ADA and the Working Sign Shop

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was first enacted in 1992, architectural accessibility and wayfinding signage have been important elements. Ramps for building entrances/exits, curb slopes for sidewalk-to-street access, designated parking areas, and doorways and restrooms that allow wheelchair access represent a few of the structures the act requires of new and renovated public-access structures.

For signage, the familiar international symbol of accessibility (wheelchair) graphic and raised Braille letters and numbers are the most readily noticeable.

Because the basic equipment needed to produce much of this type of tactile signage is within most sign companies’ reach, serving clients’ ADA requirements becomes more a matter of adapting the local, state and federal codes to the signs they already may have been making for their clients.


Throughout communities, wayfinding signs, both indoors and out, assist ability-impaired and nondisabled persons alike.

ADA signage is required for all existing buildings and new construction. “It is very rare nowadays to enter any hotel, hospital, etc. and not see their rooms identified with ADA signage and wayfinding systems,” says Tina Kirk, general manager, Bell Co. Inc., of Trussville, Ala.

Such signage, agrees Rick Rivera, application engineer with Lake Forest, Calif.-based Roland Advanced Solutions Division’s engraver and cutting solutions group, “is very prevalent in the marketplace. Anywhere you go, you will find ADA signage (public, education, military and government offices).”

Specifically, adds Reuven Rahamim, president of Accent Signage Systems Inc., of Minneapolis, “all publicly accessible buildings--hospitals, schools, hotels, colleges, corporate offices, government buildings, etc.--must install ADA-compliant interior signs according to federal regulations, making this a multimillion-dollar business. In order for a building to open, it must receive a certificate of occupancy. To receive the certificate, [the builder] must comply with ADA building codes.”

Often, the signage incorporates symbols (pictograms, such as the wheelchair icon), Braille characters and English lettering and numbers.

Here’s what the 2004 federal ADA Accessibility Guidelines note, as an example, for Braille characters and pictograms (pictorial symbol signs):ADA RULES
Part of the ADA regulations that are most relevant to signage can be found in such sections of the code as 4.1.2(7), 4.1.3(16) (a) (b) and 4.30.1-4.30.8. Note, though, that you should refer to the full ADA code regarding signage; all information for every specific application cannot be covered in this article.

• Dot Height: 0.025-0.031"
• Dot diameter: 0.059-0.060"
• Inter-dot spacing: 0.090-0.100"
• Horizontal separation between cells: 0.241-0.300"
• Vertical separation between cells: 0.395-0.400"

Moreover, “Braille text is now required by the 2004 ADA guidelines to be dome-shaped,” Accent’s Rahamim says. “Flat-topped Braille dots no longer meet the newest regulations.”

The ADA’s sign guidelines continue: “Raised borders around signs containing raised characters may make them confusing to read unless the border is set far away from the characters.”

Most engraving software that supports ADA “automatically sets the character height and spacing,” notes Roland’s Rivera. “Refer to the ADA specifications for details.” Rivera adds that “the ADA specifications are fairly strict in most applications where the public accesses certain facilities.”

Further, says Jen Perry, sales and marketing manager at Rowmark Inc., of Findlay, Ohio, it’s “essential that a signmaker is educated on government regulations regarding signage for [as an example] the visually impaired.”

“Understanding ADA regulations,” she says, “is an important part of any signage business,” noting that “updated building codes are making the entire Americans with Disabilities Act an important part of any construction or renovation project.”

Additionally, the federal government’s General Service Administration adheres to the ADA’s 2004 guidelines, meaning that any federally funded building either under construction or a new lease must comply with ADA guidelines.

A spherical raster sits tightly into the substrate, which grabs and holds it in place. Braille text is now required by the 2004 ADA guidelines to be dome-shaped. Flat-topped Braille dots no longer meet the newest regulations. (Courtesy Accent Signage Systems)


The federal act set the minimum requirements, but state and local authorities sometimes have tweaked them to better accommodate their own graphics/symbols standards, while still following the letter of the law. Contact the authorities in the areas you plan to serve and get the specifications from them.

Signage used inside and outside must be durable for its particular application. Braille, by its nature, for example, is tactile and thus gets touched. As well, raised letters and numbers, like Braille, are sometimes physically read by the sight-impaired who do not read Braille; the raised lettering and characters can wear with time. Selecting the correct, ADA-approved sign materials becomes vital.

“ADA signs are commonly made from a wide variety of sign substrates including most engraving plastics, acrylic, wood, stone, aluminum, Corian, brass, etc.,” says Rahamim. “The very soft plastic substrates, such as Sintra, do not work well for ADA.”

Consider, too, interior signage colors: They can vary, “but must meet regulations for a non-glare, eggshell matte finish and contrast with lettering--dark on light or light on dark,” Accent’s Rahamim says.

Rowmark’s Perry concurs, adding, “It is important for signmakers to make sure they have the proper contrast between their substrate and applique.” Rowmark provides an ADA color contrast guide on its Web site.

Kirk, of Bell Co., says the law suggests a “70 percent contrast between background and text colors,” thus helping those with low vision to easier read the sign. The right fonts, too, make a difference, adds Kirk. “Sans serif fonts are the easiest to read for the people who may not be able to read the raised Braille, but need to trace the raised letters with their finger instead.”

As with interior signage, contrast between lettering/graphics and the substrate background are important and required with exterior wayfinding signs. And exposure to the elements can negatively affect the sign.

“Using a UV-stable product should be considered when creating outdoor ADA signage, or signage that is exposed to natural light,” Perry says. “A product that is not UV stable can fade in the sun, and that can affect the substrate and applique contrast. This means that a sign that was originally ADA compliant might be out of compliance due to fading.”

