The Americans with Disabilities Act: where did it come from, why do we have it, and why does it matter when it comes to signage design?
It all started in 1957, when President Eisenhower awarded Hugo Deffner with the not-so-PC award, “Handicapped American of the Year,” for improving accessibility within the community. However, Deffner was unable to enter the building–yes, the one hosting the event for him–thanks to the lack of a ramped entrance. This event caused the President’s Committee to prioritize accessibility and led to the creation of the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968, which requires all buildings designed, constructed, altered, or leased with federal funds to be accessible to persons with disabilities.
The main focus of the ADA is to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs. This is especially to ensure that “everyone” includes anyone with any type of physical or mental impairment (that limits one or more major life activities), has a history of, or is perceived by others to have this impairment. There’s a lot that goes into these words: what does “limitation” mean? What does “impairment” mean? What exactly constitutes a “major life activity”? More specific definitions of these can be found at this link here, but for now, let’s get to how this affects signage.
In 1991, the ADA Standards for Accessible Design were born. Several added appendixes and titles slowly built up the requirements for any public building. These requirements not only ensure that anyone can physically enter and exit a building, but also that signage is located in the most visually accessible locations and designed to be the most legible. These do get updated as new studies inform us on how to improve our methods, so it’s important to make sure your signage design is looked over by someone that is an ADA compliance specialist.
Now that we know where it came from, let’s talk about what you might need to consider when it comes to ADA-compliant signage as a small business owner or someone that manages a public business!
Depending on the business and the room, signage may require Braille dots, raised or tactile characters, visual characters, and pictograms. These requirements are for what are considered “permanent” rooms, features, or spaces, and for dictating direction. A “permanent” room or feature is a bathroom, exit, elevator, and of course, the emergency exits. Pictograms are often required as well, but a universally accepted symbol can be placed beside or above signage–rather than requiring an entirely new design.
Aside from the foreground, all signage needs to have a non-glare finish: a more legibly accessible feature for low-vision persons. This is also why bold contrast is required: dark colors on light backgrounds or vice versa. Bold contrast improves legibility for anyone struggling to read text. As we age, our eyes lose the ability to read and detect contrast as well–this is especially important to consider if the people entering your building are primarily older.
Now let’s talk about braille! Already have a great sign but need to add some braille? There are companies that can print raised braille strips to be added onto signs that already exist–there’s no need to purchase and replace an entirely new sign. Different states also have very particular variable requirements for their braille: from the distance between dots, the amount the dots must be elevated from a sign, to whether the dots are actually circular or slightly cubic in shape. Add that to your list of things to triple-check before ordering.
The less fun details to discuss but need mentioning: height requirements and location distances. Suffice it to say that yes, the line of text and character distances from the floor and the ceiling all have specific measurement requirements. This varies depending on if the sign is a wall sign, mounted from the ceiling, or located by a door. Rather than bore you with a bunch of numbers and locations that would probably be better expressed with photos or even hand-drawn examples, I’ll just remind you that that info is accessible here.
But why did we spend a whole blog post on this topic? We’re a signage company! We design and print signs for schools, churches, small businesses, as well as interstate and highway signage. We want to make sure that our readers know what to look for when sending us the designs for their signage. Yes, there’s a lot we can put together, and frankly, a lot is pretty universal. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel–or even the pictogram for it. But when we get an order, we don’t always know if it’s for someone’s personal usage or a public business or a family event.
We are always down to help and send you in the right direction for any and all possible resources. We’ll go ahead and list a few more here just for your reference and we hope this helps guarantee your signage is ADA compliant so that all persons can enjoy your goods and services!
Helpful Resources! For the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design -- Click Here
For a timeline of Accessible Design Requirements -- Click Here
For the ADA's main home website -- Click Here
About the ADA Accessibility Standards -- Click Here