New ADA Signage Standards Take Effect

New rule changes to the Americans With Disabilities Act will improve services to blind or visually impaired patrons

April 25, 2012

On March 15, 2012, updates to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) went into effect. The new standards—known as the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design—focus specifically on creating wayfinding signage for the visually impaired.

The good news is that libraries are already doing well in compliance from a technology standpoint, providing visually impaired patrons with text-manipulation software and closed-circuit televisions to enlarge print. The better news is that these new standards offer more guidance in making traditional wayfinding signage more patron-friendly.

There are an estimated 21.5 million American adults who reported they are either blind or have difficulty seeing, even with glasses or contact lenses, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, which cites a 2010 National Health Interview Survey Preliminary Report.

Fatima Kukaswadia is one of those who will benefit from the standards. A senior business and economics major at North Park University in Chicago, Kukaswadia is legally blind. Signs that normally help patrons navigate through the stacks are not as simple for Kukaswadia, who has a rare genetic disease known as achromatopsia. The vision disorder prevents her from driving, seeing in color, and reading the whiteboard in her classes.

Kukaswadia told American Libraries that reading signs with glare is difficult. “I also have difficulty tolerating bright light and am forced to close my eyes when there is too much of it,” she said.

The new ADA standards will help Kukaswadia, because they require a non-glare finish on all signage and recommend a 70% contrast between the sign background and lettering. To meet the 70% guideline, the ADA provides a formula that uses light reflectance values to determine contrast. The formula was published in the 2002 amendment to the 1991 standards (Appendix, 4.30.5).

“My eyes can easily pick up objects that are in high contrast,” Kukaswadia said. “I can usually read a sign with lettering that is highly contrasted to its background.” For example, she explained, red or black text against a white background is easily viewable, but red on a black background is not. (As a general rule, think “dark on light” or “light on dark.”)

Visual and tactile

The new ADA standards include several differences from the 1990 rules, which became enforceable in 1992. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the recognition that signage created for the visually impaired needs to accommodate those who read by sight, those who read Braille, and those who read raised characters—particularly because only an estimated 10% of all people who are blind read Braille.

“The raised characters are very important to people who have become blind later in life, who have lost finger sensitivity, or who just never learned,” Sharon Toji told American Libraries. Toji is owner of Access Communications, an ADA consulting firm, and a voting member of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the organization that set the new ADA standards.

Characters used in signs produced under the 1990 rules “had to do double duty for visual and tactile readers and were an unfortunate compromise,” Toji said. Tactile letters had no requirements for stroke or character width, and they were often much too bold and sometimes highly condensed. “They really were not very readable by touch and were almost invisible to many visual readers who are blind,” Toji said.

New signage must now include large, bolded characters in both upper- and lowercase (for those who read visually) and thin, beveled, and widely spaced lettering (for tactile readers). Additionally, legally blind visual readers benefit greatly from no-glare, high-contrast signage.

And if a location normally requires visual and tactile characters, that area must now have either two separate signs or one sign with both visual and tactile characters—with each meeting its own set of standards. Before this change, it was acceptable to have signs with a combination of visual and tactile elements without either meeting any usable standard.

Going forward, Toji said she would like to see better rules on glare and contrast in the next set of standards. (ANSI will have committee meetings to set the next ADA-accessible design standards beginning in August 2012.) She also wants to add new requirements for video phones and wants to have induction-loop equipment hardwired in library buildings. The equipment would transmit sound free of distracting background noise to patrons who wear a hearing device.

Meanwhile, Kukaswadia said she is “excited about these new changes. The library already does a great job providing me with the technology I need, but having signs I’ll be able to spot right away will make it that much easier to find what I’m looking for.”

E-reader access, too

Some six weeks after the ADA rules about accessible design went into effect, four Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) patrons who are blind filed suit against the library for failing to accommodate people with low vision by only lending Nook Simple Touch ereaders to users who are 50 and older.

The lawsuit asserts that the Nook Simple Touch’s lack of a text-tospeech or Braille function places FLP in violation of the ADA as well as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 2010, the Justice and Education Departments cautioned college and university officials to provide adaptive e-readers when incorporating ebooks into coursework.

“Libraries have a legal obligation to serve their blind and print-disabled patrons,” National Federation of the Blind President Marc Maurer said May 2.

LIZ HUMRICKHOUSE is a Dominican University GSLIS graduate and a reference and instruction librarian at North Park University in Chicago.


Accessibility tips

Libraries remodeled or newly designed after March 15, 2012, must comply with the updated rules. For all other libraries, there are steps that can make existing signage more patron-friendly. (The tips below, and others, can be found on the ASCLA website.)

  • Employ nonpermanent signs with low-glare and a high contrast for legally blind visual readers
  • Train library staff to assist visually impaired readers when necessary. This includes:
    • Offer to guide patrons to their intended destinations
    • Offer a variety of resources including print, electronic, Braille, audiobooks, music, and text-enlargement software
    • Ensure all signage is placed in well-lit but not overly bright areas
    • Enlarge the font on call number signs located at the end of each bookshelf

    For more information about how to make your library more accessible, see the ASCLA tip sheets. You may also want to attend the 90-minute “Serving Blind and Visually Impaired Patrons at the Library” workshop June 13, sponsored by ALA Editions.



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