THE EVOLUTION OF UNIVERSAL DESIGN
Before the Millennium, MOST removal of architectural and transportation barriers, and new construction and modification of barrier- FREE public and private buildings happened as a result of federal legislation. A look back in time will explain why, for people with disabilities, the road to independence has been so agonizing long, and not just in years.
Normalization and Deinstitutionalization
The foundation for the Universal Design concept was the Normalization Principle that came to the U. S. from Scandinavia. Normalization advocates believed that placing children and adults with disabilities in state-supported institutions was UN-natural and INhumane.
The U. S. Deinstitutionalization Movement began during the 1950s. Adults with disabilities were sent from state schools for the mentally retarded and state mental hospitals to their home communities to live "normally." But many of the newly-released former patients faced major barriers to joining the mainstream American society.
During the 50+ years of deinstitutionalization, Americans with disabilities were isolated by widespread architectural, transportation, and attitudinal barriers. Today, such obstacles are still in effect, but not everywhere and not as strong as during the (otherwise) Fabulous Fifties and Sixties.
Bombarding Architectural, Transportation and Attitudinal Barriers
Starting with the 1968 federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), Congress passed a series of five (so far) major federal laws to make communities livable for persons with disabilities--EACH with its own set of access regulations. The ABA required REMOVAL of the most common EXISTING barriers to mobility in PUBLIC buildings AND PROHIBITED the construction of NEW obstacles in PUBLIC or federally-funded structures. ABA's coverage of only public facilities left MOST U.S. housing and commercial buildings "free" to keep their existing barriers AND continue to build more. But it was a start!
In ARCHITECTURE, wheelchairs are the "lowest common denominator", because changes in levels and narrow doors keep chair users out of buildings (AND their bathrooms). It only takes one entry step, a high door threshold, or an entry or main floor bathroom door with LESS than 32 inches of clear passage, to leave that person "out in the cold (chair)", or cause others to lift them over or through such barriers.
For example, typical Fifties' houses had 24-inch wide bathroom doors (the average width of a person),compared to the standard manual wheelchair width of 27 inches (EXcluding the hands that turn the wheels). By the Seventies, most residential bathroom doors were still 28 inches or less, while other interior doors were 30-32 inches wide.
Transportation barriers isolated people with mobility problems because their wheelchairs or walkers couldn't get into Fifties' cars, busses, OR down to the subways. Imagine how you would feel being hand-carried to a building. Or if the Good Samaritans lifting you up or down either dropped your chair or tipped you out?
People with other types of disabling conditions (e.g., low vision, hearing loss, develop/mental disabilities) also experienced architectural and transportation barriers, but in different ways. Although early regulations focused on providing wheelchair access, Congress later began to reduce transportation barriers. Results included adding lifts to public busses, elevators to subways, and funding for para-transit systems that serve only riders who have disabilities.
caused some "ablebodied" people to worry
that wheelchair users might not be "comfortable" among the
non-disabled majority. More likely, the DIScomforted were individuals
who had little or no previous contact with "the handicapped"
(and didn't know better than using the now-politically INcorrect H-word).
Other UNinformed people viewed persons with disabilities with pity or fear, or took parent-like attitudes. They warned that citizens with limitations should NOT be in public where they might be injured or robbed. Such attitudes are obvious in the way some people (still) look at persons with disabilities. They look away to avoid eye contact with chair USERS or speak only to their attendants.