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New ADA rules

Next generation of proposed federal sign regulations posted for ADA and ABA.

By Mark Dorsett

The next generation of federal signage regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) has arrived.

Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

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  • On November 16, the Access Board in Washington D.C. posted proposed new accessibility guidelines that include new provisions that will change the way architectural and wayfinding signs are made and displayed throughout the U.S.

    The new rules are contained in the form of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which is available for public comment for 120 days. For sign companies that will be affected by the new guidelines, that means it may not be too late to attempt to alter some provisions. These new guidelines cover new construction and alterations and generally do not address existing facilities outside planned alterations.

    This marks the first comprehensive update of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) since their original publication in July 1991. The proposal, revises both the substance and format of the existing guidelines and includes new figures and advisory material. Some highlights of the changes in store for the sign industry include:

    • Creation of a whole new type of ADA room sign that gives designers the ability to use previously forbidden typography including upper and lower case letters but only if the same message is carried elsewhere on the sign in tactile form.
    • More strict rules on typography for traditional ADA room signs. The "simple serif" type face allowance that created a huge gray area under the old rules will no longer be allowed. Roman-type fonts such as Times, which are commonly used now, will be banned. Also specifically called out as unacceptable are any italic, oblique, script or other non san serif typefaces. Optima will still be allowed.
    • Requirements for raised borders and other decorative elements of signs to be kept 3/8 of an inch (9.5 mm) away from required tactile and Braille portions. This will have the practical effect of making room signs that use such features larger.
    • Braille will have to be domed, which will force manufacturers of most sandblasted and photopolymer ADA signs to either change the way they make Braille signs or drop entire lines. Rules for the proximity of "dots" within and between Braille cells will also change. Braille dimensions will have to comply with a new chart that specifies an allowable range of measurements.

      Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

      Mounting height rules will become more flexible. The old "60 inches from the floor to the center of the sign" rule will be replaced by a new guideline that allows characters to be located from 48 inches (1220 mm) to 60 inches (1525 mm), from the floor, with the baseline of the characters as opposed to the center of the sign becoming the measuring point. This will allow assisted living facilities to mount their signs where wheelchair-bound residents can reach them. It will also keep tactile characters located at the top of large signs within reach.

    • ADA signs will be allowed to be mounted on doors themselves, but only on the push side of doors that are equipped with mechanical closers and without hold-open devices. The practical impact of this change will mean that hospitals and other facilities with wide doors will be allowed to place their ADA room and space designation signs on the push side of such doors, where before they might languish on a nearby wall. In a related new rule, for the first time the right hand side wall of double doors will become the official mounting spot for ADA signs. Previously, you could place the sign on either side of such double doors.
    • The 3-inch height requirement for type used on overhead signs will be replaced by a chart that specifies type size based on how high the sign is mounted in relation to a "minimum viewing distance", which is defined as the point where an obstruction prevents you from getting closer to the sign.
    • The upper case letters "I" and "O" will become the new benchmarks for sign designers under the new rules. In both the overhead and tactile character sections of the new guidelines, the letter "I" becomes the measurement used to determine allowable stroke thickness. For tactile characters, the letter "O" will determine the allowable width.

    The changes are based on recommendations from an advisory committee the Access Board had established to review ADAAG. The ADAAG Review Advisory Committee consisted of 22 members representing the design and construction industry, the building code community, and people with disabilities. According to a Access Board new release, the "recommendations seek to improve access requirements while reconciling differences between ADAAG and national consensus standards, including model codes and industry standards."

    In an overview of the proposal posted with the new rules, the Access Board said, "The key goal of this rulemaking is to substantively update the requirements to reflect technological developments so that they continue to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Also, this update is designed to make the guidelines more consistent with model building codes and industry standards in order to facilitate compliance."

    The deadline for public comment on the new rules is March 15, 2000. Two public hearings on the proposals are scheduled: one in Los Angeles on January 31, 2000, and another in the Washington, D.C. area on March 13, 2000. After the comment period closes, the Access Board will revise the rules "as necessary according to the comments received" and republish the guidelines in final form. Other Federal agencies responsible for the standards used to enforce the ADA and ABA (the departments of Justice and Transportation) must then modify their standards so that they will be consistent with the updated guidelines, according to the Access Board.

    The proposed guidelines are on the Access Board's web site at or can be ordered by calling 1-800-USA-ABLE (voice), 1-800-993-2822 (TTY). To get to the sections related to signs, view or download Chapter 7: Communications Elements and Features.

    The Access Board, which issued the new rules, is an independent Federal agency responsible for accessibility guidelines for the built environment under the ADA and the ABA. The Board develops and maintains guidelines formally known as The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

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