Disability Rights Section,
U.S. Department of Justice
Ruth Lusher is the manager of the ADA Technical Assistance Program in the Disability Rights Section of the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ). She heads a staff of twenty who carry out DOJ's impressive program promoting voluntary compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Her program develops and disseminates materials explaining ADA access requirements; operates an information line receiving 110,000 calls yearly; creates and manages the popular ADA website; and works with other federal agencies and grantees to coordinate technical assistance to businesses, people with disabilities, state and local governments, architects, and others affected by the ADA.
"It was remarkable-Texas A&M was a rare place where the people who had the power to make decisions about access would all sit together in the same room and do so."
- Ruth Lusher
Prior to her work with DOJ, she was the director of the Office of Technical and Information Services at the U. S. Access Board, where she directed research and technical assistance efforts and coordinated the development of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), published in 1991. Ruth's effective work at a national level with key federal agencies and non-profit organizations is part of the history of how accessibility and universal design have developed in the United States, yet she modestly describes her impressive career as, "One job just led to another."
Ruth's ability to analyze the history as well as the technical details of accessible design has provided many of the reference materials that are used by design professionals and policy makers. Ruth has written and reviewed major articles for reference publications such as Architecture Graphic Standards and the Encyclopedia of Architecture as well as practical articles for the building trades in Construction Specifier and other industry periodicals. Her doctoral research at the University of Michigan provided the basis for subsequent publications on accessibility in the hospitality and building industries. Ruth and Ron Mace were close colleagues, and her depth of knowledge and understanding about accessibility and universal design led them to co-author several significant early articles.
Ruth has had post-polio-related disabilities since she was four years old, and used leg braces and crutches while growing up. Now she uses a motorized scooter. Like her grandfather, an architect, she was interested in art and design from an early age, but did not immediately pursue design-related studies. Her desire to take a drafting class in high school was thwarted by a guidance counselor acting from bias based on her gender, not her disability. "I was told that the only girls who sign up for drafting were those who wanted boys to look up their skirts," Ruth said, "I turned three shades of red and switched to chorus." She began her college career in 1965, studying speech and hearing therapy and special education at Indiana University, near her home. Leaving school to get married, she spent several years as an Air Force wife, including three in Okinawa, where her daughter, Melissa, was born. She studied Oriental cooking and Japanese flower arranging of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, and became treasurer of the Kadena AFB Officers' Wives Club.
Returning to the U. S., Ruth became a single mother and began working full-time as a lab technician at Texas A&M University. Still attracted to design, she took advantage of a program that allowed full-time university employees to take a three-unit course and enrolled in an environmental design studio. Halfway into the term, Professor John Greer, dean of the design school, who had "heard good things about the new student," called her in and encouraged her to change her major to design. With encouragement from the dean and design professor John Fairey, Ruth quit her job to attend school full-time, finishing her Bachelor's of Environmental Design in 1978 with the help of scholarships from the university and the Texas Society of Architects.
Ruth spent four years as a doctoral student in architecture at the University of Michigan, achieving candidacy in 1981. Her area of concentration was behavior and environments, and she received fellowship support for her focus on design for older people and those with disabilities. She worked with Leon Pastalan, a noted gerontologist, with whom she developed the concept of "design for the lifespan," and evaluated elder housing and prison environments for elderly inmates. Working with Jonathan King, director of the Architectural Research Lab, she researched accessible design requirements for the University's Hospital Replacement Project and managed a project to evaluate design programming for Holiday Inns. Ruth also taught first-year design and designed and built "Jericho," a gaming-simulation about coping with accessibility and other problems encountered in communities. She was invited to run the game at the United Nations conference commemorating the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981. Ruth became a disability advocate, founding member and president of "Breakthrough," a group of students with disabilities who worked creatively with the university to solve access problems.
Contrasting the two schools and their responsiveness to the needs of disabled students, she noted, "Texas A&M was sensitive to the needs of students in general, and the needs of disabled people in particular. A vocational rehabilitation counselor on campus would check our schedules and have inaccessible classes moved without the student having to make the request." Ruth introduced the new Section 504 regulations to a roomful of top administrators in 1978. "It was remarkable-Texas A&M was a rare place where the people who had the power to make decisions about access would all sit together in the same room and do so." They had recently started a bus system, which was inaccessible to students who used wheelchairs. They could have just dropped it, yet they decided on their own to make it accessible by modifying a couple of vans. "They were open and pragmatic."
"At Michigan, where power was more decentralized and everyone quite sure that they were doing things correctly, people were generally unwilling to make changes, despite many system-wide problems like inaccessible transportation. University programs began making changes after widespread education and advocacy organized by the students in Breakthrough, initiatives carried out during the International Year of Disabled Persons. Things started out badly, but the university responded well to the education and pressure, and in the end worked cooperatively with students and others to solve access problems."
In Ruth's personal experience, barriers were never a big problem until her Michigan years, when access was complicated by months of ice and snow. She was ambulatory at the time and not shy about pushing for what she needed. Her transition to full-time work was relatively simple. She had worked throughout undergraduate and graduate school in a variety of teaching, research, and technical writing projects and had both a network of colleagues and an impressive track record. She left for Washington, D.C., in 1982, where her first job was with the National Center for a Barrier-Free Environment.
The center was the first federally funded national non-profit organization with the mission to promote awareness and knowledge about accessibility. She edited Access Report, the center's bimonthly periodical, and responded to inquiries on all aspects of barrier-free codes, design details, and product information. After she completed a project related to her dissertation, compiling and analyzing state, federal, and model codes under a contract with the U.S. Access Board, they offered her a job. At the Access Board, she prepared technical papers and articles, updated their technical library, and handled inquiries from Congress, federal agencies, trade organizations, and the myriad of professionals with access concerns as well as people with disabilities.
Description of Photograph:
It was a natural progression to join the staff of another national non-profit group, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). PVA took over the resources of the National Center when it closed its doors in the mid-1980s. In addition to establishing PVA's Barrier-Free Design Program, and organizing its resource center and library on accessibility, she headed advocacy projects, published articles, and developed educational programs on accessible design for PVA chapters across the country. She also represented PVA on the ANSI A117.1 Committee, served as liaison to the Access Board and numerous other organizations and committees, and conducted a survey of design schools on the teaching of accessible design. While at PVA she began promoting "design for the lifespan," the concept developed earlier in Michigan.
Ruth returned to the Access Board in 1987 as a senior accessibility specialist, becoming director of research and then director of technical and information services just prior to passage of the ADA. In 1992 Ruth joined the DOJ's Disability Rights Section in the Civil Rights Division to help set up the program certifying state accessibility codes for equivalency with ADA, and soon became manager of their technical assistance program.
Ruth's husband, Ralph, an industrial engineer, is director of engineering support for the Washington Metro. Together they have four children, two granddaughters, ages eleven and eight, and a three-year-old grandson. They have close ties to their large families in Indiana, Ohio, and Florida. Ruth enjoys the Chinese and Japanese cooking and Japanese flower arranging she learned in Okinawa and collecting glass with Ralph. She credits her success and the contributions she has made to the persistence and hard work she learned from her parents and with the help of mentors who encouraged her along the way.
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