Is the ADA Sign Market For You? Part I Tactile Signs: Letter and Spirit
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Is the ADA Sign Market For You? Part I Tactile Signs: Letter and Spirit

If you never considered the ADA segment of the sign industry or didnít think it was for you, it may be time to rethink the business potential ADA provides.

By Sharon Toji

Where do you stand in the ADA sign business? Sign companies seem to be divided into four categories as far as the ADA goes. One group has been very successful in selling "ADA" (read Braille and raised character) signs. One group was enthusiastic at first, but the market never seemed to develop in their area and they've lost interest. The third group either ignored it from the beginning or has never even heard of it. And the fourth group? They are just now beginning to think about making ADA signs.

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  • Should your shop be making or selling ADA signs? Is the ADA here to stay? Recent decisions by the Supreme Court that have weakened the law are directed at the equal access to employment section (Title 1). So far, though, the standards for accessible facilities, both privately and publicly owned (Titles 2 and 3), have remained essentially unchallenged by the high court. For the foreseeable future, the ADA is a part of the sign business and every sign company that sells interior signs should, at the very least, think about where these signs fit into its market mix.

    If Not, Why Not?
    There are a lot of reasons why sign companies shy away from making ADA signs. Some sign companies worry that they may be liable if they make a mistake and don't follow the rules exactly. Silly as it may seem, they continue to make interior signs, which follow none of the rules, rather than taking a risk, trying to follow them, and perhaps slipping up! Another excuse you hear from people who won't deal with ADA signs is that "the rules change too fast to keep up with them." Actually, after 10 years, the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) that deals with signs has not changed one iota. As knowledge of the rules has become more widespread, interpretations may have changed, or state building codes may impose some additional requirements, but the federal guidelines are the same as when they went into effect officially on January 26, 1992.

    Building owners have their own excuses. One is "it doesn't apply to us. We're too small." Or sometimes it's "We never have blind people in here," or "We always escort people." One of the most prevalent about signs is, "But we can't do that, because then the new signs won't match the existing signs." But the law doesn't make any exceptions for those circumstances. There are very few buildings open to the public in the entire country that is exempt from accessibility standards. Even buildings that are exempt from the federal ADA, like religious institutions, may still fall under similar laws passed by individual states. Size doesn't matter either. The tiniest convenience store in the smallest "wide spot in the road" should be made accessible if it is financially and architecturally possible.

    There are some parts of the country that just don't seem to have heard about the ADA yet. Your state may not have passed its own accessibility codes, except perhaps for parking spots, or maybe you live in a rural area without a strong building inspection system. Let's face it. Unless you want to go door to door to sell the federal law to your customers, you won't be doing much in the way of ADA signs. In some states, however, there is quite a bit of activity and customers may be at your door asking for ADA signs.

    Getting Started
    The wisest course for most sign shops is to start by purchasing tactile signs (those that require Braille and raised characters) from an outside source, leaving only the "visual" signs for in-house production until market size and type have been established. Even if you sub-out the ADA fabrication part, you should understand the ADA sign guidelines (as well as your own state requirements) thoroughly and take care in choosing a fabricator. You may want to supply your own artwork in order to control the quality aspects of the job as much as possible.

    It's not hard to find a summary of the ADA sign rules, or even the complete text. Both the Department of Justice and the Access Board have the ADA Accessibility Guidelines on their websites. If all you need is a few signs for a customer, maybe a couple of restrooms and a few offices and you care only about meeting the minimum requirements, you'll probably be OK:

    1. Provide uppercase characters for the room number or name, raised 1/32 inch above the sign background.

    2. Use a sans serif typeface (unless you can figure out what a "simple serif" is!) and make them between 5/8 inch and 2 inches high.

    3. Use non-glare materials and be sure you have characters that contrast, light to dark or dark to light, with the sign background.

    4. If you use a pictogram (like the figure of a woman on a women's restroom sign) put it above the raised text in a six-inch high field.

    5. Accompany the raised characters with a Grade 2 Braille translation.

    6. Install the sign next to the door it identifies, preferably on the latch side, with the vertical center 60 inches above the floor.

