Implementing the ADA in Seattle

In 2020, the City of Seattle joins cities and states around the country to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA was enacted on July 26, 1990. Prior to the legislation, there were efforts within Seattle city government to provide barrier-free public access to buildings and services. Some of these efforts corresponded and complied with state and national laws, and others were initiated by city officials and Seattle residents.

Early City Efforts

As early as the 1890s and through the early 20th century, access to city utilities was provided free of charge to disabled adult residents and their families on a case-by-case basis, subject to approval by City Council. Several petitions on file with the City Clerk's Office contain letters from Seattle residents asking for free access to the city's water supply due to disability.

In the following decades, more widespread accommodations were gradually incorporated into city laws and services relating to public transit, parks, traffic rules, building codes, and employment. In 1933, Ordinance 63772 required drivers to stop for blind persons who were crossing the street using designated white canes. The next year, responding to requests from residents, Seattle began allowing blind and disabled passengers to ride for free on the city's streetcar system. In 1946, as disabled World War II veterans returned home to Seattle, City Council passed Ordinance 75443 which amended the traffic code to add section 101-A, allowing "physically incapacitated war veterans entitled to and using specially constructed automobiles" to park free of charge and for unlimited time at parking meters. Letters asking that the same parking privileges be extended to disabled non-veterans were soon received and considered by the City's Public Safety Committee, but it wasn't until new state laws required the accommodation in 1959 that the traffic code was amended to extend the special parking allowances to non-veterans.

The Seattle Parks Department began designing programs to specifically serve the disabled as early as the 1950s. The Handicapped Center, a cooperative Parks project located in the Mount Baker area, was dedicated in September 1957 and offered classes and services to adults and children. In 1963, the Recreation Advisory Council for the Handicapped (later the Advisory Council for Specialized Programs) was established to advise Parks Department staff on recreational programs for children and adults with disabilities. Programs and classes included swimming, boating, badminton, bowling, and golfing, as well as a specialized summer day camp.

Routine city engineering projects, such as sewer work and underground wiring installation, began incorporating the construction of wheelchair ramps in the early 1970s. During this time, steps were also were taken to accommodate city employees with disabilities. A Handicapped Services Unit was added to the Human Resources Department in 1972. In 1973, after learning that disabled city employees did not have access to restrooms they could use, City Councilmember and disability rights advocate Jeanette Williams spearheaded legislation for funding the installation of the first accessible restrooms in the Municipal Building.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted on September 26, 1973. Section 504 of the act was one of the first federal laws to extend civil rights to people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons in any program receiving federal assistance. The legislation was extensive and covered both employment practices and accessibility in terms of programming and facilities. Compliance was required from all agencies receiving federal funding.

As part of the city's initial compliance effort, a Citizen's Advisory Board for Section 504 Compliance was established. The committee, which included members who were disabled, helped city departments with developing self-assessments and advised on a variety of accessibility topics. Federal rules and deadlines for compliance varied by agency, and throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, some city departments completed self-evaluations, developed transition plans, and completed compliance.

Other measures taken during this time included amendments to the Fair Employment and Open Housing ordinances to include disabled persons, the passage of Resolution 24614 requiring any space rented by the city to be accessible to disabled persons, and a Mayor's Executive Order on February 15, 1984, affirming the right of all citizens to receive city services equally. In October 1978, the Washington State Regulations for Barrier Free Design was adapted and incorporated into the Seattle Building Code. Accessibility improvements to some park facilities, such as Camp Long, were funded and completed during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In June 1976, Mayor Wes Uhlman approved the city's Affirmative Action Plan, including a policy on "Employment Services for Handicapped Persons." In addition, a number of studies, policies, programs and services were created by the city, or in partnership with other agencies, such as King County and METRO, to meet the needs of disabled persons.

Despite these and other steps forward, the city fell behind in achieving full compliance with Section 504 rules. A city-wide compliance coordinator was proposed more than once, but the position was never funded. The Handicapped Services Unit was removed from the city budget in 1980, and the two remaining positions intended to support activities formerly handled by that unit were cut in 1982. In 1984, the Human Rights Department acknowledged that the city had fallen behind on full Section 504 compliance and outlined a plan to remedy the problem. Another comprehensive, city-wide self-assessment and corrective action plan was proposed, but never fully implemented.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, broadening the requirements of Section 504 to cover nearly all employers and public facilities, including existing buildings. The section of the ADA concerning municipal government activities was scheduled to be enforced on January 26, 1992, and the city was required to be in basic compliance by that date.

