ADA Signage

The phrase ADA Signage has come into common use in the architectural, construction and signage industries with the advent of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. Unfortunately, it's a misunderstood term. Most people think it's synonymous with braille signs. Certainly, signs with braille and raised characters are the most visible manifestation of the law requiring access to the built environment, but the sign standards in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, or ADAAG, require much more than just braille and raised characters on some signs.

In general, almost every sign that would be considered an "architectural" sign must comply with one or another of the ADA Guidelines. In other words, if a sign identifies a permanent room or space of a facility, including exits, directs or informs about functional spaces of the facility, or identifies, directs to, or informs about accessible features of the facility, it must comply. Signs for advertising and marketing purposes, temporary signs, company logos and names are examples of signs or sections of signs that do not have to comply.

Although, because of the rules requiring Braille on some signs, the signage section is looked upon as benefitting persons who are blind and visually impaired, some of the sign guidelines benefit persons with mobility impairments or hearing impairments. In addition, one can say generally that easy to read and well thought out signage systems are of definite benefit to people who are deaf, have problems speaking, have cognitive disabilities or psychiatric conditions that cause them to avoid speaking to strangers.

ADA Signage Guidelines

1. Background: all signs must have non-glare backgrounds and characters. (Exception is for reflective parking and other traffic signs.) Glare and reflection are a major problem for persons with vision impairments, and particularly for the elderly.

2. Contrast: all signs must have a high dark to light (or vice versa) contrast between characters and their background. The important issue is not color, but lightness and darkness. Thus, a sign with very light gray letters on a charcoal gray background would be fine, but a sign with red letters on a black background would not.

3. Readability: all signs must have "easy to read" text. The rules are different for signs that identify rooms and spaces, and signs that direct and inform. That's because persons who are "functionally blind," that is, have no usable vision, are able to locate doors, and therefore can locate signs adjacent to doors that identify them, but have no consistent way to find directional and information signs that could be located anywhere along corridors.

Directional and informational signs can use upper and lower case letters (recommended by many experts for visual readability) and "simple" serif typefaces of a non-decorative nature. No condensed or extended typestyles are allowed. Strokes are of medium weight, not too bold or too thin. The size of the letters is dictated by the distance of the sign from the expected position of the sign reader. Signs high upon walls or overhead must have 3 inch high characters (measured by the uppercase character).

Signs that identify rooms and spaces are to be located adjacent to the door they identify so they can be located by persons who are functionally blind. For the most part, one sign is used by both tactile and visual readers, so there are compromises to assist tactile readers. However, it is possible to use two separate signs with the same information. Tactile signs require uppercase characters in sans serif typefaces. (No, Helvetica is NOT required, and is certainly not the only sans serif typeface out there!) The characters can be from 5/8 inch to 2 inches high. The braille must accompany the characters (usually placed below the characters) and must be Contracted Braille (formerly called Grade 2 Braille). The signs are installed 60 inches on center from the finish floor. If pictograms are used to identify the space (example: restrooms with gender pictograms), they must be in a six inch high clear field and accompanied by a tactile character and Braille label below the field.

There are four pictograms that stand for accessibility. One is the familiar International Symbol of Access, or "wheelchair symbol." It's used generally to show that persons with mobility impairments can access entrances, restrooms, or pathways. Three are specifically for persons with hearing impairments. The "ear" pictogram is the International Symbol of Access for Hearing Loss, and is used to show the availability of an assistive listening system. The "keyboard" pictogram stands for a TTY or text telephone. The "phone" pictogram with sound waves stands for the availability of a volume controlled phone.

The actual standards for the signs (and most other standards used in ADA regulations and state building codes), are actually the product of the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) A117.1 Committee. This large committee is made up of a balanced group of representatives from industry, the government, disability organizations, designers, code officials, and experts. it meets in 5 year cycles to revise the last published standard. The standard is then used by the International Code Council for its model building code, and has formed the basis of the new version of the ADA Guidelines that have recently been published and are waiting final approval by the Department of Justice.

Permanent or Changeable?

Based on its content or purpose, ADA Signage may have text that is unlikely to change over time, for example floor numbers, washroom facilities, meeting room signs, etc. On the other hand, signs such as workstation signs, office signs including employee names and titles, etc., may require more frequent updating. Wm. Whiteley Limited designs and manufactures signs and sign systems which can accommodate the need for both permanent as well as changeable text. Our changeable signs are designed to hold paper inserts which can be updated virtually instantaneously using your own office computers and printers. Let us work with you to develop a sign schedule identifying the types and content of signs required for your project.

Our ADA Compliant Signage Products

To consider the possibilities for ADA Compliant sign products see Switch, Tablet and Magpi. For permanent signs see Shapes and Outdoor.