|Karen L. Braitmayer Access Board Chair|
|David M. Capozzi Access Board Executive Director|
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires access to programs and activities that are funded by federal agencies and to federal employment. The law also created the U.S. Access Board to ensure access to the built environment.
Specifically, the Board was established to enforce a law passed a few years earlier, the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968. One of the first laws on the books to address accessibility, the ABA aimed to make the federal government a model of accessibility by requiring access to all facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds.
In passing the Rehabilitation Act, Congress determined that the ABA needed better enforcement. As originally written, the ABA effectively left compliance up to each agency with little oversight. Further, comprehensive standards for accessibility were not available at that time. It was clear that a central agency was needed to both establish and enforce accessibility requirements for facilities covered by the law.
According to Access Board Chair Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, "In creating the Access Board, Congress recognized that you can't guarantee accessibility until you clearly spell out how it is to be achieved and have a process in place to make sure that those requirements are met." In fact, the lessons learned from the ABA and the Rehabilitation Act would not be lost on later laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
"With accessibility, it's fair to say that the Federal government essentially started in its own backyard," states David M. Capozzi, the Access Board's Executive Director. "The Rehabilitation Act and the Architectural Barriers Act helped lay the groundwork for the landmark ADA and coverage of accessibility beyond the federal realm."
To this day, the Board continues to do what it was created to do. It develops and keeps up-to-date the accessibility requirements of the ABA and enforces compliance with them through the investigation of complaints. If a member of the public is concerned about access to a facility that may have received federal funding, it can file a complaint with the Board. The Board then opens an investigation to determine whether the facility is covered by the ABA and, if so, whether it meets the applicable standards. If a covered facility is not in compliance, the Board will pursue a corrective action plan and monitor the case until all necessary work is completed. The Board typically opens about 50 to 100 cases each year, and has ensured access to all types of facilities covered by the ABA, including post offices, national parks, and social security offices, among others. Since the ABA also applies to non-Federal buildings that are federally funded, the Board's casework has encompassed many other types of facilities as well, such as schools, transit stations, local courthouses and jails, and public housing.
The Board's mission has grown tremendously over the years under later laws. Its work developing and maintaining accessibility requirements is no longer limited to buildings covered by the ABA. Now, the Board is responsible for design requirements for facilities and transportation systems covered by the ADA, electronic and information technology in the federal sector under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, telecommunications equipment subject to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and, most recently, medical diagnostic equipment under Section 510 of the Rehabilitation Act. Through this work, the Board has become a leading resource on accessible design.
"The Board has eagerly accepted the responsibility to address access in new and unchartered areas," says Capozzi. "The Board maintains a very active and varied rulemaking agenda. In fact, just today, the Board is releasing new guidelines that address access to federal outdoor recreation sites." The Board is also developing new guidelines or standards for public rights-of-ways, shared use paths, passenger vessels, emergency housing, classroom acoustics, and medical diagnostic equipment. Having previously developed and updated its guidelines for facilities under the ABA and ADA, the Board is currently refreshing its ADA guidelines for transportation vehicles and its standards and guidelines for information and communication technologies covered by section 508 and the Telecommunications Act. In addition to rulemaking, the Board provides technical assistance and training to the public on its guidelines and standards on a regular basis and funds research on accessible design.
"Often people ask which department the Board is part of, but in fact it is an independent federal agency with authority to report directly to the President and Congress," says Braitmayer. Its governing Board includes 13 members from the public appointed by the President to four-year terms. Over the years, almost 100 people have served on the Board as public members. Since the Board also coordinates policy government-wide relating to accessible design, 12 federal departments are represented on the Board as well.
US Access Board