Two of the ADA's four titles directly impacted city operations: Title I, relating to employment practices, and Title II, relating to public services and facilities. In June 1991, the Seattle City Council adopted an official scope of work to ensure compliance. Tasks included: hiring a citywide ADA program coordinator; requiring all city departments to complete a comprehensive self-evaluation; making immediate changes to discriminatory policies; developing transition plans for changes to facilities; developing a grievance procedure for City employees; and establishing of an advisory committee represented by members of the disabled community to assist in conducting self-assessments and transition plans. Other goals included developing city policies regarding access to public meetings and city publications, as well as regarding telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs) for all city services and programs.

Mayor Norm Rice appointed Elaine Marklund as the city's first citywide Disability Program Coordinator. The position was responsible for ensuring compliance with all federal, state, and local laws, and assisting with the development of city-wide policies, priorities, and action plans for any departments found non-compliant. Departmental coordinators were also assigned and worked with Marklund to coordinate program accessibility responsibilities in individual departments.

In September 1991, an ADA Citizens Advisory Committee was formed to assist with the implementation of compliance requirements. The committee of twelve members was headed by Janet Johanson, Executive Director of the Community Service Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. One of the key tasks of the committee was to help city departments perform accessibility self-assessments and prioritize planned changes. The committee advised on a variety of improvements such as a consistent overall signage system, employment application accommodations, curb ramp installations, assistive listening systems, and the types of training to provide city employees. They also worked to ensure that the plans and efforts addressed all kinds of disabilities, both physical and cognitive. An ADA Interpreter Ad Hoc Committee was also formed specifically to advise on creating a sustainable mechanism for employing interpreters for city functions and services.

ADA regulations specified that a comprehensive citywide plan for changes be developed by July 26, 1992, and allowed until January 1995 to make the changes. The city contracted with the Washington Coalition of Citizens with disABILITIES (WCCD), a community-based nonprofit organization, to perform physical assessments of Seattle Public Library buildings and five city-owned downtown office buildings: the Municipal Building, Public Safety Building, Dexter Horton Building, Arctic Building, and Alaska Building. Other facility assessments were conducted by departmental coordinators, with training and guidance from WCCD.

ADA-compliant revisions to regional public transportation services were planned and implemented by the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (METRO), under the advisement of the METRO Transit Committee's ADA Task Force, chaired by City Councilmember Jane Noland. An ADA Demand Study was conducted in 1991 to determine demographics of people with disabilities in King County and assess their transportation needs, and a Revised Paratransit Service Plan was produced in 1993.

By June 1992, most city departments had conducted self-evaluations identifying barriers to accessibility and prepared corrective action plans. These helped to inform a city-wide transition plan prepared by the Office of Management and Budget and completed in July. The transition plan identified and listed the highest priority structural changes to be made to city facilities over the following two years. Lower priority improvements were to be budgeted in future years.

Examples of improvements included barrier-free building entrances and restrooms, better access to more parks and recreation facilities, and the installation of lever-type door handles in public access areas. The Engineering Department implemented a curb ramp program, installing ramps, walkways, and curb bulbs at locations throughout the city. The Seattle Center installed Assisted Listening Systems, as well as accessible seating, restrooms, signage, elevators, and parking areas.

Continuing Efforts

In the years following initial ADA implementation, the city has continued its efforts to ensure compliance and provide accessible facilities and services to everyone. ADA improvements to parks included a major renovation of Carkeek Park in 2000 which provided interpretive ADA access to all visitors. Among efforts to improve accessibility to essential services was the establishment of an advisory committee in 1998 to assist the Seattle Police Department 911 center with providing services to the deaf, citing ADA requirements to provide "direct and equivalent services to all users of its 911 emergency communications system." That same year, the Division on Aging and Disability Services was created under the Department of Housing and Human Services to coordinate related city programs and to assist the Mayor on policy development. A Citywide ADA Title II Compliance Manager continues to work with and advise city departments to ensure ongoing compliance.

In 2008, Human Rights Commissioner and activist Julian F. Wheeler spearheaded the formation of a volunteer ad hoc Committee to Establish a Seattle Disability Commission (CESDC). Although the city was in a recession and undergoing significant budget cuts, continued advocacy by the CESDC led to the City Council approving funding to form the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities on November 12, 2009. Today, the Commission continues to advise the Mayor, City Council, and city departments about important issues for people with disabilities; recommend policies, practices, and legislation to the city in matters affecting people with disabilities, and encourage understanding among people with various disabilities as well as between people with disabilities and the larger Seattle community.

