What is Barrier-Free Design? All About Accessibility in Public Spaces

An action shot of someone in a wheelchair

Some public spaces are harder for people with disabilities to enter, exit, and navigate. Barrier-free design is one-way organizations can ensure their facilities are accessible to everyone. You might see that a facility is “ADA-compliant,” which means it incorporates accessible design choices. Below, we explore how barrier-free design fits into the mix.


What is Barrier-Free Design? What Does it Mean?

Barrier-free design is an approach to construction and design that removes or replaces obstacles that might keep a person from accessing or using a space as needed.

So, barrier-free design is about giving equal opportunities and access to spaces for all people. It emphasizes inclusive and adaptable floor plans and building designs. It also considers the use of assistive technology like wheelchairs, canes, audio and visual impairments, and more. 

Some examples of barrier-free design plans in action might include:

  • Entrance and exit ramps
  • Elevator access
  • Widened hallways and entrances
  • Lower tables
  • No-step entrances
  • Removal of shelves or counters beneath sinks, which might make them unusable to people in wheelchairs

Barrier-Free Design vs. Universal Design

Barrier-free design often gets lumped in with universal design, but they’re not synonymous. Barrier-free design specifically focuses on providing access to individuals with disabilities. Meanwhile, universal design seeks to accommodate people from all walks of life. It considers things like different heights or physical and mental abilities.

Barrier-Free Design Rules 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines requirements that make accessible and barrier-free design mandatory in public facilities. 

According to the ADA’s accessible design standards, all facilities constructed by or on behalf of a public entity must be designed and constructed to make them readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

There are too many specific standards and unique situations to list at once. But there are some general guidelines that all facilities can expect to follow:

  • Entrances and exits must be accessible
  • Accommodations must be made to make a public facility usable. For instance, government buildings may add lines of Braille to all of their signage.
  • Accessible features must be included in the design plan. Examples include accessible restrooms, telephones, drinking fountains, parking, and storage.

These standards apply to new buildings and alteration projects, renovations, and building additions.

Why Barrier-Free Design Matters

Barrier-free design ensures that people with disabilities can navigate the world and pursue their goals like anyone else. This basic right makes a huge difference. Without accessible spaces, people with disabilities could struggle to work, care for themselves, transport themselves, and even enjoy time out on the town. 

The Value of Accessibility: A Quick Look at the Past

Understanding the history of the barrier-free movement sheds some light on why these standards are so important. Accessible design standards are a result of the Disability Rights Movement. The concept of barrier-free design emerged from the efforts of veterans with disabilities, who noted that the inability to access and use public spaces significantly hindered their lives. 

In 1961, the American Standards Association published the first-ever accessibility standards. However, state lawmakers needed to create systems to enforce the new standards for them to go into effect.

By 1966, 30 states had taken the leap and passed accessibility legislation. By 1973, 49 states had gotten on board. The simple idea of barrier-free design led to the passage of many pieces of legislation that revolutionized the way people with disabilities live in the United States. 

  • The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required all buildings designed, constructed, altered, or leased with federal funds to be accessible.
  • The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 required multi-family housing with four or more units, both public and private, to create accessible units for people with disabilities to live in.
  • Finally, The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 created a nationwide mandate that ensured facilities were accessible – regardless of how local or state authorities felt about it.

Key Takeaways

Barrier-free design focuses on making public facilities accessible to people with disabilities. It requires the removal of physical barriers but also design choices that might render a space unusable. 

Accessible design is just one piece of the puzzle that helps people with disabilities take control of their lives. It’s helped pave the way for resources like California’s Self-Determination Program, which helps people with disabilities access the services and support they need to achieve their goals. NeuroNav is committed to helping those in the SDP create a life goals and a person-centered plan that works for them. 

To find out how we can give you the confidence and insight you may need to thrive, schedule a free consultation today.

Want to learn more about disability rights and related topics? Check out the rest of our disability resources for extra insight.

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