Building codes are created to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public. The use of handicap ramps is essential to the welfare of those who depend on them to safely access and exit buildings or other areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. In 1990, the Federal Government enacted legislation protecting the rights of disabled citizens. This landmark piece of legislation, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), provides civil rights protections for disabled persons relating to many facets of daily life, including equal access to buildings and public places. Local jurisdictions such as cities and county building departments enforce building codes in addition to local regulations that follow the standards set forth in the ADA. It is important to note the difference between a building code and the ADA when designing and constructing a handicap ramp. While building codes are specific articles of regulation adopted by state and local agencies, the ADA is a federal civil rights act of Congress enforced by the Department of Justice. Therefore a handicap ramp must satisfy specific code requirements such as size and height, but it must also comply with the standards of the ADA, which may be more general and relate to the intent and effectiveness of the ramp in providing access for the user.
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In the United States, building codes emerged in the early 1900s, initiated by insurance companies to create minimum building standards. Although originally intended to guard against catastrophic dangers such as fires, building codes today regulate almost every facet of building and site design to ensure that buildings provide safe, energy efficient and comfortable shelter for their occupants. With the adoption of the ADA in 1990, federally protected access to these places was extended equally to citizens with disabilities. More recently, Congress has adopted amendments and standards that further clarify and detail specific ADA requirements. These standards govern how buildings and parts of buildings (including ramps) must be constructed to provide equal and safe access. Today, most local building code requirements for handicap ramps are derived from ADA standards.
ADA standards dictate that any portion of an established “path of travel” that exceeds a slope of 1:20 (a vertical rise of one unit for every 20 units of horizontal travel) is considered to be a ramp (also referred to as a handicap ramp). The following requirements for handicap ramps are typically enforced in local building codes throughout the United States.
The slope of a handicap ramp may not exceed 1:12. If it does, it may not be considered a handicap accessible ramp and will not meet the intent of the ADA. In addition to slope, the height, length and width of ramps are also limited to specific values. To be considered an accessible handicap ramp, the ADA requires the ramp to be a minimum of three feet wide. Additionally, no handicap ramp may travel vertically more than 30 inches. Consequently, the horizontal travel of any ramp typically may not exceed 30 feet. If an accessible path of travel requires longer distances or heights, multiple ramps may be employed and connected to one another with landings. Flat areas (landings) are required at the tops and bottoms of accessible ramps and must be a minimum of 60 inches at the top of a ramp and 72 inches long at the bottom.
Also, handicap ramps require handrails on both sides.. Handrails must be between 34 and 38 inches high and must extend 12 inches past the ends of the ramp.
Use of Ramps
In addition to the specific regulations that cover the characteristics of handicap ramps, building codes and ADA regulations dictate when ramps should be provided. For example, the vast majority of private residences are not code-required be fitted with handicap ramps. Most accessibility requirements pertain to public sector projects such as restaurants, schools, hospitals and hotels.
In general, the use of handicap ramps should be integrated into buildings as a prime design consideration where vertical transitions such as stairs or other obstacles occur.
Building designers and owners may be sued and held liable for violating individuals’ civil rights under the ADA, if building components such as handicap ramps are not prominently integrated into public buildings. For example, handicap ramps should be provided alongside main entrances and areas where the majority of occupants travel and conduct business. If a person in a wheelchair must travel to the back of a building to use a ramp and enter via a non-standard or measurably extended route, a case for discrimination may be argued since the wheelchair-bound occupant was not provided equal facilitation–in other words the building did not serve the disabled person and a non-disabled person equally.
Agencies Having Jurisdiction
State, county and city jurisdictions may impose additional regulations and adopt building code provisions of their own, as long as these additional provisions do not conflict with or weaken ADA standards.
Model building codes are updated periodically. Since the ADA is an Act of Congress that is enforced through the court system, its standards and associated regulations evolve as a result.
The U.S. Department of Justice publishes excerpts of Federally adopted regulations related to ADA requirements and building access (28 CFR Part 36). Commonly known as “ADA Standards for Accessible Design,” it can be obtained via the Web.