Accessibility Guidelines and Standards: What's What?

More than a quarter century has passed since federal legislation -- specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 -- first required school districts to operate their programs, when viewed in their entirety, in a manner that is “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” But a degree of confusion persists over the complex regulations, guidelines and standards involved in complying with this landmark legislation and its successors, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). All three laws regard facilities construction or modification among the means for achieving program accessibility. This is where command of what is possible, as well as what is required, can prove useful.

Know the Players

The body of federal legislation set in place for the purpose of ensuring the civil rights of persons with disabilities -- now including nearly six million school-age children with disabilities -- distributes responsibility for implementation and enforcement among several federal agencies and departments. Where public school facilities are involved, the Access Board, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education (ED) are the principals. Each contributes to making school environments accessible.

The Access Board, through an extensive rulemaking process, develops and publishes advisory guidelines for architectural, transportation and telecommunications accessibility. The Justice Department, through its own rulemaking process, has sole authority to adopt enforceable architectural standards that apply to the accessibility of public facilities, including public schools. And the Education Department, on occasion in conjunction with DOJ, handles school districts’compliance with the enforceable architectural standards adopted by DOJ.

Avoid a Mix-Up

Whether addressing the accessibility of new construction or of existing facilities, Section 504, IDEA and the ADA endorse specific architectural standards. In the case of Section 504, the enforceable standards are the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), which apply to all facilities construction or alteration initiated in public schools after 1979. Section 605(b) of the IDEA Amendments of 1997 and Title II of the ADA require compliance with either UFAS or the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The ADA Standards, which apply to public school facilities construction or alteration initiated after January 1992, are preferable for most new school projects, but cannot be combined with UFAS in any single facility or project.

Most school officials and virtually all planning and design professionals understand the difference between UFAS and the ADA Standards. Confusion arises, however, when distinguishing between the “enforceable” ADA Standards and the “advisory” ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, known as ADAAG.

The confusion traces back to 1991, when the Justice Department adopted the initial version of ADAAG to serve as the first ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The department incorporated these first ADA Standards into the enforceable regulations implementing Title III of the ADA (pertaining to public accommodations and commercial facilities). Also, until permanent standards are eventually adopted, the department has designated whichever ADA Standards are current as one of two enforceable sets of standards under Title II of the ADA (pertaining to state and local government). At the time the first ADA Standards were adopted, the title “ADA” should have replaced the title “ADAAG,” and the term “standards” should have replaced the term “guidelines” throughout the boilerplate text. Because these details were overlooked, the meanings of the terms “standards” and “guidelines” are often confused, and the term “ADAAG Standards” -- there is no such thing -- appears in professional publications and is frequently cited instead of the correct term, “ADA Standards.”

Looking Ahead

“Not to worry” would be the advice to public school districts had ADAAG and the ADA Standards remained frozen in their decade-old original versions. However, due to the ongoing rulemaking of the Access Board and the Justice Department, both ADAAG and the ADA Standards continue to evolve, but not at the same pace. For example, the board in recent years has published two advisory guidelines that are particularly important to the design of school facilities: ADAAG for Building Elements Designed for Children’s Use and ADAAG for Play Areas. However, adoption of these guidelines as parts of the enforceable ADA Standards still awaits completion of DOJ’s protracted rulemaking process.

In 1999, pushing the envelope, the Access Board began to solicit comment on revised and updated guidelines that address the substance, format and differences between the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities and the Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design. (MGRAD, first published by the Access Board in 1982, was adopted by the various federal standard-setting agencies in 1984 as UFAS.) The proposed guidelines contain separate scoping requirements sections (what is to be made accessible), which correspond to facilities currently covered under either ADAAG or MGRAD, and a common technical requirements section (how accessibility is to be achieved).

These consolidated guidelines, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Architectural Barriers Act Accessibility Guidelines, are intended to improve access to both public and private facilities, and to contribute to greater uniformity and consistency of accessibility specifications. It is uncertain when the Access Board will publish final ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines, or when the Justice Department will adopt enforceable ADA/ABA standards (potentially affecting design, construction and alteration of public school facilities).

Why Bother?

As a school official or facilities planner, why should you be paying attention to advisory guidelines that may or may not become part of enforceable federal law? Why attend to something that’s not required at the moment or, perhaps, for quite some time to come? Because it’s in the best interests of your students, employees and visitors who have disabilities for you to get ahead of the curve and consider what’s possible, not just what’s mandated. In doing so, you are empowering all stakeholders in your school enterprise to function in a manner most of us value -- to function with maximum ease, safety, independence and dignity.

As educators and design professionals are coming to understand, developing facilities supportive of inclusive learning environments for increasingly diverse student populations requires more than compliance with often-lagging enforceable standards. Allen Abend of the Maryland Department of Education, a leader in the field, explains, “School designers must go beyond providing barrier-free buildings by embracing a broader concept of accessibility, that of providing students with disabilities the maximum possible access to general education.” The federal accessibility guidelines -- particularly ADAAG, and eventually ADA/ABA -- represent best current practices applicable to students’ broad range of facilities accessibility needs and should not escape the notice of any district’s management team.

James Ansley is a Boston-based management education consultant and serves on the advisory board of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. His other publications on school accessibility are “Creating Accessible Schools” and “Emerging Law and Public School Accessibility,” available from NCEF.