The Layers of Engraved ADA Signs

In researching this article, it soon became clear that there is a mountain of information regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act. When our company first contemplated expanding our engraving abilities to include ADA-regulated engraved signs, we quickly were overwhelmed by the amount of information. Here then is a brief overview the ADA regulations and how they specifically apply to signs. 

The ADA prohibits discrimination for people with physical or mental disabilities. Public accommodations, commercial facilities, employment, state and federal government, transportation and telecommunications all are regulated under this act.

There is a misconception that ADA signage only refers to signs that incorporate Braille, when, in fact, most identification, directional, informational and architectural signs must comply with ADA regulations. Signs that use a company logo or name, temporary signs, as well as advertising and marketing signs do not have to comply.

I spoke with Sharon Toji, owner of H. Toji & Company and Access Communications, which specializes in ADA signs, accessible signs and wayfinding systems. According to Toji, there are new, more stringent national standards that the Department of Justice has not adopted, but virtually every other federal department has. The sign codes for the State of California are already more strict than federal guidelines. Toji recommends following the California codes, which will keep your company more than 99 percent compliant with the new, more stringent national codes.

Wayfinding and building signs that conform to ADA regulations provide people with disabilities the capacity to direct themselves around public facilities. Not all building signs require raised tactile characters and Braille. If a permanent room is being designated, it should be identified with a sign containing both tactile letters and Grade 2 Braille, per regulations. Many wayfinding and directional signs, on the other hand, must only be designed with a high contrast of light and dark letters and substrates for easy readability.

It is important to understand when visual signs are sufficient, and tactile and Braille signs are required. According to Toji, the use of a sign that contains tactile and Braille but is not properly placed in a building, could mislead a visually impaired person.

The first step to understanding the anatomy of an ADA-approved sign is to comprehend the terms and methods used.

The Raster Braille method of creating Braille signage is a licensed, patented process that involves engraved holes that follow a specific pattern to create letters. Small round dots are popped into these holes, creating a dome shape that meets ADA regulations. The dots are uniform in size and fit tightly into the engraved holes. Contact Accent Signage Systems to find out how to become a licensed Raster Braille user (

Contracted Braille, also known as Grade 2 Braille, contains approximately 200 words and word fragments. A Braille translator must be used to convert text into the proper Braille translation. An industry leader in Braille translation software is Duxbury Systems, Inc. Its Web site ( contains useful information regarding the use of Braille, Braille translation software and a Braille chart, which is a helpful reference tool.

Tactile letters are simply raised letters that are perceived through a sense of touch. They often have a beveled edge for easier reading. The letters themselves must be a sans serif font with a medium or semi-bold weight to them. Regulations govern the width-to-height ratio of the letters, which should be checked after engraving to be sure they comply.

Tactile words must be made up of all uppercase letters. While Braille may be the most efficient way for the visually impaired to read by touch, tactile letters also are incorporated for people who become visually impaired later in life and have never learned to read Braille. Tactile and Braille signs that identify a room or space must be installed 60” on center from the floor, adjacent to the space they identify.

ADA regulations also work to make signs easier to read for people who have some visual impairment, but are still able to read signs. These signs should be made from a substrate with a non-glare finish. The letters should be upper and lower case, which is easier to read than all upper-case letters. The light and dark contrast of colors between the letters and the substrate also is important. Overhead signs need to have a minimum of 3” letters.

There also are four pictograms used in ADA signage, covering various symbols, such as the wheelchair accessibility symbol; the phone handset and keyboard symbol, indicating the availability of a TTY; the “ear” symbol, indicating the availability of an assistive listening devise; and a phone handset with sound wave symbol, indicating the availability of a volume-controlled telephone. These symbols often are incorporated with tactile and Braille and must follow ADA guidelines for use.

Creating an ADA-approved sign that contains both tactile letters or numbers and Braille is a fairly simple process. All ADA tactile and Braille signs as well as visual signs must be created with a non-glare substrate.

For a recent job, we used Optix, a non-glare clear acrylic sheet made by Plaskolite, Inc. Johnson Plastics sells a Rowmark material, ADA alternative, which is a matte product line, specially designed to comply with ADA federal regulations. Typically, we use this product line with the optional adhesive for the tactile letters, but it may also be used as the background substrate.

Start by loading the substrate on your engraver along with a dot cutter. Using the special cutter, engrave out the precision holes, according to the Braille pattern. A Raster Pen tool can be used to pop the Rasters into the holes. Rasters come in clear, black, white, stainless steel and brass. In acrylic substrates, the Rasters are held in place through friction, as the holes are precision engraved for the Raster to fit tight. In metal or other hard substrates, the Rasters are held in place with adhesive.

Cut a piece of the ADA appliqué material, slightly larger than the overall size of the letters to be cut out, gently pressing it in place. Using an ADA cut-out letter cutter, engrave out the letters or pictogram, cutting just through the applied material. The centers of letters can be removed with a small plastic dental pick or knife. Take special care to avoid scratching the substrate. Remove the excess material, leaving behind the raised tactile letters.

The sign can be finished with a frame or stand-off hardware for a decorative finish. Background designs and other enhancements can be added as well, as long as the highlight and dark contrast of the tactile letters to substrate are not compromised. There should be at least a 70 percent color-contrast ratio.

Slide-in areas can be created for permanent rooms that need to be identified, but special information within the rooms need to be changed out. Thin layers of clear acrylic can be engraved and applied, then overlaid with a solid piece of acrylic, matching the shape, and leaving an open area for information to be slid into.


The Department of Justice enforces the civil rights of people with disabilities, outlined in the act. If your company plans to make or sell signs that are governed under the ADA, it is important to educate yourself on the materials to be used as well as proper installation.

There are many excellent resources online regarding ADA sign regulations. Visit for ADA publications, federal resources, updated information, technical assistance, enforcement questions as well as numerous business support resources.

You also can visit, a federal agency committed to accessible design. New ADA guidelines and other online services can be found on the site.

Our company purchased “Signs and the ADA”, a reference manual written by Sharon Toji. The manual comes with a CD of Braille fonts and other handy tools. Visit her Web site,, for more information.