Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations. Among other things, it places requirements on the design and construction of public facilities and commercial facilities intended to be used by the public. It is primarily intended to make these facilities accessible to all citizens, including the disabled. One specific part of the ADA lists criteria that must be met related to controls and operating mechanisms that are to be used by building occupants. Light switches are included in a long list of items that must comply with specific ADA regulations.
As with most other elements of a building, light switches-–first and foremost-–must be accessible. To be accessible, light switches must be along an accessible path of travel. For example, a light switch may not be located in an alcove that is not accessible by a wheelchair. Generally, a 30-inch-wide by 48-inch-deep clear space is considered to be accommodating to a wheelchair. A clear space of this size must be immediately adjacent to any item for it to be considered accessible.
The 30-inch side (front approach) or the 48-inch side (side approach) may be adjacent to an accessible light switch. Light switches may be located behind obstructions in certain instances. For example, a light switch may be located above a cabinet countertop provided that it is located within a maximum reach range. If a light switch above a counter is to be considered accessible, the countertop may not be deeper than 24 inches.
Controls and operating mechanisms, like light switches, are also limited in mounting height. Light switches must be located so that a person in a wheelchair may reach it comfortably. If a front approach by wheelchair is possible, the light switch may be located no higher than 48 inches above the floor. If a wheelchair can access a light switch location from the side, the light switch may be located at a maximum of 54 inches above the floor. If a light switch is located above a counter, its height is limited to 40 inches above the floor.
In addition to being located in an accessible location, light switches must be operable by people with a wide range of abilities. For example, Section 18.104.22.168 of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design states that, "...(light switches) shall be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist." In addition, the amount of applied force to operate switches is limited to 5 lbf.
Location along an accessible route, accessible location, and operability are the key criteria outlined in the ADA accessibility regulations. It is important to note that accessibility requirements apply to specific types of buildings. For example, private residences do not fall under the same strict requirements as do public buildings.
Carol Reeves is a licensed architect with more than 12 years of experience in architecture and construction. In 2003 she began writing and editing for local publications, as well as teaching at community colleges. Reeves holds a Bachelor of Architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.