History of the Access Board

1965-68 Accessibility Becomes a Major Concern

An increasing awareness of the problems many Americans were encountering with barriers to accessibility led Congress to take a careful and extensive look at the problem in 1965. In September of that year Congress created the National Commission on Architectural Barriers to Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. The Commission's charge was to: determine to the extent to which architectural barriers prevented access to public facilities, report on what was being done to eliminate barriers, and propose measures to eliminate and prevent barriers. The Commission's report, issued in June 1968, laid the groundwork for succeeding legislation.

1968 The Architectural Barriers Act Becomes Law

Congress began implementing the Commission's recommendations by enacting the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) on August 12, 1968. In passing this law, Congress aimed to make Federal facilities fully accessible to people with disabilities. Congress also expected the Federal government's activity in eliminating barriers to set an example for state and local governments and private industry.

Senator E.L. Bartlett of Alaska introduced the ABA in January 1967. One of Senator Bartlett's aides was Hugh Gallagher, a wheelchair user who had experienced firsthand the problem of barriers to accessibility when he was unable to enter the National Gallery of Art without assistance. Although Senator Bartlett convinced the National Gallery to install a ramp in 1965, he recognized that the inaccessibility there was mirrored many times over in other buildings. "I wanted it to be simple," said Gallagher of the law he helped craft, "I wanted accessibility to be one of the items on the checklist of designers and builders." This his law has achieved, at least where federal funds are involved, and it has since been joined by model building codes, state codes and other laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ABA requires access to facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds.

1973 The Access Board is Created

Several years after the ABA had become law, Congress observed that compliance had been uneven and that no initiatives to create Federal design standards for accessibility were underway. Clearly, one central agency needed to take charge of enforcing the ABA and ensuring development of design standards. The concept of such an agency began to take shape as Congress considered the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 502 of this law created the Access Board, originally named the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The Board was charged with ensuring Federal agency compliance with the ABA and proposing solutions to the environmental barriers problems addressed in the ABA.

Congress was clear in its intent that compliance be the primary essence of the Board's function. A Senate committee report stated that "Barrier-free design in Federal buildings and federally assisted projects is mandated in present law but has never been adequately enforced. ... The Committee believes this Board can serve to accomplish this." As originally constituted, the Board had Cabinet_level officials of eight Federal agencies responsible for nearly all Federal programs which affected the design, development and construction of buildings and facilities. The eight were the departments of Health, Education and Welfare; Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor and Transportation; the General Services Administration, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

1974 The Board Holds its First Meeting

In March 1974, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Caspar Weinberger called the first meeting of the Board. One of the Board's first actions was to set up a hearing on the transportation needs of persons with disabilities. The hearing was held in San Francisco in June 1974.  A second public hearing on the housing needs of people with disabilities was held in Chicago in June 1975.

Through amendments to the Rehabilitation Act in 1974, Congress strengthened the Board's compliance authority and made it be "final and binding on the Department, agency, or instrumentality ... and may include the withholding of Federal funds ...." In addition, the Department of Defense became a Board member and the Secretary of HEW was designated as Board chairman. The Board was directed to appoint a Consumer Advisory Panel, the majority of whom were to be persons with disabilities, and to hire an executive director and other staff.

1975-77 The Work of the Access Board Begins

James S. Jeffers was appointed the Board's first executive director in March 1975. Within the year, he had filled key staff positions. In 1976 the Board helped the National Park Service design renovations to make major national monuments accessible during the Bicentennial celebration. In other cooperative efforts, the Board published "Access Travel: Airports," developed with the Airport Operators Council International, and worked with Amtrak to design accessible railroad cars. During 1976 and 1977, the Board expanded public awareness efforts with a film, produced for a White House presentation and then distributed nationally, and a series of public service radio and television announcements promoting accessibility, aired across the country.

The first complaint on record was received on January 14, 1974, even before the Board officially began operating. Robert M. Johnson, who succeeded Jeffers as executive director in 1977, recalled, "I had been executive director less than a month when I signed the first citation issued by the Board against a Federal agency for not complying with the law."

1978 Major Changes to the Board

The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978 added to the Board’s mandate and changed its structure and composition. The new law authorized the Board to establish minimum accessibility guidelines under the ABA and to ensure compliance with the requirements. The Board's technical assistance role was expanded to include providing help on the removal of barriers including for the first time, communication barriers in federally-funded buildings and facilities.  In addition, the Board was directed to provide technical assistance to private entities to the extent practicable.

Under these amendments, the Department of Justice became the tenth Federal agency to join the Board. In addition, for the first time, public members were added to the Board, to be appointed by the President.  Of the 11 public members, at least five were to be persons with disabilities.  The 1978 law also established that the chairman would be appointed by the President to serve a two-year term.  Thereafter, the chairman would be elected by a vote of the majority of the Board and the term could not exceed one year.  The first public members were named by President Jimmy Carter on December 4, 1979.  The President also appointed Max Cleland as chairman who at the time was head of Veterans Administration.

Ultimately, the number of Federal members increased to 12 with the division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) into the departments of Education and of Health and Human Services (1980) and the addition of the Department of Commerce (1992). The public membership was increased to keep a simple majority balance for public members. These additions brought the Access Board to its total membership of 25. In 1986, amendments to Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required the Board chair and vice-chair to be elected for one-year terms by majority vote of the Board's membership.   In addition, the chair and vice-chair would alternate from one year to the next between public and Federal members.

