Most ADA compliant countertops must be no more than 36 inches from the floor, but certain counters can be two inches higher, and others can be as low as 34 inches from the floor. The ADA also requires minimum unobstructed areas in front of different counter types.
The Americans With Disabilities Act
In 1990, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against disabled persons.
ADA Title III: Public Accommodations
Title III of the Act addresses discrimination against disabled persons in places of public accommodation, meaning government buildings as well as privately-owned facilities, such as retail stores, restaurants, entertainment and sports facilities or any other place that is open to the public. Facilities covered by the Act include both those constructed after the law's passage and those constructed before. Owners of buildings constructed prior to the passage of the ADA must remove existing access barriers unless doing so would be unreasonably expensive. Among such barriers are the height of countertops and adjacent aisles that persons in wheelchairs or scooters cannot access or easily reach.
ADA Title III Standards for Counter Height
With few exceptions, accessible counters may measure no more than 36 inches from the floor to the top of the counter. In instances where existing countertops exceed that height, and compliant reconstruction would be unreasonably expensive – the many ticket counters in airport terminals, for example – the act allows these to remain in place so long as the facility's owners construct a new accessible counter no more than 36 inches in height for each activity. In an airport, for example, each airline must provide such a counter.
To facilitate the operation of wheelchairs and scooters, each sales or service counter also must have an unobstructed space in front of the counter that measures no less than 30 inches by 48 inches.
Exceptions to Counter Height Regulations
Certain countertops have slightly different requirements:
- Checkout aisles have slightly relaxed height requirements. The counter adjacent to the aisle may not exceed 38 inches in height. If the checkout counter has a lip or similar extension for doing such things as writing checks, the lip may not exceed 40 inches in height. In all cases, accessible checkout counters must be no less than 36 inches long. An access aisle adjacent to an accessible checkout counter must be at least 36 inches wide and free of any obstruction.
- Counters where food and drink are served, however, have more stringent requirements. If such a counter is more than 34 inches from the floor and constructing an entirely new counter would be unreasonably expensive, the facility must add a lowered food service counter section with a height of no more than 34 inches from the floor and at least 60 inches in length.
Penalties for Noncompliance
The U.S. Department of Justice regulates and enforces Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Penalties for noncompliance are substantial. With an upward adjustment in 2014, the maximum penalty for a first violation is $75,000, and the maximum penalty for a second violation is $150,000.