Provide Equal Access and Flexibility  

by the WBDG Accessible Committee



For Americans with disabilities, access means simply being able to use, enjoy, and participate in the many aspects of society, including work, commerce, and leisure activities. While removing architectural barriers may allow people with disabilities to circulate within and around a facility, other factors, such as transportation, affect their ability to fully participate in activities. Designers and other suppliers of services and goods need to provide equal access for all without undermining the needs of people with disabilities.

What is "Equal Access"?

Providing equal access means ensuring all individuals can make use of transportation, buildings and facilities, programs and services, employment opportunities, and technology. It also means offering all users the same provisions for privacy, security, and safety.

Design professionals can promote equal access by incorporating and integrating accessible and universal design features in a building's design program. Providing equal access begins at the programming and planning phase of a project and requires buy-in from all stakeholders involved in the project. Critical decisions are made during the initial programming and planning phase of a project which can greatly impact the cost of providing equal access and in some cases affect whether or not equal access can be achieved. For instance, a building's orientation on a site can affect whether the installation of a ramp is necessary to access the entrance. All design professionals must be aware of the accessibility requirements that apply to the project. Design professionals may benefit from the assistance of consultants specializing in accessibility requirements.

Knowledgeable and detail oriented contractors are key to ensuring that equal access is achieved during the construction phase. If the contractor is not knowledgeable about constructing accessible features equal access may be compromised. In many instances, whether equal access is achieved during the construction process is dependent on a contractor's installation techniques. For example, an accessible threshold designed to be a maximum of ½" high is typically installed with a sealer beneath which, if not installed properly, can result in a constructed threshold which is more than ½" high.

Photo of Post Office at Reagan National Airport before renovations
Photo of Post Office at Reagan National Airport after renovations

The renovated Post Office at Ronald Reagan National Airport provides equal access to the intake windows, Arlington, VA. Note the accessible window on the far right. Photo Credit: Eric Taylor on behalf of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Why Provide "Equal Access"?

Providing equal access removes discrimination and protects human rights. An accessible built environment provides the opportunity for all people to fully participate in and contribute to their families, communities, and society. Equal access offers individuals the occasion to improve the quality of life and standard of living for themselves, their families, and other people in the world. Finally, providing equal access is required, to varying degrees, in order to meet applicable building codes, accessibility standards, and accessibility guidelines.

How Do We Achieve "Equal Access"?

Equal access must be an integral part of the life-cycle process:

Accessible features should blend seamlessly with the design. All stakeholders on the project should work together from the start to coordinate and optimize the design of the site and the building. A building and its site should be designed as an integrated whole, rather than as a collection of isolated systems (see also WBDG Functional—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration).

Design and construction decisions impact accessibility. Single building elements or systems should not be added, deleted, or modified anytime in the life of the building until they are coordinated and evaluated with the other elements and systems in the whole building package and with all parties involved.

Keep in mind that "equal access" applies to programs, services, benefits, transportation, fixtures, furnishings, equipment, employment opportunities, and technology. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in aspects of all programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, in the employment practices of Federal contractors, and in Federal procurement practices.

Relevant Codes, Standards and Guidelines

Codes and Standards



Additional Resources


Design Objectives

Aesthetics, Cost-Effective, Functional / Operational, Historic Preservation, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable

Products and Systems

Building Envelope Design Guide: Fenestration Systems—Exterior Doors


Federal Agencies

The major resource for guidance on accessible design is the U.S. Access Board (Access Board). The Access Board is an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. Key responsibilities of the Board include developing and maintaining accessibility requirements for the built environment, transit vehicles, telecommunications equipment, and electronic and information technology; providing technical assistance and training on these guidelines; and enforcing accessibility standards for federally funded facilities. For additional resources, see the Access Board's Links Page.



Special thanks to Lex Frieden for his inspiring words in the speech "Toward a Barrier Free World for All," April 5, 2001.