• Empty bookshelves placed on tiers that are only accessible by stairs at the Queens Public Library at Hunters Point in Long Island City, N.Y., Oct. 16, 2019. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
    At the recently completed Queens Public Library at Hunters Point in New York City, three tiers of bookshelves and study areas are only accessible via stairs. - photo by Hiroko Masuike, courtesy The New York Times/Redux Pictures

Making the case for the Accessible Design Accreditation Initiative

At this writing, 186 countries participate in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), an international treaty that codifies the rights of people with disabilities and the responsibilities of participating governments to protect, promote, and ensure those rights. There are also 149 countries with corresponding national laws similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Imagine any of these nations attempting to regulate the complex accessible design standards linked to those laws without also ensuring a concomitant educational framework for teaching those standards in their universities and colleges of design. Imagine further that the accreditation organizations who develop the protocols guiding and validating academic programs do not necessarily require a focused curriculum that teaches from the texts of the laws and accessibility standards governing nearly every construction project in that society.

Stop imagining. This is the status of our systems today. The chasm between a professional’s absolute responsibility to know and apply accessibility regulations and higher education’s ability to modify the extent to which students are exposed to accessibility standards demonstrates the need for a deeper harmonization of efforts. The Department of Justice’s 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the International Code Council’s International Building Code, and the International Code Council/American National Standards Institute A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities are an essential aspect to design and project success. A design, building, facility, site, or element that does not meet these accessibility standards may result in legal enforcement ranging from a simple delay of a building permit to the extremes of costly litigation. These mandatory accessibility standards should receive a prominence in academic curricula corresponding to their magnitude and impact on society after graduation. Elevating and normalizing academic exposure to these standards is just common sense for students transitioning into design professionals. 

The Accessible Design Accreditation Initiative 

The Accessible Design Accreditation Initiative (ADAI) is a program of guidance that was introduced in October 2023 to the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) toward meaningful deliberation of the idea. 

The goal of the ADAI is to improve the lives of people with disabilities by advancing accessible design curriculum models for college and university programs offering architecture and interior design degrees. The most effective way to do this is by establishing educational outcomes that focus on accessible design foundations and working with the school accreditation organizations to ensure students are introduced to the regulations and codes that establish accessible design minimum standards. A separate objective is course content regarding the environment in which disabilities and access function in society. 

Currently, these accreditation agencies validate school curricula, and each has distinct procedures and metrics for assessing architectural or interior design programs and granting their respective endorsements. In response, schools must tailor their corresponding programs, learning objectives, strategies, and faculty skills to maintain their accreditations. As a result, the depth and scope of a student’s exposure to accessible design standards is unpredictable when compared to the very consistent application of those standards in professional practice. As students graduate into their professional careers, the concentration of their knowledge of accessible design becomes evident and meaningful for them, their firms, clients, and people with disabilities. 

The ADAI is simple in principle but presents challenges in implementation to the accreditation agencies and schools. Because each of these separate — yet connected — industries have developed their own protocols and responses, there is no single curriculum or class that would meet all the different accreditation or school requirements or resources. Consequently, the ADAI incorporates a draft Best Practices Guide (BPG) document to assist the accreditation agencies and schools by offering a framework upon which standards and curricula may be advanced. 

The Opportunity  

Unfortunately, accessible design remains perfunctory, misunderstood, and even overlooked in some instances. For example, the $40 million Hunters Point Library in New York was completed in 2019. Upon its opening, three tiers of extensive bookshelves were inaccessible other than via stairs and now stand completely empty — an inexcusable oversight given that the ADA and model codes have been in effect for more than 33 years. Litigation quickly followed. 

Even without the sword of Damocles of accessibility laws, designers are generally benevolent people who understand the inherent fairness of equitable access to public spaces. The ADAI is not meant to denigrate the design, education, or accreditation industries. These three domains have evolved in their own directions and services to society. Instead, the premise of the ADAI is that academia is best poised to correct the disparities of our present sociological situation and turn the sword into a plowshare. 

