minimal requirements for sixteen aspects of building design, including grading, parking lots, walks, entrances, doors, doorways, and restrooms. These standards, although groundbreaking, are generally considered to have been incomplete and minimal because they contained few descriptive drawings, were too nonspecific, and did not cover residential buildings.

These standards were distributed to all the offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. (HUD) and incorporated into the construction manual of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;disability rights (HEW), which made the standards applicable to all new construction under its responsibility. A national education program was also undertaken to ensure that state and local governments adopted the standard. As a result of public education, a small number of important structures, such as New York City’s Philharmonic Hall and LaGuardia Airport and the University of California campuses at Davis and Riverside, were built to accommodate the physically disabled.

By 1965, thirty-four states had some legislation describing the removal of barriers, but most laws were not comprehensive and lacked enforcement provisions. Few buildings were built in compliance to these laws. In November of that year, the first federal law designed to further the removal of architectural barriers was passed. Congress amended the Vocational Rehabilitation Act Vocational Rehabilitation Act amendment (1965) (Public Law 89-933), establishing a National Commission on Architectural Barriers National Commission on Architectural Barriers, U.S. (NCAB). The commission’s objective was to determine the extent to which architectural barriers impeded the access of disabled people to public buildings, to determine what was being done by public and nonprofit organizations to remove these barriers, and to prepare a proposal for further action.

After two years of study, the NCAB presented its findings to Wilbur J. Cohen, the secretary of HEW. The commission, headed by Leon J. Chatelain, Jr., who was also president of the National Society for Crippled Children, found that the single greatest obstacle to the employment of the disabled was the design of the buildings in which they would work. The commission also presented shocking evidence that the public was generally unaware of and unconcerned with the problem of architectural barriers, despite the education programs. About 64 percent of Americans polled did not even realize that architectural barriers were a problem because they had not thought about the issue. Of 709 architects surveyed, 251 were not even aware of the ANSI standards. Only three of seven national building materials suppliers were familiar with the ANSI standards, and none had any policies to meet them. There were still no standard specifications for accessible transportation.

The problems of inaccessibility mostly involved curbs and steps; inaccessible elevators; steep and narrow walks; gratings in walkways; doors that were too narrow, revolved, or were hard to open; lack of parking spaces for the disabled; lack of accommodations for wheelchairs; aisles that were too narrow; public toilet stalls and telephone booths that were too small; and telephones, drinking fountains, vending machines, light switches, and fire alarms that were too high to use. Among the worst offenders were, ironically, Social Security offices in small towns, usually located on the second floor of buildings without elevators.

In the light of the lack of public concern, the commission recommended that federal legislation be enacted requiring all new public buildings funded by the government to be designed for accessibility to the elderly and disabled, that all federal agencies plan and budget for architectural changes to existing buildings to improve accessibility, that similar laws be passed on the state level, that building codes be revised, and that a government agency be established to administer this new legislation. These recommendations substantially were adopted by the House of Representatives as legislation H.R. 6589 in the summer of 1968. A committee then set out to resolve the slight differences between this bill and a similar one passed in the Senate (S. 222). An agreement was reached, and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 (Public Law 90-480) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 12.

Sections of the law authorized the head of the General Services Administration (GSA) and the secretaries of the departments of HUD and defense, in consultation with the secretary of HEW, to issue standards for public buildings. The heads of these agencies were given authority to waive the standards on a case-by-case basis and authorized to undertake surveys and investigations to determine general compliance. The jurisdiction of the law included buildings and facilities constructed or altered by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government; buildings leased after alterations in accordance with the law; and buildings funded by government grants and loans. The act was amended in 1970, making it applicable to the District of Columbia metro facilities but not to the trains themselves.

The month before the ABA was passed, William A. Schmidt, commissioner of the Public Buildings Service of the GSA, had warned building owners and operators that unless they provided for easy access for physically disabled people they would risk losing government agencies as tenants. Schmidt noted that this was no small matter. At the time, government agencies as a group were one of the nation’s biggest tenants, occupying 6.5 percent of the space in buildings owned and managed by members of the National Association of Building Owners and Managers. Schmidt said that more than 10 percent of the people in the United States were disabled, including those in wheelchairs and the elderly. He demanded that the disabled and the elderly be given equal opportunity for gainful employment and other normal activities from which they had been barred, literally, by the design and construction of government buildings.

Noting the lack of a program to ensure compliance with the ABA, Congress enacted the Rehabilitation Act Rehabilitation Act (1973) of 1973 (Public Law 93-112). This law created the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB), which was conceived to be the primary force to ensure the full implementation of the earlier laws. Modified by an amendment to the 1973 law, the ATBCB was made up of the heads of the departments of HEW, transportation, HUD, labor, the interior, and defense and the heads of the GSA, postal service, and Veterans Administration.


