Navigating the Gray Areas of ADA Signage


This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrates 26 years of ensuring that disabled individuals have the opportunity to enjoy their independence and fully participate and achieve in all facets of society.  On ada.gov, which is the U.S. Department of Justice’s website dedicated to educating the public about the ADA and related activities, check out the article Twenty Six Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act: The Lives, Faces and Stories Behind the ADA, illustrating real-life examples of how the ADA has positively impacted many lives over the past 26 years.

Though signage represents a very small portion of the content and scope of the ADA itself, its significance with respect to how signage providers design and develop signage solutions is tremendous.  Experienced solution providers must have a strong working knowledge of how ADA Standards impact signage, including knowledge of local accessibility codes, as state and local codes are sometimes more stringent than the ADA Standards themselves. Designers, architects, customers, everyone that we partner with depend on us to produce signage that complies with all related codes. Ultimately, individuals with disabilities depend on ADA related signage to address their needs as well.

Just like most types of legislation, the ADA has some instances of “Gray Area”, in which interpretation and practical considerations must be applied, and signage is no exception.  What happens when we find nothing in the ADA or local accessibility code that tells us that we can or can’t produce a sign with a special element? In fact, a critical differentiator between signage solution providers is the ability to use knowledge and experience to make accurate recommendations and interpretations when the ADA may not be 100% clear about a certain aspect of signage. Many sign companies know the ADA and its impact on signage, but how many of them can truly take on the role of “Trusted Advisor” with their partners and customers and guide them accordingly?

Following are some examples of signage gray area:


Pictograms on Restroom Signage

We are asked from time-to-time to clarify the question “Are gender-specific pictograms required on restroom signs?”. Technically, the ADA does not state that these types of pictograms are required. Your state and/or local accessibility code may note otherwise, so it’s always important to understand any differences between the federal standards and local code. Regardless, we typically see gender-specific pictograms on restroom signs even when not required. Why? It’s a common practice to include the pictogram so that those with visual impairments can more accurately determine their destination. And it can only help those of us with satisfactory eyesight, myself included. There are times in which we have to make a quick decision, and visuals such as pictograms make the process easier and   more accurate.








Please note that when these types of pictograms are used, the ADA provides standards to ensure that they are correctly applied. The field containing the pictogram must be 6” minimum in height, contrast must be sufficient, text descriptors must be placed below the field, and these descriptors must comply with standards for raised characters and Braille.

The ISA (International Symbol of Accessibility) pictogram is addressed differently in the ADA, which states that the ISA is required on signs identifying accessible restrooms when non-accessible restrooms also exist in the facility.


Raised Character Restrictions for Room ID Signs

One of our many mottos in the architectural signage industry is “Form Follows Function”, meaning that although design and aesthetics of signage is critical, first and foremost we always ensure that the signage functions perfectly while meeting all code requirements. We encountered a situation recently in which a designer proposed raising the individual characters on the Room ID sign types using standoffs, thus significantly elevating the characters from the surface of the sign. This type of method and design can produce beautiful custom interior and exterior signage, but is it viable within ADA standards for room identification?

The following is taken directly from the ADA with respect to the depth of raised characters:

703.2.1 Depth. Raised characters shall be 1/32 inch (0.8 mm) minimum above their background.

That’s it, there’s no additional verbiage in the ADA addressing a maximum depth of raised characters on Room ID signs. So, considering the designer’s proposal, as long as the raised characters meet all other ADA standards including san serif, width proportion, stroke width, character height and spacing requirements, the increased depth of the characters using special standoffs would not violate ADA standards (be sure to check your local code as well). We now have the green-light, right?

Not exactly. Whether the ADA is not clear or simply doesn’t address a certain signage scenario, experienced and consultative signage solution providers will examine the practicality of the solution, and more important the impact of the solution toward a disabled individual.  Though the proposed design did not appear to violate any ADA or code standards, our consultant had concerns regarding the practicality of raising characters in such a manner, maintenance/cleaning of this type of sign, increased possibility of character damage and breakage, and possible increased difficulty for blind individuals attempting to touch and read the sign information tactilely. The ASI consultant advised the designer accordingly so that we could take a different approach that was more practical but still aesthetic.

On the topic of creative ways to design Room ID signs, the 2010 ADA Standards introduced a new option for designers that permits the separation of raised and visual characters/numbers:

This is a viable option for designers as it allows more flexibility with the visual characters while adhering to standards for the raised information. For the optional design illustrated above, when working with visual (non-raised) characters, designers can use serif fonts, mix upper and lower case, and use bolded fonts (up to 30% stroke width), all for a more aesthetically appealing look, and without violating any of the raised character standards.


Gray Area Related to Sign Mounting Requirements  

The 2010 ADA Standards included new verbiage regarding the mounting distance horizontally between the sign and the door frame:

This latest standard was added for cases in which the door to an office, or other permanent space, opens outward instead of inward. The 18” by 18” clear floor space requirement helps to protect a blind individual from swing of the door while they are tactilely reading the sign.

So, in terms of distance from the sign to the latch side of the door, what’s the mounting requirement for the more common occurrence of an inward door swing?

Sorry, that’s trick question, as it’s not addressed in the ADA (again be sure to check your local code as previously noted).  This is yet another opportunity for experienced signage solution providers to apply a practical approach that will address the needs of the disabled while being aesthetically pleasing to the customer.  For example, installers may use a common accepted practice of mounting the sign 2” from the latch side of the door when the door opens inwardly.

There’s no disputing that the ADA has been instrumental in providing opportunities and protecting the rights of disabled individuals for 26 years.  The ADA may not account for every possible signage scenario, so following the intent of the ADA is critical when encountering these types of signage gray areas.  When we take this approach while applying our extensive experience and know-how, we can develop practical and consistent solutions that address the needs of the disabled as well as our customers.


Andy Levine 2016

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