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WHEN YOU WERE IN school, what grade did you want? I bet it was an A! Or even an A+. How do you get a top grade in the ADA Sign Lady’s grade book for ADA signs?

If you believe grades are about how much profit you can make, remember that the ADA is a law that says every business in the US that is open to the public must have signs readable by people who have low vision or read only by touch. That is a lot of signs, and a lot of profitable business for sign companies. But profit alone won’t get you a top grade.

If I am the teacher, I’m not going to give you an A+ for ADA signs that are profitable but don’t do their job, which is to provide access for blind and low vision people. The signs that get an A+ in my class must get three grades — not just an A, but a B and a C as well.

school is in: First lesson: Profitable signs that don’t do their ADA job get an F. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

ADA signs are not just signs that identify doors. They also direct and give information about the site. Many visitors depend on signs high above their heads, or located along hallways where a blind person would have to feel the walls to find them.

Signs that are read by touch identify rooms and spaces, floor levels and exits. They are located precisely in relation to the doors they identify so people can find them even if they have no vision. Visual signs include those that can be read by touch, as well as those that are visual only and don’t include raised characters or braille.


That means people with low or partial vision can read the visual part of the signs fairly easily. Low-vision viewers need larger, bolder characters, with strong contrast between the message and its background. Anything subtle will be a decorative part of the sign — a logo, backplate, a header, footer or frame. Subtlety in colors applied to the message itself may earn you an F. Metallics may provide an attractive accent to other sign materials, but an A sign will confine them to the decorative sections. The glare from a metallic background or characters will make it unreadable to many aging and low vision viewers.

But wait! We’ve described a visual sign that would get an A for accessible, but what about people who can’t see? Isn’t an ADA sign usually a braille sign?

copy 3 times: Two different spelled-out versions plus braille are needed.

Many signs have characters that do double duty. They are visual as well as tactile, and accompanied by braille. People who read by touch only aren’t affected by the glare from shiny materials and they can’t see the colors, so contrast doesn’t matter either. They don’t like large characters because they have to trace them rather than just glide their fingers over them. They need small characters with strokes that are thin and almost rounded in shape. At the very least, they need beveled characters so there is a thin spine their fingers can feel. The braille is important to be sure, but not as important as those raised characters since such a small percentage of blind people read braille.

Can you get an A in my grade book with a typical ADA sign where the characters are both visual and tactile? Yes you can, but you have to understand where to compromise on character size and style so that both visual readers and those who read by touch can read with relative ease, and the sign materials contrast and are not reflective.

Two years of studies at the Lighthouse in New York had convinced designer Roger Whitehouse that visual and tactile readers needed completely different signs. He brought his ideas to the committee working to improve the standards, and his idea was included in the ADA revision approved in 2010. That means you could create small and thin raised characters, placed just above the braille, with no color. They could be almost invisible to sighted people. The identical text or numbers could then be duplicated in color and placed where people with low vision could read them easily. They would need to be larger and bolder, and contrast with their backgrounds. Of course they could not be shiny or reflective.

You could put both the visual and the tactile characters on the same sign plaque, or they could be separated. For instance, the visual sign could be mounted on the door, with the tactile sign next to the door. Imagine, as a person with low vision, walking along a hallway looking for your hotel room, and there, right on the door, is a reasonably large and bold set of numbers that contrasts with the door’s color. A sign I can read without putting my nose right up to the wall! On the other hand, put yourself in the shoes of the completely blind person. You know there should be a sign on the wall right near the door handle. You reach out, and there it is — a rather small plaque in exactly the right location, with small rounded numbers that fit easily beneath your fingers. Right below, you can read the braille.

Can you still get an A for accessible if you use just one set of characters and they are both raised and colored, so either a person with low vision or a completely blind person can read them? Yes, of course, and if you are careful in your choice of typeface, you can use slightly larger characters than the minimum but still retain those rounded spines.



This is where the inspector comes in — someone who might want to check every detail to make sure the standards are followed. Number one is contrast, dark and light, not just two different colors. It will be helpful to find out what the Light Reflectance Value (LRV) is for each of your colors, especially the character colors and their background.

Many people use the Weber formula to determine if there is enough contrast, but I can tell you an even easier way. Choose the color you want, one for the background and one for the characters. Subtract the LRV of the darker color from that of the lighter color. If you have a difference of 65 points or more, you will have achieved a contrast of 70 percent or higher. It’s that simple!

stay in line: Following all codes and standards is essential to passing this class.

The second most important standard is to use non-glare materials. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard requires a gloss reading of 19 or less. (Note: This information has been updated.) The ADA merely calls for a non-glare material, but the ANSI standard is the best guide. Glare or reflection is especially problematic for older people. If you wonder about glare, you can ask the seller to give you the gloss reading. Tip: Brushed metal will seldom qualify as non-glare.

Other important rules have to do with type choice as well as character spacing and sign location. It is very important that tactile characters be sans serif and have a ⅛-in. space between characters. Otherwise, touch readers cannot tell where one character ends and another begins. Visual characters don’t need as much space so the rules are less stringent. Non-decorative serif styles are acceptable. Still, you should be able to see some space between each visual character.

So how is your grade so far? These “C” rules may seem way too demanding, but the tiny details make tactile characters easy for people who have no usable vision to read.



First, does the sign appear harmonious with the architecture and decorative details? Even though you are confined to non-decorative types, and sometimes to sans serif styles only, there are so many to choose from. They can appear modern or traditional. Don’t get stuck just using Helvetica for every sign; it’s not even the favorite among touch readers!

Next, make friends with the project’s interior designer. Look at the color and material board. We walk into so many beautifully designed buildings with carefully chosen colors for walls, woodwork and carpeting, only to see blue and white signs everywhere! Think about choosing colors for signs that will stand out from the wall. Decorative touches for signs do not need to be elaborate. Backplates, frames, headers and footers can feature subtle color and metallics that do not interfere with reading the sign. If you want door ID signs with separate visual and tactile information on the same plaque, you can include the tactile portion in a decorative section. How about something scenic, or the mascot of the school where the signs are located?

final exam: Given all the feedback, how would your signs rate in the ADA Sign Lady’s grade book?

Now, as a teacher I’m wrapping up my grades. Who gets an A+? Of course getting an A for Accessible carries the most weight with me. A sign can be legal in all the details, but still not highly accessible or usable. And you do need that top grade for Compliant. You don’t want an inspector to reject your signs over a tiny detail in the standards. However, to get that overall grade of A+, I have to insist that your sign be harmonious with the building, adding to the building’s overall appearance even if in very subtle ways.

No wonder that architects and building owners who care about the appearance of their buildings often resent ADA sign requirements. All those blue and white Helvetica signs have given ADA signs a bad rap. As a sign company owner, I assure you that you can make ADA signs a profitable part of your business, and at the same time, pass the ABC test and get an A+ in the ADA Sign Lady’s grade book.

ADA standards are easy to locate, along with some excellent visual aids, on the US Access Board’s site: You can also check out my manual, Signs and the ADA/ABA through





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