While many wayfinding signs often appear straightforward in design--square or rectangle with bold letters and numerals, and standard pictograms and Braille characters--many of the newer and replacement sign products incorporate logos, photo backgrounds, curved or rounded or design profiles and outlines that offer aesthetic appeal.

“Frames, raised or vinyl graphic logos, flatbed printing of faux finishes, etc. can be added to ADA signage to make them more appealing to sighted individuals while remaining compliant and helping the sight impaired and blind,” says Bell Co.’s Kirk.

Plus, adds, Rahamim, “today, the big trend in the ADA interior sign industry is combining new and different substrate materials, and adding new processes such as UV-stable digital imprinting for logos and design elements. In addition, digital imaging can be used to create your ‘own material’--producing surfaces that look and feel like the real material. Compliance doesn’t have to be ugly.”

Find out, too, from your clients what means of attachment to interior/exterior walls or posts they intend to use, so you can design accordingly. For example, will the sign need holes for screws or bolts, use adhesive backing, employ wall-mounting or pole-mounting brackets? Because ADA signs are “more permanent in nature,” says Rahamim, “customers prefer a framed sign that screws to the wall to make it easy to remove when the walls need to be repainted. Adhesive-backed signs are not easily removed for building maintenance.”

Kirk notes that most of the signs her company makes use foam tape and silicone for installation, but adds that “many schools and other institutions are now specifying holes with tamperproof screws to keep people from pulling signs off the wall easily.”

As Rivera offered earlier, most ADA engraving software “automatically sets the character height and spacing.” Rotary engravers appear to be the tools of choice, and, says Rivera, “most rotary engraving software either comes with the Braille module necessary or it can be purchased as an upgrade to support ADA signage.” Adds Accent’s Rahamim: “Laser engravers can provide enhanced ADA sign design elements, as well, however are not as efficient in producing Braille.”

Signs can be produced “using routed letters with the raster Braille method on their computerized engraving machines,” Bell Co.’s Kirk says. Accent holds the patent for such a system, the Raster Method of Braille system designed to work with most rotary engraver models. The licensed system allows the engraver to rout specific-sized holes in metals and plastic, and with a manually operated Raster “pen” the user inserts a machine-engineered sphere into each hole.

Another Accent Raster device attaches directly to many engravers and via compressed air “semi-automatically inserts the Rasters into the holes,” Rahamim adds. With acrylic material, the friction between the raster sphere and the acrylic secures the sphere. For metal and other harder substrates, an adhesive secures the raster. The engraving unit’s software needs to support Grade 2 Braille fonts.

Rahamim explains Grade 2 Braille: “Braille translator software often comes already built-in as a standard feature of today’s engraver programs, and many retailers already have the Braille translator fonts and necessary software but may be unaware that they possess it. A Braille translator allows the operator to type in words and numbers in English, which are then automatically translated into Grade 2 Braille. Grade 2 Braille consists of 266 contractions that must be translated from written words. One Braille translator that is widely used and recommended is produced by Duxbury Systems out of Westford, Mass.”

Templates can be created, but Rivera notes that because most engraving software already includes Braille translators and much of the common ADA signage clip art, it isn’t necessary to make templates.

“Though equipment and software applications provide the means to fashion certain ADA signage, a byproduct of ‘profiling’ letters and numbers using a rotary or laser engraver is that it creates a template,” Rowmark’s Perry adds. “Letters or numbers may be removed and repositioned using the waste material from which it was originally cut.”

Such companies as Rowmark and Bell offer signage product lines that are ADA compliant. Moreover, as Perry states, most are laser- and rotary engraver-friendly, as well. “Use of these machines,” she says, “can make fabrication of signage go much faster and result in a precise and aesthetically pleasing finished product.”

A variety of substrate materials can be used for signs. Best bets, suggest our sources, are the acrylics, as well as single-color and marbleized plastics, and aluminum. Cast bronzes, etc. can be ordered.

Buying wholesale photopolymer and thermo-compression solid acrylics enable “even smaller mom-and-pop shops to provide ADA signs to their clients, and even do the installation,” says Bell Co.’s Kirk. “We also provide paper proofs for their clients to sign off on before production begins.”

Prospective customers to whom you might appeal and approach with ADA signage business run the gamut from architectural firms to zoos. For example, an architectural company might handle “large, industrial accounts that require such signage,” Perry says. Perry adds that colleges and universities that “do not have their own signage shops would be potential customers for ADA signage.” Especially those that may be expanding to smaller satellite campuses. And because sign companies often already serve these institutions with other signage, they have an “in” with the right people.

Rivera adds to the client list hotels, government offices and building contractors. Think, too, of casinos, hospitals and facilities management companies, suggests Kirk.

As with the signage products you now promote, it’s necessary to demonstrate to your clients that your operation can handle not just the signage you already might offer, but the specialized ADA signage you can produce.

“To be competitive, a retailer must have some sample ADA signs on display in the walk-in showroom area,” Rahamim states. “The retailer should also have photos of ADA signs on their Web site and be knowledgeable about all of the ADA regulations.”

Yes, specific sign regulations must be followed to produce these signs, but the learning curve need not be difficult, especially with the prevalence of companies with whom many retailers now conduct business and who are able to help them better understand what’s needed.

With a computerized rotary engraver--likely already loaded with ADA software--the appropriate routing and, as needed, other specialized tools, the potentially lucrative ADA sign market is one that sign companies have the ability to access.