ADA Anniversary: 30 years of preparation for COVID-19

Thirty years ago on July 26, 1990, members of Congress and President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which aimed to make workplaces more accessible. While the legislation led to tangible benefits such as sidewalk ramps, it also triggered a shift from adaptation to accessibility-first design.

Sidewalk ramps — or “curb cuts”— were widely adopted because they’re simple and allow everyone to enter sidewalks with ease. Plus, they reduced costs by making the accommodation part of the initial design instead of later retrofitting what needed changing.

As designers and developers, we can use such examples as proof that including people with disabilities and other complex situations in our work makes our products available to everyone, especially during a world health crisis.

The Independent living movement

Activists leading the independent living movement blazed a trail for the ADA. The documentary “Crip Camp” explores this movement, its growth, the fight for assistive technology, sign language interpreters, and personal assistants. Advocates literally put their bodies on the line.

Universal design, inclusive design, and accessibility-first design

The ADA legislation triggered design methodology changes in architecture, industrial design, education, and urban design, which brought with it new problem statements, personas, and requirements. Three design methodologies came out of this:

  1. Universal design: Designing for everyone. For example, Oxo kitchen tools were designed for people with limited hand strength, but everyone appreciates their ergonomics.
  2. Accessibility-first design: Designing for customers who face the greatest difficulties and making the product work for everyone. Morgan’s Wonderland Park rides were designed to accommodate children in horizontal wheelchairs with an oxygen tanks.
  3. Inclusive design: Universal and accessibility-first design is not successful without including customers in the process. Inclusive design incorporates customers at every step, exposing problems and celebrating solutions. Microsoft collaborated with several organizations to develop the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Their designers and engineers could not have anticipated the uses for their controller without working directly with gamers and their homemade adaptive controls.

The world has become much more accessible over the last 30 years. It’s not perfect, but technology, infrastructure, city design, and work environments have reduced barriers and provided accommodations for independence. Workplace accommodations have been developed to support colleagues with physical, cognitive, sensory,  communication, and mental health disabilities.

Inclusive Technology and Accommodations and COVID-19

For example, the popular video conferencing software Zoom has been the preferred solution for people with disabilities. Zoom already included support for sharing audio and microphone at the same time, as well as captioning and keyboard accessibility. These features were critical for customers who have disabilities. Building their product to be accessible, and preparing the compliance documentation, allowed Zoom to focus on scaling and privacy during the pandemic.

Companies also expanded accommodations for their colleagues with disabilities. Slack replaced verbal communication within teams. Companies expanded mental health benefits and emphasized the need for personal time off. Intuit’s accessibility team recently completed an internal captioning protocol after significant increase in demand for live and closed captioning. Remote meetings include agendas, people announce their names when speaking, virtual backgrounds transform living spaces, and recordings and transcripts are available. We have also adapted our health strategies to protect ourselves, much like someone with an impaired immune system.

Confucius said, “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.” Tom Harkin introduced the ADA to the U.S. Senate on May 9, 1988. His goal was not to solve the existing barriers, but to prepare our country for generations in the future. Inclusive design has prepared us for the unexpected burdens of COVID-19. Designing for all customers includes those we don’t anticipate in the future.