The current piecemeal approach of teaching the accessible design principles that impact almost 43 million Americans is commonly done via continuing education in conferences, webinars, and other voluntary venues. The results are varying levels of competency,  effectiveness, and consistency among professionals in understanding and creating usable accessible design. Ongoing trainings are offered by groups like the United States Access Board (USAB), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the International Code Council that author many of the regulations and codes. Other excellent programs are offered through the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its affiliate chapters, the ADA National Network (ADANN), the National ADA Symposium, the ADA Coordinator Certification Training Program (ACTCP), the Certified Accessibility Specialist Institute (CASI), the Accessibility Professionals Association (APA), and many others providing ongoing conferences and webinars.

 Taken separately or together, none of these disparate agencies and sporadic educational programs offer the effectiveness, depth, and scope of an accredited academic setting where students receive years of constant focused and measured professional instruction. Some advantages include consistent attendance, competency in application, research collection and analysis, peer-reviewed publication, examination psychometrics, performance-based assessments, studios, and other modalities used every day in colleges and universities. Standardizing accessible design accreditation objectives before students enter the profession is pivotal to establishing a consistent knowledge base.

The Landscape of Access 

Accessibility standards operate within an intertwined personal, medical, cultural, regulatory, anthropometric, ergonomic, public health, and architectural framework. That framework and its influences are often unseen and unknown by the able-bodied and those outside the field of accessibility, yet each can impact the facility’s end users. Well-rounded design professionals are conversant in the entire milieu within which accessible design functions, not just regulations and codes. The ADAI BPG proposes drawing students into the human scale of living with impairments when using a facility, while at the same time presenting the 40,000-foot view of the industry. 

The meta message is about not just design minimums, but also comprehending the immutable realities affecting building users who have impairments in mobility, sight, hearing, manipulating/operating parts and elements, and wayfinding; chemical sensitivities; and more. Inspiring the future generations of designers toward a more empathic and deeper cultural understanding of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities is equally as important as teaching the technical applications. 

Students can be introduced to the thematic accessibility principles that embody the accessibility standards by spotlighting the chapters, topics, and applications of each without delving into the minutiae of hundreds of pages of text, graphs, tables, illustrations, and other details. This exposure establishes a usable, sustainable, and enduring foundation for students to understand how the standards apply in the profession, and exactly where to research the finer details. This method is also not reliant on teaching the most current edition of either standard, allowing schools more flexibility in curricula and other practicalities as new editions are published.

There are other less obvious benefits to the ADAI. Design school graduates are more attractive to employers when they have the necessary skills to apply key accessible design principles, which can mean the difference between a building permit or litigation for non-compliance. Subsequently, these schools are more attractive to students and their families by offering enhanced employment skills and opportunities. A proposed component of the education is intended to impart identification and understanding of the meaning of interacting with the built environment with a disability. Topics include:

  1. Accessibility as human-scale design
  2. Accessibility as improving good design
  3. Accessibility as a function of civil rights
  4. Adaptive versus accessible design in housing
  5. Performance versus prescriptive accessible design
  6. Accessible design compliance on local and federal levels
  7. Aging in place in extended care, housing, and employment settings
  8. Ways of thinking: Inclusive, universal, and accessible design approaches
  9. Scoping: Overview of principles in existing facilities, alterations, and new construction

An Invitation 

The purpose of this article is to elevate the discussion and to advocate for participation in this notable initiative. Support, insights, and suggestions from the design community are irreplaceable and represent the same philosophy behind this initiative to date: collaboration. The coalition behind the ADAI consists of some of the most eminent names and organizations in the fields of accessible design, accessibility, codes, and regulations today, and more are always welcome. Some of these include the United States Access Board (USAB), the ICC/ANSI A117 Committee, the Association of Licensed Architects (ALA), the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and the State of California Division of the State Architect, among others.

Famous Last Words

To quote the executive director of the United States Access Board, Dr. Sachin Dev Pavithran: “A foundational approach that embodies the characteristic design principles of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the applicable International Code Council model codes, and the ICC/ANSI A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities is a commonsense methodology for educating our upcoming generations of designers. Your ADAI program will undoubtedly improve the lives of people with disabilities, the education of design students, the built environment, and the academic and technical professions.” 

For information and tools to support the ADAI, please visit gpadacenter.org/accessible-design-accreditation-initiative.  

Richard Sternadori, MA. Arch., M. Ed., Assoc. AIA, is the senior program coordinator, researcher, and honorary faculty at the Great Plains ADA Center, University of Missouri, Department of Architectural Studies. He is a member of the TxA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee and the International Code Council Assisted Toileting and Bathing Committee. 

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