Access to History: The ADA and Historic Places

Volume 22
Number 2

The United States is a relatively young country, but one rich in historic significance. Long before thirteen nascent colonies declared independence from England and began to cobble together a nation of states, the lands were humming with vibrant cultures. People venturing from Asia populated Pacific Islands and the American continents, eventually reaching regions from arctic to tropical, and everywhere in between.

Later arrivals from European countries waded ashore on coastlines from the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic and the Pacific. People came seeking land and riches, freedom and opportunity. Some came with resources and royal backing. Some came with nothing. Some came in bondage.

The country continued to expand and the population continued to grow in numbers and diversity as immigrants from every corner of the globe joined earlier arrivals. Together, we have struggled to claim and define a country founded on the highest ideals of humankind, a country that can find a way to face even our own failures and strive to do better – a county that can endure and prosper.

… ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.
~ President George H.W. Bush, signing of the ADA, July 26, 1990

History in the Making

A big part of building a country is building – creating homes and farms and factories, places to work and places to worship, things to use and things to enjoy.

What Does “Historic” Mean?

When we think of accessibility and historic places, we often think of buildings – facilities designed and constructed for human habitation. But historic places may also include: sites (things such as battlefields, cemeteries, mines, shipwrecks, ruins, parks, and trails); structures (ranging from earthworks to carousels, and including things like bridges, lighthouses, canals, and dams); objects (statues, monuments, fountains, etc.); and entire districts (including residential neighborhoods, estates and large farms, college campuses, industrial complexes, transportation networks, and more).

The ADA defines “qualified historic properties” as those eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, or those designated as historic under a state or local law. Historic places are more than old; historic places are significant in some way: they may be associated with important people or events: they may exemplify distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; they may represent the work of a master designer or artisan.

What’s the Difference Between “Historic Preservation Programs” and “Historic Properties”?

historic Pratt Street power plant in Baltimore, Maryland, converted for use by modern businesses, including stores and restaurantsThe ADA regulations distinguish between historic preservation programs, and historic properties that are used to operate modern businesses or provide public services. An historic building, for example, may contain a modern store, restaurant, theater, or office. A city hall, county courthouse, or state university may be historic, but still used to conduct routine public activities, such as licensing, voting, meetings, trials, or classes.

The primary purpose of an historic preservation program, however, is preservation; the program works to maintain a district, site, building, structure, or object as it was in the past.

Such programs often conduct tours and educational programs designed to help convey a sense of time and place. These programs may enable us to learn about the development of building methods and the use of various building materials, to appreciate achievements in design and craftsmanship, or to better understand how people lived and worked in the past and how events shaped our history and culture.

Where ADA-covered entities operate within historic properties or carry out historic preservation programs, the goal is to balance the need to protect historically significant places and the need to provide access to such places for people with disabilities.

The ADA does not require covered entities to “threaten or destroy the historic significance” of a facility, so the first step in figuring out how access can be improved is to identify what is historically significant about specific properties. Some entire buildings, districts, or sites are historically significant, while others include only specific features, elements, spaces, or materials that are significant.

Many historic buildings, especially those that are not used for historic preservation programs, need to be (or have already been) altered to include more up-to-date amenities and safety features, such as modern plumbing, heating and air conditioning, or fire alarm and suppression systems.

Thoughtful design and creativity can often improve accessibility while maintaining the historic character of buildings, even those that are used in historic preservation programs. New features that may need to be added, such as accessible pathways or ramps, can often incorporate design features, materials, and construction methods that prevent them from looking out of place.

While it may not always be possible to achieve full physical access in older buildings (whether they are historic or not), providing independent access and integrated participation should be realized where it’s possible.

historic ship USS Constellation in Baltimore harborThis is particularly important in the context of historic preservation programs, since the very purpose of such programs is often to provide a physical experience that connects us to our past. To get a sense, for example, of what it might have been like to serve on a 19th century sailing ship, nothing beats getting on board one – to see the cramped spaces, feel the air so close, hear the creaking planks and the lapping waves, and smell the rope and the tar and the salty air.

There is no real substitute for experiences like these, of course, but physical access cannot always be achieved in historic preservation programs, and sometimes alternatives may have to suffice. Displays, demonstrations, films, models, or reconstructions may be able to provide some valuable experiences for individuals who cannot access all areas.

Moving Forward

Recent history has seen momentous advances in civil rights and legal protections for marginalized groups, including people with disabilities. The passage of the ADA was itself an historic event, and as we reach the middle of our third century as a nation, we continue to challenge ourselves to live up to the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality.

This historic act is the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities – the first.
~ President George H.W. Bush, signing of the ADA, July 26, 1990


Check out the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Historic Preservation Library, where you’ll find links to a variety of agencies, private organizations, resources, and guidance related to historic preservation, including Preservation Briefs like Making Historic Properties Accessible. You’ll also find listings for State and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

The contents of this newsletter were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0089). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this newsletter do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2018 TransCen, Inc.