1982 Board publishes Minimum Guidelines for Accessible Design

The Board developed accessibility guidelines that were to serve as the basis for standards used to enforce the ABA. The final guidelines, known as the "Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design," served as the basis for enforceable design standards issued in 1984.

1984 UFAS Adopted by Standard-Setting Agencies

On the basis of the Board’s guidelines, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) were issued in August 1984. UFAS became the enforceable standard under the ABA upon its adoption by four standard_setting agencies: the departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration and the Postal Service in August 1984.

1990 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Expands the Board’s Mission

During the 1980's, the Board continued its work in enforcing and providing technical assistance on the ABA as it applied to Federal buildings and facilities. Increasingly, however, the Board was asked to take part in research and testimony before Congress on a range of accessible design issues which would come together as part of the civil rights legislation known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

On July 26, 1990, President George Bush signed the ADA into law. "In this extraordinary year," said President Bush at a White House ceremony, "we have seen our own Declaration of Independence inspire the march of freedom .... It is altogether fitting that the American people have once again given clear expression to our most basic ideals of freedom and equality.  The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full flowering of our own democratic principles."

The ADA extends to people with disabilities civil rights similar to those available on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the private sector and in state and local governments, public accommodations and services, including transportation, provided by public and private entities.  The act also provides for telecommunication services for people with hearing or speech impairments.

The ADA expanded the Board's mandate to include:

In anticipation of this legislation, the Access Board installed a toll-free technical assistance phone line to be operational on the day the ADA became law.

1991 Board Publishes the ADA Accessibility Guidelines

The Board began immediately to develop accessibility guidelines under the ADA and published its final guidelines on the first anniversary of the ADA’s signing, July 26, 1991. On the same day, the Department of Justice adopted ADAAG as the standard for the construction and alteration of places of public accommodation and commercial facilities.

The first four sections of ADAAG contain general sections, scoping provisions and technical specifications which apply to all types of buildings and facilities. Scoping provisions specify what has to be accessible, while technical provisions explain how access is to be achieved. Special occupancy chapters cover restaurants and cafeterias (Section 5), medical care facilities (Section 6), mercantile establishments (Section 7), libraries (Section 8); and hotels, motels and transient lodging (Section 9).

On September 6, 1991, the Board published ADAAG for Transportation Facilities, which was identical to the earlier ADAAG except that it contained an additional chapter (Section 10) covering transportation facilities, including bus shelters and stations, rail stations, and airports. The Board also published on the same day ADAAG for transportation vehicles as a separate document.  It covers buses and vans, rapid rail vehicles, light rail vehicles, commuter rail cars, intercity rail cars, automated guideway transit vehicles, high-speed rail cars, monorails and trams and similar vehicles. The Department of Transportation adopted the guidelines for transportation facilities and vehicles as enforceable standards in its ADA regulations.

1992 (to present) Board Training and Rulemaking Under the ADA

After ADAAG was published, the Board instituted a technical assistance and training program on the design requirements of the ADA that continues to this day. The Board has also published a variety of publications, including:

Through the 1990s, the Board continued to supplement and update ADAAG to address areas where further guidance is necessary and to keep the guidelines up to date. It became standard practice for the Board to establish advisory or regulatory negotiation committees to help develop or update its accessibility guidelines and standards. These committees allow interested groups, including those representing designers, industry, and people with disabilities, to play a substantive role in the Board’s development of guidelines which are then proposed for public comment. The Board established committees on:

The Board issued final supplements and revisions to ADAAG covering:

The Board published proposed supplements to ADAAG covering:

1996 The Telecommunications Act Adds to the Board’s Mission

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a comprehensive law overhauling regulation of the telecommunications industry, recognizes the importance of access to telecommunications for people with disabilities in the Information Age. Section 255 requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities where "readily achievable." Manufacturers must ensure that products are "designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities." Under the law, the Board is responsible for developing guidelines that spell out what makes telecommunications products accessible.

The Board’s guidelines, published in February 1998, were developed with help from an advisory committee the Board created for this purpose. The Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee included product manufacturers, service providers, disability groups, and experts in communication access. This committee developed recommendations upon which the final guidelines are closely based. The guidelines were published in proposed form and made available for public comment in April 1997. Structured as performance requirements, the guidelines detail the operating characteristics and product capabilities necessary for access. This approach was taken because the products covered are varied and ever changing through technological innovations. The guidelines address products and equipment, including input, output, operating controls and mechanisms, and product information and documentation. Access is covered for people with disabilities affecting hearing, vision, movement, manipulation, speech, and interpretation of information. The Board developed these guidelines for use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for rules and policies to enforce the law.

1998 Board Mission Broadened to Cover Electronic and Information Technology

On August 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 which covers access to federally funded programs and services. The law strengthens section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the Federal government. The Board is responsible for developing accessibility standards for such technology for incorporation into regulations that govern Federal procurement practices. The net result will be that Federal agencies will have to purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible except where it would cause an "undue burden." The law also provides a complaint process under which complaints concerning access to technology will be investigated by the responsible Federal agency.

The law requires that the Board, in developing the standards, consult with a number of Federal agencies, representatives of the information and technology industry, and organizations representing people with disabilities. This the Board achieved through the creation of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee. This committee completed its work and submitted a report to the Board on May 1999. The Board used this report as the basis for final standards it published in December 2000.