Are your ADA-compliant signs really ADA-compliant?

ADA sign picture

If you are involved in the manufacture of interior signs in the United States, you are aware that many of them are required to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But if you have not kept yourself informed of the latest ADA Guidelines (ADAAG), your sign work may not be in compliance. This can put your customers at risk.

The latest changes were written in 2010 and were voted into law March 15, 2011. All public-accessible facilities were required to observe these new guidelines by March 15, 2012. The guidelines include some significant changes in the specifications for fonts. Noteworthy is the requirement for tactile signs to use sans serif letter styles in all upper case only. However, even many sans serif styles are not compliant—like Helvetica Medium and Helvetica Bold. Why? The strokes are too heavy. The new guidelines require the thickness of strokes to be no greater than 15 percent of the letter height, based on the height of the capital “I”. That rules out most bold-stroked letters. Helvetica Regular and Helvetica Light are compliant. Helvetica Ultra Compressed qualifies, too.

The width to height ratio is also being spec’d by the new rules. The width, based on a capital “O”, must be between 55 percent and 110 percent of the height, again based on the capital “I”. That means Helvetica Extended is non-compliant, as is Helvetica Compressed. That means, too, that squishing the width of a letter to make it fit a particular size wall sign may render the sign non-compliant (not to mention ugly).

Other changes in the new guidelines include a rule on line spacing. And letter spacing is now mandated (it’s wide). The dimensions of Braille cells are now specified, as is the structure of a Braille dot. And Braille must always be placed directly below the lettering. It cannot be to the side anymore, with one exception: Braille for an elevator button can go to the side.


ADA illustration

There are other changes as well, including changes to the penalties for violations. The penalty for a first violation is now 75,000 dollars.

If a sign maker is not producing ADA-compliant signage where it’s called for, and it results in a non-compliance action against a client, it’s easy to see how the sign company’s survival could be threatened. Think: who would knowingly continue to buy from a sign producer that was responsible for one of its customers being hit with a costly non-compliance proceeding?

Here is a pdf file comparing the 1991 and 2010 standards, and pointing out the changes. Signs are in section 703 of the pdf.

1991 and 2010 ADA Standards

Here is a link to the official published standards:

ADA Standards. Section 703, Signs.


Tactile letters must be all upper case to be ADA-compliant

The guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require that identification for permanent rooms and spaces display the name of the room in raised tactile letters along with Contracted Braille (Grade 2). The raised letters must be sans serif and in all capitals. Why all capitals since it is acknowledged that mixed upper and lower case is easier to read?

The reason is simple. Tactile letters are read by touch rather than sight. The variation in word shapes that makes mixed case lettering easier to read by sight makes letters more difficult to read by touch. It has been shown that simple, unadorned letters in all caps are easier to comprehend when reading by touch.

It has also been determined that sans serif lettering is easier to read by touch than serifed letters. This explains the change in the ADA standards in the latest guidelines (2010). Formerly, “simple” serif was allowed, but no longer. No particular letterstyle is required, but the guidelines require that the letters do not deviate much from a norm regarding character width and stroke weight.