The ADA is Not Perfect. Here’s Why


Written by Mackenzie Saunders:

I recently graduated from Arizona State University. To graduate through the honors college, students have to complete an honors thesis, which is a year-long, in-depth project of the student’s choosing. As an overachiever and a person with a spinal cord injury, I utilized my thesis project as an opportunity to learn everything there is to learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all while conducting an in-depth assessment of the physical accessibility of my college campus. The purpose of my thesis project was to identify all of the accessibility issues on my college campus, and to work with university officials to fix these issues. Over the course of a year, I learned something that I never expected to learn.

The ADA does not equal accessibility.

This may sound crazy, but it’s reality. The Americans with Disabilities Act may be the main law that dictates what accessibility looks like in the United States, but the ADA doesn’t encompass everything that makes up full accessibility. If anything, the ADA equals the bare minimum of accessibility; the ADA doesn’t regulate many aspects of accessibility that are critical to the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities. Here are just a few things the ADA doesn’t regulate:

  • The ADA does not require the presence of automatic push buttons in ANY space.
  • The ADA does not require each building or floor to have an accessible restroom.
  • The ADA does not require clear signage for elevators, ramps, and restrooms that may be difficult to find.

The ADA does not regulate many aspects of physical accessibility that are deemed essential to people with disabilities. Because of this, we should not look to the ADA when forming our definitions and visions of what accessibility looks like.

So, what is accessibility?

While documenting the accessibility issues on my campus, I bypassed ADA definitions and used my own definition of “accessibility issues”: accessibility issues became defined as fixable aspects of a building that cause people with disabilities inconvenience or harm while accessing critical aspects of the entity. When I consider accessibility, I envision a location with no physical barriers to access, where all people regardless of ability can navigate the space without inconvenience, difficulty, or harm.

It became clear to me through my research that the ADA doesn’t use this same vision of accessibility. For example, a photography classroom building at my college has four steps leading up to the entrance, with no ramp leading to any entrance of the building. Someone who cannot use stairs has no way of entering this building. But this building’s inaccessible entrance isn’t an ADA violation: since the building was built over 50 years ago and has not had substantial modifications since then, it qualifies as a historic building, meaning the building is exempt from ADA regulations entirely. This is clearly an instance of inaccessibility, but under the ADA, it isn’t.

It’s clear that we need to look at accessibility beyond the ADA. But how do we do this if the ADA is the only piece of federal legislation that regulates accessibility in public settings? How do we do this when the ADA is so ingrained in our society?

Think past the ADA, and listen to people with disabilities

Through my thesis project, I found that my university is incredibly accessible, despite the bare minimum standards that the ADA enforces. My college is very accessible because the institution explores accessibility way beyond the ADA, utilizing additional building accessibility standards and consulting disability experts.

Arizona State University has its own building accessibility standards that apply to all existing and new college campus buildings. These standards go way beyond the ADA, implementing requirements such as push buttons at every building entrance, accessible restrooms in every building, and a minimum of two elevators per building in order to limit the instances where an elevator malfunction limits one’s ability to get to class. These standards are comprehensive, and they are regularly assessed and improved by disability experts. Particularly, the newest accessibility standards were written by an ASU professional with a physical disability: a person who has great insight into the everyday accessibility needs of individuals with disabilities.

We as a nation need to start exploring the notion of accessibility beyond the ADA by implementing additional standards and consulting people with disabilities on what accessibility features matter most to them. We shouldn’t be relying on a 30-year-old piece of legislation to tell us what accessibility is; instead, we should rely on the insight of our disabled peers who can tell us what accessibility features should be required in day to day life.

My thesis project has taught me a fundamental aspect of access: the ADA isn’t perfect, and the ADA does not equal accessibility. Let’s start thinking about accessibility outside of the ADA and start developing accessibility standards based on the input of people with disabilities, because when we do, we will start to see some substantial changes that will make our nation a more accessible place to live.

This post was written by Mackenzie Saunders, Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm Paralegal and SPINALpedia Director of Operations. Mackenzie recently graduated from Arizona State University with a B.S. in Politics and Economics and a B.S. in Justice Studies, and will attend Harvard Law School in Fall 2022. Mackenzie loves dogs, public speaking, and spending time with her sisters.