Building Code for Handicap Ramps in Pennsylvania

A ramp for people with disabilities near a public building.
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that requires easy access for everybody to essential facilities and services. This includes those who need to use wheelchairs.

The ADA requires the installation of wheelchair ramps where it is necessary to allow that access. The ADA also requires curb ramps to allow persons with mobility issues and those using mobility devices to cross city roads and access public transportation.

Stricter Standards in Pennsylvania

A few states have enacted stricter disability standards than those set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but most states simply align their legal requirements with those in the federal legislation. Pennsylvania is one of the states that has enacted stricter standards.

The state's Universal Accessibility Act (UAA) goes beyond the requirements of the ADA when it comes to access.

What Is the ADA?

The first major piece of civil rights legislation to address the rights of people with disabilities was the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, race and ethnicity.

The ADA adds persons with disabilities to the protected classes who cannot be discriminated against. They have the legal right to the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in American life. Anyone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities is protected by the ADA.

The law addresses discrimination against those with disabilities. It requires all public buildings and many private buildings to make certain accommodations to ensure that everyone, even the disabled, can access the buildings. This includes requiring disability ramps where necessary.

ADA Standards for Buildings

For many years, there were no federal laws in this country that set a standard for giving access to disabled persons. The ADA, signed into law in 1990, was the first that set a countrywide standard for treating disabled citizens fairly.

As an example, most buildings and services at that time were out of reach for those who could not climb stairs, and were therefore out of range for people in wheelchairs.

For many years, the rights of disabled persons did not seem to be a high priority in this country. Today, it has become a priority thanks to the ADA. Builders and property owners are mandated to provide disability access under the ADA since it is a violation of the ADA to construct new buildings without disability access.

ADA Guidelines and Wheelchair Ramps

Some buildings are able to provide access to those in wheelchairs with elevators. However, most are not; instead, they install wheelchair accessible ramps to comply with the law. The provisions in the ADA require wheelchair ramps in all public facilities.

The legal requirements are detailed and specific, regulating all aspects of ramp design from the slope of the ramp to its length.

These are also reflected in Title 34 of the Pennsylvania codes. This state code section sets the same, very specific requirements for the slope of a wheelchair ramp as are set out in the ADA. The idea is to provide comfortable access, not just theoretical access.

Ramp Rise and Ramp Slope

The slope of a ramp is expressed in a ratio of the rise of the ramp and its length. In general, all ADA-compliant ramps must adhere to a maximum slope of a 1:12 ratio. This describes how high a ramp can rise for every 12 inches of vertical rise.

The ratio 1:12 means that for every inch of vertical rise, there must be 12 inches of ramp length. For example, if the ramp was intended to provide access from the ground to a landing 21 inches above ground level, the builder would need 21 feet of ramp.

Pennsylvania Ramp Specifications

The Pennsylvania Code includes other requirements than simply the slope, described above. The statute mandates that:

  • Each ramp shall have a slope no greater than 1 foot rise in 12 feet of run or 8.33 percent grade, or 4 degrees and 50 minutes deflection.
  • Each ramp shall have a handrail on at least one side, or preferably both sides. If the width of the ramp exceeds 84 inches, there shall be an intermediate rail in the ramp. The top of handrails shall be 32 inches above the surface of the ramp and extend 1 foot beyond the top and bottom of the ramp.
  • Each ramp shall be at least 32 inches wide (inside clear measurements) and have a nonslip surface.
  • If a door swings out onto the platform or toward the ramp, such ramp shall be at least 5 feet square. This platform shall be clear of the door frame.
  • If the door does not swing on to the platform or toward the ramp, this platform shall be at least 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide, and clear of the door frame.
  • The bottom of the ramp shall have at least 6 feet level run.

If the length of the ramp exceeds 30 feet, level platforms shall be provided at 30 foot intervals, and at turns in the ramp. These platforms shall be at least 32 inches wide (in all cases the width of the ramp) by 5 feet long.Pennsylvania's Universal Accessibility Act

All 50 states are bound by the provisions of the ADA. But states can extend accessibility protection if they choose to do so. Pennsylvania has enacted the Universal Accessibility Act, a state law that sets accessibility standards that are broader than those set out in the ADA.

The accompanying regulations provide the details for new construction in the state. The idea is to require that the design of certain buildings and facilities be not merely accessible to disabled individuals, but universally accessible.

ADA Requirements for Universal Accessibility

The idea of universal accessibility is that most ADA accessibility designs allow a separate but equal approach, requiring that those with disabilities are provided access. Universal accessibility requires that the primary design of buildings is accessible to everyone, including disabled persons.

The law is not one that attempts to eliminate discrimination, like the ADA, but rather it sets standards that will support people throughout their lives, no matter what situations arise.

For example, under the state's universal accessibility regulations, accessible route is defined as a continuous unobstructed path which connects all areas within a building and a building site that can be negotiated by a person with a severe physical disability using a wheelchair. It is also safe for, and usable by, individuals with other physical disabilities.

Interior and Exterior Accessible Routes

Interior accessible routes include doorways, corridors, floors, ramps, elevators, lifts and clear floor space at fixtures. Exterior accessible routes include doorways, parking lot access aisles, curb cuts, walks, ramps and lifts.

Disabled Access Is the Norm for New Buildings

Essentially Pennsylvania's law mandates that "handicap ramps" and disabled access be the norm in all new buildings, rather than providing segregated access for those with disabilities.

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