OBO’s Barrier-Free Accessibility Program

When designing the main entrance pavilion for the new U.S. Embassy in Oslo, the permit authorities asked OBO’s architects to add way-finding guides for low-sighted persons who use long white canes. There is no such requirement in either the ADA or the ABA, however, OBO successfully completed the project. Photo by Ron Tomasso
When designing the main entrance pavilion for the new U.S. Embassy in Oslo, the permit authorities asked OBO’s architects to add way-finding guides for low-sighted persons who use long white canes. There is no such requirement in either the ADA or the ABA, however, OBO successfully completed the project. Photo by Ron Tomasso

by Ron Tomasso

Way-finding guides, an accessible feature that assists low-sighted individuals who use long white canes, were added by OBO to the design of the entrance of the new U.S. embassy in Oslo. Photo by Ron Tomasso
Way-finding guides, an accessible feature that assists low-sighted individuals who use long white canes, were added by OBO to the design of the entrance of the new U.S. embassy in Oslo. Photo by Ron Tomasso

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coalesced many previous accessibility standards into one comprehensive set of guidelines. These guidelines obligate non-federal public accommodations and commercial facilities in the U.S. However, the U.S. federal government, including the Department of State, abides by the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968.  Although the accessibility guidelines under these acts are similar, there are also important differences, most notably coverage of all employment areas under the ABA. People often use the euphemism “ADA” when discussing federal building accessibility, however, Department policy mandates architectural compliance with the ABA, which covers American embassy facilities regardless of their physical location around the globe.

Many countries have accessibility regulations, and the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) often requires designers to accommodate the stricter of the two provisions. In practice, this is not always easy to do since there is such a wide variation. Some countries have no accessibility guidelines, some have limited ones, and others have guidelines as extensive and elaborate as the United States. Sometimes, OBO provides locally mandated solutions for certain populations. For example, Norwegian permit authorities requested way-finding guides for low-sighted persons using long white canes. This is not required by either the ADA or ABA, however, the Department obliged and the result was very successful.    

Barrier-free accessibility continues to be an important part of OBO’s mission. The Barrier-Free Accessibility Program team drafts policy and design standards, conducts surveys, and reviews hundreds of annual projects to provide design alterations or improvements. They also review many projects within the Minor Construction & Improvement program for which accessibility is the major component. The team drafted the OBO Access Guide, an interactive website that serves as an accessibility code analysis tool as well as a resource for all accessibility information relating to OBO projects. 

Ron Tomasso, FAIA, is a design manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and the program manager for the OBO Barrier-Free Accessibility Program.