    7. Make sure the sign is far enough from the door so the blind reader doesn't get hit if the door opens while the sign is being read by touch or from 3 inches away.

    If you do that, then you will have followed all the rules for identifying rooms and spaces. Of course there are rules for "visual" signs as well, and additional rules for signs with special symbols that identify accessible features of the facility like phones for people who are deaf. Those rules are pretty simple, however, and making signs according to them doesn't take any special equipment or software. Getting back to the tactile signs, however, since the rules do seem fairly straightforward, and assuming your state doesn't ask for anything beyond the minimum federal standards, what's all the fuss about?

    - - - continued below - - -

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    The Letter and the Spirit: Best Practices
    Let's talk about quality, or maybe we should call it "the spirit of the law." The letter of the law is about a minimal framework, but it was never intended to be the entire story. It was assumed that sign companies would consult with people who were blind to find out how to flesh out these minimal guidelines so that truly readable tactile signs could be created. Unfortunately, most sign companies don't have the resources to do that kind of research or to meet with focus groups of people who are blind. As a result, many signs follow the letter of the law, but the tactile quality is so deficient that the signs are virtually unreadable by touch.

    After ten years, however, we have enough feedback that we can help sign companies with some advice that will improve the quality of tactile signs. First, it's important that each character and each Braille dot be distinct, with space between each one and its neighbor. Tactile characters need a minimum of 1/8 inch between the two closest points of adjacent numbers or letters. Second, characters need to be conventional sans serif styles (no italics, extended or condensed styles) with thin strokes and preferably with beveled or rounded profiles rather than straight up and down sides. Braille dots need to be rounded or domed rather than flat on top with straight sides. Braille is preferred below the tactile characters, flush left or centered, and with enough space between all lines of copy so that the fingers feel just one raised element at a time.

    Artwork preparation depends on the fabrication method. For instance, etched signs may need artwork with Braille dots that look like mere pinheads, and with character strokes that are very slender. The etching and developing process will create a rounded Braille dot and a shoulder on all the characters that will make them easy to read. If characters are routed out, however, the artwork will produce the character base size, and the routing or engraving tool will create the bevel. Braille dot size will also differ depending on the method to be used with the router or engraver. Sending your first tactile signs out to a wholesale fabricator will give you a chance to research the several available methods for making tactile signs in order to find the right fit for both your shop and your clients.

    Following the minimal standards to fulfill the letter of the law, and combining them with "best practices" so that the spirit of the law is achieved, whether you order signs or make them in house, will help you sell a few signs to identify restrooms and offices or rooms. You still will not, however, be producing "ADA sign systems" in the truest sense. Why? Because the ADA signage standards go beyond Braille and raised characters. And they go beyond the signs themselves and enter the world of "Way finding," so selection of sign text, pictogram use, sign size and placement are important. All kinds of architectural signs, from simple directional signs with arrows to complicated evacuation plans are part of an ADA sign system, even though they don't require any tactile elements at all. And even tactile identification signs don't have to be completely readable by touch but can include purely visual information as well.

    Jump In. The Water's Fine!
    If you are an architectural sign company and your customers are asking for ADA signs, jump in. Many shops are so busy with this kind of work that they are turning jobs away. Start by getting a good Braille translation program to go along with your Braille font so you can translate text into Grade 2 Braille. Make sure you understand the basic rules covering character styles, sizes and depth, material finish and contrast, and pictogram field size and placement. The rules themselves are so minimal that it's difficult to go wrong. Make up some test signs or order samples from wholesale suppliers and, if possible, get some folks who are blind to critique the quality of the tactile characters and Braille. If that's not possible, try reading the tactile characters yourself. Can you feel each character and tell what it is? Run your fingertips over the Braille. Can you do that smoothly, without snags? If the sign can't be read, it's worthless, so go for the spirit, and not just the letter of the law.

    Next: Visual Signs
    Future installments in this series will explain the standards and best practices for visual signs, discuss way finding design, universal design, and talk about some of the special rules for California, which has one of the largest sign markets in the world. And remember how we assured you at the beginning of this article that the sign guidelines had remained the same for ten years? Now, after all that time, the government does have some changes in mind. In a later installment we'll tell you what they are and how you can begin to prepare for them now.

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