In 1975, the General Accounting Office General Accounting Office (GAO, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm) determined the effectiveness of the ABA. The GAO inspected 314 federally financed buildings and architectural plans for buildings, all of which were built, altered, leased, or designed after the 1968 act was implemented. None of them fully complied with the law, and most buildings showed halfhearted compliance. For example, wheelchair ramps were constructed, but they were too long, slick, or steep; doors were built wide enough for wheelchairs but were blocked by ledges. The GAO’s report also cited inconvenient elevator controls and controls for heat, air conditioning, and lighting in bathrooms; high curbs; and water fountains that were too high. Although the government, private contractors, and building designers all agreed that the cost of incorporating accessibility features into new buildings was as low as one-tenth of 1 percent of total construction costs, little was being done.

It was clear that the 1968 act had fallen short of its goals: It delegated authority too much, allowing different government agencies the discretion of implementing proper action, performing surveys, and waiving standards case by case. It also did not cover privately owned residential structures leased for public housing.

David R. Williamson Williamson, David R. , executive director of National Paraplegia, noted that when the U.S. Post Office was reorganized in 1970 and taken out of government surveillance, it was also (perhaps inadvertently) exempted from the 1968 law. When Williamson went to his local post office in Chicago, he could get into the front door but no further, because steps blocked his path to the main area of business. Usually, he had to request that a passerby get the attention of a postal employee for him. If no passersby were around, he would yell. The longer he waited, the louder he would yell. The entire process was frustrating and demeaning.

Progress since 1975 has been slow but visible. The Center for Independent Living, established in 1972 as a workshop and growth center for the disabled in the San Francisco area, became a model for changing the environment to meet the needs of disabled people. After much time and effort, the ANSI standards were revised in 1980. Descriptions of curb ramps, restrooms, and kitchens were added, as were more figures and mandatory specifications. These additions corrected earlier deficiencies of this standard. Many reports, studies, and books have been published, leading to increased public awareness. Many physical barriers have been removed. State legislation has improved, and the United Nations even had a special year in 1981, and a special decade from 1982-1993, to highlight the continuing problem. Architectural Barriers Act (1968)
Disability rights legislation

Further Reading

  • American Bar Association. Commission on the Mentally Disabled. Developmental Disabilities State Legislative Project. Public Service Activities Division. Eliminating Environmental Barriers. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979. This technical guide, although dated, contains information on various topics, including enforcement provisions, waiver provisions, administrative authority, design and construction standards, and tax incentives. Also contains a model act designed to be used by local governments to implement legislation on the removal of barriers.
  • Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. Resource Guide to Literature on Barrier-Free Environments. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1980. A guide to publications on various topics related to architectural barriers. Lists the civil and legal rights of the disabled. Describes litigation and court cases involving barriers, including a case wherein plaintiffs were denied the right to vote due to physical disabilities that prevented access to polls.
  • Bednar, Michael J., ed. Barrier-Free Environments. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1977. An international encyclopedia containing sections on the history of American barrier-removal legislation; a case study for creating a barrier-free environment for the elderly and the disabled in Moline, Illinois; the Center on Environment for the Handicapped, an advisory and information service in London; and provisions for the disabled in Denmark.
  • Lifchez, Raymond, and Barbara Winslow. Design for Independent Living: The Environment and Physically Disabled People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Provides useful information on construction and design of accessible environments such as kitchens. The beauty of this book lies in the portrait of the disabled as ordinary people.
  • Parry, John. Handbook on Disability Discrimination Law. Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association, Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, 2003. Contents of this handbook include an “overview” of the “history, basic elements, and limits” of disability law and chapters covering employment, public services at the state and local government level, public accommodations, housing, education, and “telecommunications and the Internet.”
  • Robinette, Gary O., ed. Barrier-Free Exterior Design: Anyone Can Go Anywhere. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985. An architectural handbook, including dimensions of small and large wheelchairs and minimum turning spaces. Includes diagrams and photographs of what had been done in the previous decade, how it was done, and what still needs to be done in terms of ramps, curbs, stairs, and railings.
  • U.S. Congress. Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Effectiveness of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976. The transcript of 1975 hearings presided over by Representative Jim Wright, containing descriptions of the GAO report to Congress. Notes that people in wheelchairs could neither look out the windows of the Washington Monument nor view the U.S. Constitution. The hearings describe how poorly the 1968 legislation was enforced.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. Civil Rights Division. Americans with Disabilities Act. http://www.usdoj .gov/crt/ada/. U.S. government Web site that offers resources on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Includes guidelines for compliance with the Architectural Barriers Act and universal disabled access to public buildings and other spaces. Recommended.

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