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ADA Truths Revealed

Three simple truths are helping clear up confusion over how to apply ADA requirements to interior signage.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Three telling truths are emerging in the ongoing quest to clarify how to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to sign building.

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  • The first is a recognition that the interpretation of a law is often in the eye of the beholder. The second is showing respect for the users of ADA signage by building signs that are truly practical rather than merely legal. The third is a realization that following the letter of the law doesn’t mean forsaking aesthetics.

    Indeed, sign builders have struggled over the years with how the ADA translates to real life situations. There’s been confusion about the actual language, and there have been cries for clarity among industry leaders and small shops alike.

    The United States Access Board, a federal agency committed to accessible design, is answering those cries with attempts to make ADA provisions crystal clear so sign builders understand both the technical specifications and which signs are subject to the requirements.

    Meanwhile, fabricators and environmental graphic designers are pushing for ADA common sense. In other words, making the signs truly helpful for those they are intended to serve ­ and making them visually pleasing. The hope across the industry is that confusion will give way to creativity and practicality.

    With so much new construction opportunity abounds for sign builders who venture into ADA signage, according to Kathy Wilson, a spokesperson for the Braille-Tac division of Advance Corp., a manufacturer of architecturally designed interior/exterior wayfinding sign systems and standard and custom ADA-compliant signs in Cottage Grove, Minn.

    “ADA is the law. It’s mandated by the Department of Justice,” Wilson explains. “There are always interpretation issues with any document written by the government. What sign builders need to understand is that the ADA sets forth minimum guidelines. You can go beyond the minimum guidelines to truly service the community of people who are visually impaired.”

    Multiple interpretations, one law
    As Wilson noted, there are significant interpretation issues ­ and even some misinterpretation issues ­ with the ADA. Building inspectors in California may view the guidelines much differently than inspectors in Florida and other states. That’s not likely to change even after the Department of Justice offers final approval for the most recent draft of the ADA guidelines penned in 2004. The sign builder’s best bet is to understand the intent of the law.

    “Understanding the rationale behind the guidelines goes a long way toward shedding light on the ADA requirements,” says David Yanchulis, an accessibility specialist with the Access Board. “The requirement for tactile signs typically located at doorways recognizes the fact that people with little or no vision look to the doorway for a cue that there are tactile directional signs. It’s about labeling areas vision-impaired people are about to enter.”

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Another strong example is the requirement for a “height above the finished floor” of 60 inches. The mandated height is important because the sign needs to be situated within a range that allows a disabled person who reads Braille to find it quickly. If the sign is too high, the vision-impaired visitor cannot reach it. If the sign is too low, they won’t think to reach down. If the sign is positioned on the door instead of beside the door, the vision-impaired reader may peer closely at the sign and get hit in the face when someone else walks through the door.

    The Access Board has published a supplement to offer interpretive information on the ADA guidelines. The manual is available at Sign builders can also call a hotline to get clarification on unique installations at 1.800.USA-APLE or e-mail
    “The ADA requires a six-inch symbol sign. That doesn’t mean your symbol ought to be six inches high. It means the symbol has to sit inside of a six-inch field minimum. But many local officials say that field has to be raised tactile. That’s not true. Blind people can’t read raised symbols,” says Craig Berger, director of education for the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. “It’s important to know the national regulations well and be able to explain it to the local officials who enforce it.”

    Going beyond strict adherence
    Sort of like art, once you know the rules, you can go beyond them while still adhering to the fundamentals. Colors in ADA signage are a prime example. Common colors for wheelchair-accessible signs are blue and white. But the ADA does not mandate blue and white; it merely mandates a high contrast. That truth frees up non-institutional type buildings to go beyond the traditional blue and white and choose a more attractive color combination that matches the décor ­ so long as it maintains the required contrast.

    Adhering to the letter of the law doesn’t always produce practical signage, either, according to ADA attorney Eve Hill, executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center. “Wheelchair accessible routes are often different from the main route. It’s important to have a sign that shows a symbol of a person in a wheelchair with an arrow that points people to the accessible route,” she says. “One of the huge frustrations of using a wheelchair is not being able to find the way in.”

    Following the letter of the law without considering the spirit of the law has become a classic challenge in the sign industry. Sign builders need to see the world through the eyes of those who the signs serve ­disabled folks ­ in order to build signs that really serve their intended purpose. Domed Braille is a fitting example.

    “The ADA says Braille has to be domed, but it doesn’t say how big the dome should be. The only way you are going to know what works best is by talking to a blind person. They are the ones who know what they need,” Berger says. “Then when code enforcement comes and says your Braille isn’t domed enough, you can tell them 99 percent of the blind people you interviewed said this worked best. You have to be proactive when dealing with state officials.”

    Avoiding ugly ducklings
    Designers and disability advocates agree: ADA signage needs to be more practical ­ and it doesn’t have to be ugly. “ADA signage can be creative while fulfilling its legal requirements,” Wilson explains.

    There are several different processes to build ADA signage, from colored materials to painting to blends. While institutions might choose to stick with grey, black or something neutral, children’s facilities could choose more vibrant displays and still fulfill the ADA requirements. Corporations may choose a color scheme and materials that compliment the look and feel of the interior design and not worry about breaching the law.

    “You can produce ADA signs that are creative, attractive ­ and still within budget,” Wilson says. “One of the biggest challenges to that end is figuring out which materials and process best suits the project. Technology and innovative materials have opened up many new options. It’s up to the sign builder to remind the architects that there are aesthetically pleasing options because signs are often an afterthought.”

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