Documents

Early Efforts

  • Petition for free water for Caroline Carter, July 1903 (Clerk File 20038)
  • Ordinance 63772 requiring drivers of motor vehicles to stop for blind persons who are using white canes (June 12, 1933)
  • Letter from the Washington Protective Association for the Blind asking for free streetcar fare for the disabled, July 17, 1933 (Clerk File 140716)
  • Ordinance 64367 authorizing free streetcar transportation to the blind (January 22, 1934)
  • Ordinance 75443 amending the traffic code to authorize certain motor vehicle parking by physically incapacitated war veterans (October 7, 1946)
  • Petition asking to extend parking benefits for non-veterans, 1951 (Clerk File 214434)
  • Recommendation of Mayor for appropriation for construction of wheelchair ramps in connection with curb restorations in certain sewer separation projects, May 8, 1972 (Clerk File 272716)
  • Letter from Jeanette Williams asking for wheelchair ramps, March 16,1970 (Clerk File 266205)
  • Recommendation of Mayor for authorization of a Handicapped Services Unit in Human Resources, June 12, 1972 (Clerk File 273004)
  • Letter from Jeanette Williams requesting accessible restrooms in the Municipal Building, February 22, 1973 (Clerk File 275071)

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Americans with Disabilities Act

  • Draft Recommendations, City of Seattle Policy for Use of TDD and Telephone Relay Service, January 4, 1991 (4691-02, 2/4)
  • Central Staff memo to Tom Weeks outlining work program items on providing access for people with disabilities, including a chronology of past city efforts to comply with Section 504, March 13, 1991 (4691-02, 18/2)
  • Resolution 28380 adopting a scope of work and schedule for achieving compliance with the ADA (June 17, 1991)
  • Memo from OMB to all department directors outlining provisions of the ADA and requirements for compliance, July 5, 1991 (5001-03, 1/8)
  • Mayor's Cabinet Briefing Paper on ADA implementation, September 19, 1991 (5001-03, 1/8)
  • Ordinance 115876 authorizing an assessment of barriers to people with disabilities in the access of downtown city-owned buildings (September 30, 1991)
  • Fact sheet on Implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act from the Association of Washington Cities, October 1991 (4663-02, 17/6)
  • Sample Program Accessibility Evaluation Form, October 1991 (4601-03, 48/12)
  • Memo from Elaine Marklund re: self-assessment process for ADA compliance, including draft Self-Assessment and Corrective Action Plan form, October 23, 1991 (4601-03, 48/12)
  • ADA Demand Survey Questions (METRO transit), 1991 (4663-02, 17/5)
  • Memo from Elaine Marklund outlining next steps in ADA compliance, including sample policies and procedures, January 14, 1992 (4603-01, 48/11)
  • Briefing Paper on Status of ADA Coordinator Position from Elaine Marklund, April 27, 1992 (5001-03, 1/8)
  • Finance Committee Briefing ADA Compliance Update, June 17, 1992 (4603-01, 48/12)
  • Memo from Mayor Rice to Citizens ADA Advisory Committee with ADA Transition Plan, July 27, 1992 (5200-07, 1/2)
  • Memo from Personnel Department to ADA Advisory Committee with draft citywide reasonable accommodation policy / ADA compliance procedure, July 29, 1992 (4601-03, 48/12)
  • Office of Management and Budget memo with Notice of ADA Compliance, Non-Discrimination Policy, and Grievance Procedure for complaints of discrimination on the basis of disability, 1992 (5001-03, 1/8)
  • Disabilities Etiquette Handbook, 1992 (Doc 2693)
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Update to the Paratransit Service Plan, January 1993 (4663-02, 17/7)
  • Seattle Neighborhood News, Department of Neighborhoods newsletter, December 1992 issue (4663-02, 17/7)
  • MOSAIC: A Diversity Newsletter for the Employees of the City of Seattle, Winter 1994 issue (5801-02, 26/11)

Continuing Efforts

Photos

meeting with wheelchair users
meeting with wheelchair users
City Light Director of Construction Engineering John Hansen speaking to wheelchair users who had requested
additional curb ramps be installed as part of an underground wiring project along 45th Ave in Wallingford, 1979.
Pictured standing with two canes is Paul Wysocki, Director of the city's Handicapped Services Unit and later supervisor of the Human Rights Department's Affirmative Action/Disability Unit.
Images 195241 and 195242, Seattle Municipal Archives
Japanese Garden Bridge
Japanese Garden Bridge
Japanese Garden Bridge ADA Project, March 1998
Images 195243 and 195244, Seattle Municipal Archives

Video

Passport to Services: "Once Upon a Service System" 1996. A fairy-tale themed reenactment based on true events about a service system designed by Seattle City Light employees to improve access for people with disabilities. Introduction presented by Mayor Norm Rice. Item 6009, City Light Moving Images (Record Series 1204-05). 

Footage of Candidates Forum: People with disAbilities in King County, October 5, 2006. Seattle Channel Moving Images (Record Series 3902-01).

Bibliography

Advisory Council for Specialized Programs Minutes and Reports, Record Series 5807-06, 1963-1989

Records include minutes and agendas for meetings from 1963 to 1989. Also included are annual reports for some programs, including the Specialized Day Camp for the years 1964-1989. The minutes and reports provide an overview of the type of recreational services provided to the disabled and how the programs and resources changed over the years.

