Architects, interior designers, and engineers must design their projects with full accessibility in mind. Not only do the standards below make buildings safer and easier to navigate for those with physical, visual, or hearing impairments, but they also help make the spaces easier and safer for everyone. The US regulations that cover accessibility are the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Keep in mind that these are national codes and standards required by federal law, but some states have their own local accessibility codes that may be more stringent than these.
We also have a list of free online building codes that covers other codes beyond the ADA.
Americans With Disabilities Act
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination (under most circumstances) based on disability. The act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. While the act covers a wide-ranging set of rules and regulations, architects are most concerned with Title III, Public Accommodations (and Commercial Facilities) and the provision of Title V that creates the Accessibility Guidelines.
Under ADA, Title III, "No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation." Public accommodations basically cover most places a person can visit, such as: restaurants, theaters, parks, offices, retail stores, businesses, gyms, hospitals, schools, etc. Private clubs and religious organizations are excluded.
Effective December 26th, 1992, all new construction or significant renovations to existing construction must be "readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, except where an entity can demonstrate that it is structurally impracticable to meet the requirements of such subsection in accordance with standards set forth or incorporated by reference in regulations issued."
Title V, section 12204 indicates that "the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board shall issue minimum guidelines" that supplement the rest of the ADA law. Also known as the Access Board, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, manages the specific design guidelines that building designers and constructors must follow; however, the US Department of Justice is responsible for enacting the guidelines and making them standards.
The information below was updated on February 21, 2021. Be sure to check your state requirements for more strict requirements than the Federal laws require.
2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design
The current accessibility code in the United States is the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. This code is governed by the US Department of Justice. The link above provides documentation in HTML and PDF format, but the same information is available at the U.S. Access Board website in a format that is easier to navigate.
The Department of Justice offers official Guidance on the 2010 Standards. In addition, the U.S. Access Board provides a Guide to the ADA Accessibility Standards, with helpful graphics to explain the ADA Standards. Both of these guidelines must be used in conjunction with the full codes – they are not standalone documents.
The 2010 ADA Standards must be followed for all new construction and renovations as of March 15, 2012. The Standards apply to "places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities covered by the ADA."
Federal Facility Guidelines - Architectural Barriers Act (ABA)
For all federally funded projects, the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) Accessibility Standards shall be used.
The ABA has been adopted by the General Services Administration (GSA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
Residential facilities under the jurisdiction of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) require the use of the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards; however, it is expected that HUD will eventually adopt the current ABA standards. Be sure to check access-board.gov for the latest requirements.
State and Local Accessibility Regulations
States and other local jurisdictions can adopt more stringent standards than the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. It is important that you consult with the state and local governments where your project is located to confirm accessibility standards.
ANSI 117.1, first published in 1961, was the original accessibility standard. Most of the above standards make reference to or follow many of the guidelines established by ANSI 117.1.
The International Code Council has a free online version of the 2017 ANSI A117.1. You can also purchase a print copy from the ANSI Webstore or Amazon (affiliate link - we earn a commission when you buy from Amazon).
So, Which Accessibility Regulation Should I Use?
There is no straightforward answer to the question of which code should be used. Unfortunately, it really depends on which jurisdictions the building will be constructed under. When in doubt, consult a code expert or code official.