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Disability Design Guidelines for Commercial Buildings


By Leslie Ackel


Whether you own, lease or are researching commercial real estate, it is advisable to gain an understanding on the regulations that are imposed on commercial buildings through the Americans With Disabilities Act.  If you are building a new commercial structure, all design features must be built in accordance with the current ADA regulations.  Older commercial structures may be partially exempt from certain ADA requirements, but when there is a substantial change in design or change in use, pre-existing commercial buildings may be required to make additional changes regarding accessibility.  Accessibility features can play a major role in assessing value during real estate negotiations.

There are specific design requirement standards and guidelines under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for the implementation of accessible design in places of all public accommodation to secure entry for all disabled persons.

The guidelines below are not intended to define specific code requirements; but rather to educate builders and commercial property owners on how to provide accessibility and usability for physically disabled persons.  Information provided is available from the American National Standards institute, 1430 Broadway, New York, NY 10018.

Categories of places of public accommodation, according to the ADA, are public and commercial facilities whose operations will affect commerce.

They include

1)    Places of lodging such as inns, hotels, motels and other places of lodging.

2)    Restaurants, bars or any other establishments serving food or drink.

3)    ) Motion picture theaters, concert hall and stadiums or any other place of exhibition.

4)    Auditoriums, convention centers, lecture halls.

5)    Laundromats, dry cleaners, banks, accountant and law offices, pharmacies, barbershops, salons, hospitals, gas stations, offices of professional health care providers, travel services, insurance offices, funeral parlors, shoe repair services or any other service establishments.

6)    A bakery, clothing, hardware and grocery stores and shopping centers.

7)    All public transportation services such as terminals and depots.

8)     Museums, libraries, galleries and any other public display areas.

9)    Parks zoos, amusement parks, gymnasiums, golf courses and other places of recreation.

10) Nurseries and all schools or places of education.

11) Day care and senior citizen centers, homeless and emergency shelters, food banks, adoption agencies and all social service establishments.

12) Roads, passageways, parking lots.


• There are two broad exemptions listed under the ADA guidelines for commercial buildings.  Those are private clubs and places of worship. However, if either of these facilities rent out or offer rooms for use by organizations other than themselves, accessibility for the disabled is required.


The exterior of a typical office building requires curb ramps from the parking lot and entrances into the building.  Curbside ramps must be 3 feet wide and include a non-slip surface.  A wheelchair usable ramp slope must be between 1 on 20 (5%) and 1 on 12 (8.33%).  This means that for every 12 inches of horizontal distance covered, the ramp rise cannot rise more than one inch.  This slope guideline must be met for both curbside and building exterior and interior ramps.  At a change of direction, the ramp must be followed by a 5 X 5 foot platform.

All ramps, excluding curbside, are required to have handrails on both sides.  Handrails must be mounted between 30 and 34 inches about the ramp surface and extend one foot beyond the top and bottom of the ramp.  This helps persons who have trouble walking.


Entry vestibule with a series of doors can be difficult for the person in a wheelchair to enter.  The force needed to pull or push a door open must not be more than 8 1/2 pounds, and if a threshold exists, it must be no higher than 1 inch and it must be beveled.  There must be at least 4 feet of clear space between doors.

Drinking fountains

Drinking fountains must be accessible to people in wheelchairs.  They must be located on an accessible route.  The spout may be no higher than 36 inches above the floor.  The controls must be easily turned so that the fountain can be operable with one hand.  Units, which allow clear knee space underneath is most easily used, however, built-in units with a side approach, are acceptable.


For a building to be completely accessible, all routes within the building must be accessible.  Elevators must accommodate a wheelchair.  Specific features make an elevator accessible.  Both side entry and middle door entry elevators must measure at least 51 inches wide by 68 inches long.  The floor button panel should be no higher than 35 inches from the floor and should have tactile indicators and audible signals for the seeing impaired.  Freight elevators are exempt.

Assembly spaces

Wheelchair seating must be comparable to other seating positions and should be dispersed throughout the area so that people in wheelchairs can sit with their companions. The area must be level. Sound systems should include listening systems for people with hearing loss. Wheelchair access must be provided to the stage, dressing rooms and any other space whereby a wheelchair bound person might need entry.

Toilet rooms

Toilet rooms are required to have accessible stalls and clear floor spaces for each fixture.  Space must be clear by at least 30” by 48” floor space to allow a wheelchair to be rotated easily.  Grab bars are to be installed between 33 – 36 inches from the floor and should be located to the back of the toilet and sidewall next to toilets.  The toilet paper dispenser must be installed at no higher than 19” from the floor.  The International Symbol of Accessibility is required at each toilet room door.

Counter mounted sinks can be no higher than 34” above the floor, and sinks no deeper than 61/2” to allow space for knees.  Wall mounted lavatories must allow space below to afford adequate knee space.  Mirror’s bottom edges must be no higher than 40” and easy to use faucets, soap and towel dispensers must be within reach of the person in a wheelchair.

Also, bathing and shower facilities must be accessible with transfer surfaces and hand held shower-heads.

Passage widths for wheelchairs

The minimum width required for a single wheelchair to enter a hallway or passage is 32”.  This is also the minimum width required at drinking fountains, a sink or a desk.  The continuance of the passageway must be at least 36” wide to accommodate comfortable steerage.

If two wheelchairs are to pass each other, a width of 60” is required.  And spaces of 48 inches, minimum, is needed to pass an ambulatory person.

Door approaches

Front, latch side and hinge side doors all require definitive spaces large and easy enough for a person in a wheel chair to maneuver in and out.  Both pull and push sides require at least 4’ of space to easily allow for movement both in and out of the doorway.  This area is to accommodate front approaches, latch side approaches and hinge side approaches.


A 3’ door will allow clear space for accessible entry.  The use of the common round doorknob is prohibited. Hardware must be easy to use and not require tight grasping.  Lever handles provide the easiest use for opening a door.  The force to open an interior door should not exceed 5 pounds and 71/2 pounds for outer doors.

Operable controls

Public buildings will often have vending machines, fire alarms, electric switches and outlets and telephones to be used by all persons.  Objects must be mounted from 9” to 54” above the floor.  Depending upon the entry to these features, measurements can differ.  These controls, if located on a forward motion only, a level space of 30” X 48” must be available for the person in a wheelchair to turn around.  All controls must be operable with one hand and must not require stress to the fingers, hands and wrists to open.

Work areas

All persons in wheelchairs can often use typical desk heights of 29”. However, for increased convenience, 26” is the ideal height for small women, 34” for a tall man doing detailed work.

Safety areas.

During emergencies inside double story or high-rise buildings, elevators are shut down and people are asked to use the stairs to evacuate.  Persons who cannot use stairs must await help. This is safest in an area where firewalls and doors exist, such as a stairwell landing. Communication in the safe areas must be provided by intercom or telephone. These can be located in the landing.


Always consult knowledgeable counsel regarding ADA requirements when you are buying, leasing, selling or leasing a commercial property.  For a free consultation regarding ADA requirements for Louisiana commercial real estate, contact Tribute Real Estate’s in-house counsel, Thad D. Ackel, Jr.


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