Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, providing civil rights protections for individuals with disabilities throughout America, ultimately providing improved access to historic places, and enriching the lives of all Americans.
At the time, the passage of the law was met with trepidation by many people who worked in historic preservation and at historic sites. While the law incorporated a requirement that historic properties would not have to implement accessibility changes if the changes would “threaten or destroy” the historic significance of a qualified historic property, many were concerned that changes would have a significant impact on historic properties.1 Would owners and operators of historic properties be forced to make changes that would diminish the historic character of the buildings or sites? How would access be provided in a way that wouldn’t fundamentally change historic properties?
The sky did not fall. Quite the contrary, old and historic buildings are more accessible to individuals with disabilities than ever before. Providing wheelchair and other access to older and historic buildings is now largely part of standard business practice, and is built into the rehabilitation process just like providing modern-day heating, ventilation and air conditioning, as it should be.
But that change – much of it attitudinal -- has not been easy and nor is it over.
Let’s begin with attitude. When I was first tasked with working on the legal issues around access and historic places, my eyes began to open to the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. I participated in a panel on accessibility at the annual preservation conference in San Francisco, which included another speaker who used a wheelchair. Prior to the presentation, he asked someone to video him simply trying to get from the street to the meeting room in his wheelchair, then showed the video as his presentation. The video was a revelation. Many obstacles, unnoticed by most able bodied people, were both impossible to overcome in a wheelchair, and sometimes (but not always) incredibly easy to fix. Barriers like these remain in many older and historic buildings, and we should continue our efforts to remove them.
I was used to thinking that preservation was on the higher moral ground in battles over other priorities, but I quickly came to realize that providing access to people is more important than preserving physical fabric – which meant that the challenge was on the preservationists to figure out how to make access work in a way that the historic places could be preserved and access provided at the same time. In the 25 years since the passage of the ADA, more and more solutions have become standard and common, such as turning a few steps into ramps – often almost unnoticeable.
Over the years, enforcement actions by the Department of Justice, and cases involving historic preservation, have largely proven that the law provides a pretty good balance between the important policies of providing access and preserving the historic places that people value (and want access to). The Fox Theatre case in Atlanta demonstrated that organizations that are thoughtful about the process of providing access are doing the right thing – both under the law, and for their patrons. A settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and Mount Vernon highlighted that many of the solutions are practical and may not actually be about the historic buildings themselves. As a representative from Mt. Vernon told me, the different sensory experiences explored as a result of the Department of Justice investigation engage all visitors, from feeling the heat of the forge in the blacksmith shop to the touch of textured paint, to the smell of boxwood and other plants in the garden.
After my mother had a stroke and was wheelchair bound, she, like many other people with disabilities, never thought of herself as disabled. Yet our family discovered just how difficult it was for her to get to many old places she loved, and just how easy it was for her to get to others. The historic church where she had been a member for 75 years has a good ramp and created spaces in the historic pews for wheelchair users. Yet other places had not made reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities – often inexcusably, in my view. As we work toward a more inclusive historic preservation movement, one that includes the histories of all Americans, and welcomes people of all backgrounds, let’s celebrate the signature civil rights law for individuals with disabilities by continuing to find accessibility solutions so all of us can enjoy the historic places that give meaning to our lives.
Here are some links to resources on historic preservation and accessibility that I hope will be helpful.
1. For a summary of the provisions in the law relating to historic preservation, see the "Specific Legal Provisions for Historic Properties link above.