Central Staff Analysts Working Files, Record Series 4603-01, 1970-2016

  • 46/22, Americans with Disabilities Act, 1991
  • 48/10, Americans with Disabilities Act - Staff Papers, 1991-1991
  • 48/11, Americans with Disabilities Act - Executive Papers, 1992-1992
  • 48/12, Americans with Disabilities Act - Executive Papers, 1992
  • 48/13, Americans with Disabilities Act - Section 504 Compliance, 1990-1994
  • 48/14, Americans with Disabilities Act - Section 504 Compliance, 1988-1991
  • 48/15, Americans with Disabilities Act - Citizen Advisory Committee, 1991-1992
  • 48/16, Americans with Disabilities Act - Citizen Advisory Committee, 1992-1993
  • 48/17, Americans with Disabilities Act - Community Input, 1992-1992
  • 719/9, ADA Compliance Settlement Agreement, 2011

Jeanette Williams Subject Files, Record Series 4693-02, 1969-1993

  • 53/7, Handicapped Issues, 1971-77
  • 53/8, Handicapped Issues, 1974-75
  • 58/2, Opposition to Handicap Provisions, Correspondence, Open Housing & Fair Employment, 1985-86
  • 62/1, Transportation, Elderly and Handicapped, 1972-75
  • 62/2, Elderly/Handicapped Transportation, Vol. 1, 1975-1981
  • 62/3, Elderly/Handicapped Transportation, Vol. 2, 1974-75
  • 63/5, Handicapped Transportation Transition Plan, 1980

Jane Noland Subject Files, Record Series 4663-02, 1983-1997

  • 17/6, Metro ADA, Proposed Regulations, 1990-91
  • 17/5, Metro ADA Demand Survey, 1991
  • 17/7, Metro ADA Notes, 1990-93

Charles T. Royer Departmental Correspondence, Record Series 5274-01, 1978-1989

  • 16/10, Handicapped Services, 1979
  • 17/16, Light: Underground Wiring, 1979-1979
  • 24/23, Handicapped Services, 1980
  • 24/24, Handicapped Services, 1980
  • 45/27, Handicapped Services, 1983

Wesley C. Uhlman Subject Files, Record Series 5287-02, 1957-1977

  • 97/17, Mayor's Committee on Opportunities for the Handicapped, 1973-1977

Mayor's Office Central Files, Record Series 5200-07, 1979-2002

  • 1/2, Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance, 1992-1997

Greg Nickels Subject Correspondence, Record Series 5259-01, 2002-2009

  • 9/3, Disability Issues, 2002
  • 131/1, Seniors (MOSC) & Americans with Disabilities Act, 2007

Cheryl Chow Subject Files, Record Series 4618-02, 1988-1995

  • 9/5, Citizens Task Force for the Disabled, 1993

George Benson Subject Files, Record Series 4614-02, 1972-1993

  • 11/34, Metro: Elderly, Handicapped, and Youth Policies and Programs, 1984-1988
  • 17/7, Handicapped Parking Ordinance, 1984-1989

Tom Weeks Subject Files, Record Series 4691-02, 1989-1996

  • 2/4, Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990-91

Nick Licata Subject Files, Record Series 4650-02, 1979-2015

  • 146/4, Taxis, Wheelchair Accessible, 2009-2013

Office of Management and Budget Director's Records, Record Series 5001-03, 1973-1993

  • 1/8, Americans with Disabilities Act, 1991-92

Community Development Block Grant Project Records, Record Series 1605-02, 1971-1988

  • 71/2, Public Housing, Social Services, Handicapped Access, 1980-82
  • 57/7, Camp Long Improvements - Handicapped, 1979-1982

Community Development Block Grant Project Records, Record Series 3618-02, 1981-1991

  • 7/27 - Disabled Access, 1990

Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection, Record Series 5801-02, 1906-1995

  • 26/11, Handicapped Issues, 1968

Carkeek Park Advisory Council Records, Record Series 5809-03, 1983-2009

  • 1/12, CID-ADA Access, 2000

Carkeek Park Environmental Learning Center Records, Record Series 5809-02, 1984-2010

  • 7/15, Capital Improvements, Play Area & ADA, 1997

Public Information Officer's Records, Record Series 5802-07, 1942-2013

  • 6/9, ADA Audit, 2007

Division on Aging Director's Records, Record Series 3611-01, 1974-1994

  • 3/10, Americans With Disabilities Act, 1992
  • 3/11, ADA Reports, 1990-91

Bumbershoot Festival Commission Files, Record Series 9312-01, 1991-1992

  • 12/2, Americans with Disabilities Act, 1991-1992

Seattle Design Commission Subject Files, Record Series 9323-02, 1968-2006

  • 20/9, Wheelchair Ramps 100776.3, 1976-1977

Other Resources