The History of the Wheelchair Ramp Represents the Fight for Accessibility

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From the mundane to the quirky and outdated, Here's the Thing explores the histories and legends of the objects in our homes.

Wheelchair ramps may be a ubiquitous tool found in many parts of the world today, but that hasn't always been the case. While ramps, in general, have been around for millennia, ramps specifically designed for people with mobility issues weren't that common until the 1990s, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was signed into law on July 26, 1990, after U.S. citizens with disabilities battled for equality.

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If you've ever wondered about the history of wheelchair ramps, we've got the rundown right here.

When were wheelchair ramps invented? Who invented the wheelchair ramp?

Wheelchair ramps weren't invented by a single person at a single time — they were a natural extension of the general ramp. The ramp, also known as an inclined plane, is a tool that appeared on the scene both in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, but its original use wasn't for wheelchairs. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have used ramps to build pyramids as early as 4,500 years ago, according to History.com. Around the 7th or early 6th century B.C., per Amusing Planet, the Greeks also built a ramp called the Diolkos to transport ships across the Isthmus of Corinth.

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In addition to using the tool to haul large objects, the ancient Greeks built ramps at many of their important religious sites and healing refuges. Some scholars argue that these particular ramps might have been used for accessibility — not just architectural flair — according to a paper published in the journal Antiquity in 2020​.

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Ramps that we know with certainty were built specifically for accessibility, however, are very much a modern invention. In 1913, for instance, New York City's Grand Central Terminal became the first "stairless" train station in the world, according to The New York Times.​ Though the station did have stairs, all of the public-access areas of the building were accessible via ramps. Architecture firm Reed and Stem tested various grades for the ramps, aiming to accommodate everyone from travelers with disabilities and the elderly to young children and people overloaded with baggage.

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How did the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have an effect on wheelchair ramps?

While some 20th-century buildings were designed with accessibility in mind, wheelchair ramps weren't a legal obligation until 1990, when the ADA was passed by President George H.W. Bush — but only after Americans with disabilities fought for their rights. That act, which was most recently revised in 2010, "sets the minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction of commercial facilities and privately owned public accommodations." It also requires existing public buildings to remove barriers — as long as it isn't difficult or costly.

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In regard to wheelchair ramps, the ADA provides a set of measurements to which they must adhere. For instance, a ramp must have a slope with a ratio of 1:12 or less, be at least 36 inches wide, and have landings at its top and bottom that are at least 60 inches long. (You can see the full set of rules in the ADA's 2010 revision.)

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A wheelchair ramp at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
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How can wheelchair ramp design improve?

Though many buildings do have wheelchair ramps these days, they're often designed as an afterthought — and they're not particularly aesthetically attractive. Plus, the location of wheelchair ramps often subject wheelchair users to subpar experiences, such as having to enter a building from a back alley.

"Compliance-oriented design tends to miss the aesthetic and physical experience of going down a ramp. It should be beautiful, it should participate," design researcher Sara Hendren told The Atlantic. Architects and engineers should work to develop wheelchair ramps that are ADA-compliant, yet allow users to participate in a building's full design experience. Better yet — people with disabilities, including wheelchair users, should be consulted from the beginning.

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