Back in 1992, when the Americans with Disabilities Act first became a reality, many sign companies thought it was a flash in the pan. There was no way that a law requiring signs to have Braille was going to be taken seriously. Many just shrugged. There were a few companies, however, that set to work trying to figure out how to make the signs, or to develop the special materials and equipment that were needed. After all, the government was telling businesses that just about every commercial building, public school, hospital and city hall in the United States needed to buy new signs.
Some of those companies today have developed a multimillion-dollar niche market. Even in states that barely seemed to acknowledge the law before, there is increasing demand for ADA signs.
Sign designers and fabricators who are just discovering the market today are lucky. First, the new federal standards, (the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design) made legally enforceable in 2012, are significantly improved over the original vague "ADAAG"—and second, there is now a choice of methods and design opportunities, with equipment and supplies to match, that can create highly readable and attractive tactile signs.
The reference to tactile signs does bring us to one important point: "ADA signs" are not just signs with Braille and raised characters. Even that eight percent of the male population that is colorblind can benefit from signs that follow the new standards. As the population ages, "Universal Design" is now an important new buzz term as more and more designers try to create a world that can be navigated by people from every age group.
So, how can you benefit, and just as important, how can your clients benefit by you providing a product that will make their facility more accessible and do so in a way that is legally compliant, practical and attractive?
Job No. 1 is to get educated. Learn to find your way around the standards. You can locate them on the site of the U.S. Access Board, at www.access-board.gov. The new standards are organized so that you need to refer to two sections:
- Chapter 2, "Scoping," section 216, which tells you when and where you need to provide compliant signs
- Chapter 7, "Communications," where you will see most of the technical requirements for signs. There are "advisories" inserted at various points to help you understand some of the technical language. There are other resources out there as well. You can check with one of the regional ADA Centers for some references, or call the technical help line at the Access Board. My LinkedIn group "ADA Sign Lady" draws many experts who are happy to discuss sign problems and answer specific questions.
In a nutshell, however, you need to know this: If you are providing a sign that identifies a room or space, including offices, classrooms, conference rooms, restrooms, a designated exit door, or a floor level designator, it must be readable visually, it must provide raised characters and Braille. That can be presented in two separate sections on one sign plaque, on two separate signs, or in one set of characters that are both visual and tactile, plus the Braille.
This new standard opens up a whole new exciting set of design possibilities, and moves us completely away from the old stodgy notion of Helvetica-based blue-and-white signs.
Next, if you are providing a sign that gives directions or gives you information or rules about using the facility, it is not tactile, but must be accessible to those with partial or low vision.
So now you know something about the rules. Next, what method or methods will you use to fabricate the signs, or will you rely on a wholesale ADA signage supplier? There is something to be said for both options.
If you want to concentrate on a method to use in-house, and you already have an accurate router or engraver, you can use the "raster" method. Or, you can purchase a specially designed thermoforming press with which you can produce molded signs. Either of these is probably the easiest way to produce Braille that is accurate, and is domed or rounded. They will also produce raised characters that are beveled or even, in the case of thermoforming, rounded, so they are exceptionally easy to read by touch. "Raster" method signs with applique-applied characters will be the most economical. However, if they are going to stand up to attempts to remove the characters or pop out the Braille, they must be made using top-grade adhesives, and fabricators must take extra steps, with tight quality control. Thermoformed signs will not have those issues.
Purchasing equipment to use photopolymer plates for signs is another option. To produce rounded or domed Braille, you must take extra steps both in preparation of the artwork, and in the final etching process. And, of course, this is water based etching, so even the most carefully produced sign is susceptible to moisture damage and must be protected with high-quality paint. However, designers do like photopolymer signs, and if you choose not to produce them in house, you may want to locate a reputable wholesale supplier.
There are other methods out there as well. Signs can now actually be printed using 3-D techniques, and of course you can purchase sand carved and metal signs. Although they are one-piece, they must be surface painted. It is almost impossible to create rounded Braille by blasting the dots, and producing them on a metal sign take special artwork and skill. However, some clients insist on metal for the longevity.
So now you have chosen a fabrication method, you have researched the equipment costs. Next you should look at design considerations. Many orders will come to you with the designs already included. Many sign shops follow client designs—legally compliant or not—without question or comment. Why turn away good money? However, that is not always the best policy.
Our answer is to present ourselves as professional experts, rather than just another "sign shop." We try our best not to lecture, but we try to tactfully inform our clients of the law, so they can avoid the risk of complaints, costly re-dos and potential lawsuits. Sign clients will appreciate how easily their customers and visitors can find their way around.
We remind our clients that, although they may not see many people who are obviously blind, with white canes or guide dogs, they probably have many visitors who are getting older, and have reduced vision, hearing and mobility, along with people who are color blind, and therefore need signs that have good light to dark contrast and easy to read letter styles. When you point out all these facts, many clients are ready to accept your suggestions about how their designs can be improved, usually with just a few minor changes.
Another selling point comes courtesy of the 2010 ADA Standards. Because there are now some choices of mounting height, an existing visual sign can be retrofitted by adding a new tactile sign. If the visual sign is already compliant, use the new standards that allow two separate signs, one visual and one tactile. If silver is an issue, hide the tactile text and Braille in a silver footer.
We are always ready with drawings and actual samples of attractive signs that do follow the rules and will look good in their buildings.
When clients see you as someone who is authoritative and helpful, and who doesn't just want to fill their building with ugly and obtrusive signs—always blue and white no matter what their carefully done decor is—they are often very receptive, and you will become their "go-to" sign company, not one of a dozen indistinguishable suppliers with no value added to your product.
As you learn more about ADA signs and become the local expert, there may be new opportunities, such as charging for sign surveys, or to writing plans and specifications. That puts you in a good position to also become the manufacturer of choice. As more and more states become aware of the ADA rules, and start enforcement, you can find more and more opportunities to join others benefiting from this niche market, where doing good for those with disabilities also means doing well.