The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that protects people with disabilities by requiring easy access for everyone, including those who ambulate in wheelchairs, to certain facilities and services.
The federal ADA law mandates include the installation of wheelchair ramps where necessary. 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.
Some states have enacted stricter disability standards than those set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but most base their laws on the federal legislation. North Carolina falls into the latter group. The state's wheelchair ramp requirements closely track the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines.
The Americans With Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act was the first major piece of civil rights legislation to address the rights of people with disabilities. It became law in 1990 during the term of President George H.W. Bush. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits many kinds of discrimination, the ADA guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the American life.
Any American with a disability – physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities – is covered by the ADA.
The law covers many aspects of discrimination, including requiring all public and many private buildings to make certain accommodations to their entrance areas so that the buildings can be easily accessed by everyone. This includes requiring wheelchair ramps where necessary.
ADA and Wheelchair Ramps
Before the ADA was signed into law in 1990, the United States did not have any federal laws setting a standard for treating disabled citizens fairly. For example, most buildings and services could not be accessed by people who could not climb stairs, and were therefore out of range for people in wheelchairs.
Most people simply didn't think about the problems of access for disabled persons. Today builders and property owners are required to think about disability access under the ADA. For example, it is a violation of the ADA to construct new buildings without disability access.
While some buildings can accommodate wheelchairs with elevators, many places have installed wheelchair accessible ramps to comply with the law.
North Carolina and the ADA
All persons in the country, no matter what state they live in, are bound by federal laws, including the ADA. While states can increase the protections to disabled persons set out in the ADA, they cannot enact laws restricting or limiting the effect of the ADA.
North Carolina has enacted the North Carolina Persons With Disabilities Protection, a state law that essentially tracks the disability protections set out in the ADA, including:
- Reasonable accommodation duties.
- Discrimination in employment.
- Discrimination in public accommodations.
- Discrimination in public service.
- Discrimination in public transportation.
North Carolina Wheelchair Ramp Laws
North Carolina law tracks the wheelchair ramp provisions in the ADA, requiring ramps in all public facilities. The legal requirements in the two laws are very detailed and specific, regulating to almost every aspect of wheelchair ramp design from the slope of the ramp to its length.
The rules vary for different kinds of structures, but some basic rules are the same, including slope, width, landings and handrails.
North Carolina Wheelchair Ramp Slopes
The 2022 version of the ADA regulations sets very specific requirements for how sharply sloped a wheelchair ramp can be. The purpose of these ramps is not to provide a ramp that a wheelchair could technically access, but, rather, to provide comfortable access. A very steep ramp might be accessible to some wheelchair users, but not to all.
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. 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.
Other Ramp Slope Issues
Ramps and curb ramps are required along accessible routes to span changes in levels greater than one-half inch. Elevators and, under certain specified conditions, platform lifts, can be used as an alternative.
What if parts of the accessible route already contain running slopes? If these have a rise that is steeper than 5 percent, they must also comply with the ramp slope specifications. The slope ratio cannot exceed 1:12.
Since the ratio refers to the length of a ramp per 1-inch rise, it would be easy to conclude that any rise less than 1-inch does not require ramping. This is not the case. Both wheelchair ramps and curb ramps are required along accessible routes under the ADA when there are changes in levels greater than one-half inch. In some cases, elevators or platform lifts are considered ADA-compliant alternatives.
Ramp Slopes for Preexisting Sites
Obviously, the ramp slope requirements are more difficult to create in existing construction and facilities than in new construction. The ADA allows some leeway in ramp slope for preexisting sites. In these areas, ramps are allowed to have running slopes steeper than 1:12. For example:
- If the rise is 3 inches or less, the slope can have a slope ratio of up to 1:8 (8 inches of ramp for every 1-inch rise.)
- If the rise is between 3 and 6 inches, the slope ratio can be up to 1:10 (10 inches of ramp for every 1-inch rise.)
Ramp Dimensions: Maximum Rise
The ADA also provides a maximum rise for any one ramp. That rise is 30 inches. That means that if a vertical rise along an accessible route is more than 30 inches, the builders must set up a series of ramps to achieve that distance.
Dimensions: Minimum Ramp Width
In order to permit wheelchair access, a ramp must be wide enough to accommodate all wheelchairs. The ADA requires that every wheelchair ramp must have a clear width of at least 36 inches.
If the ramp is located in an employee work area and part of common use circulation paths, the minimum width of ramps can be decreased by work area equipment. This is allowed only if the decrease is an essential part of the work being done in the area.
ADA Handrail Requirements
Note that the ADA requires that handrails be installed on both sides of a ramp if the vertical rise exceeds 6 inches in height, or the length of the ramp exceeds 72 inches. Where the ramp contains switchbacks, the inside of the handrail must be continuous.
Alternatively, they must extend at least a foot longer than the ramp at the top or the bottom and run parallel to the floor. The ADA mandates space of at least 1 1/2 inches between the wall and the handrail.
If handrails are provided along the ramp, the handrails cannot take up part of that space. That is, in a ramp with handrails, the clear width between these handrails must be 36 inches or more.
Ramp Level Landings Clearance
If ramps exceed the maximum length, several ramps connected by switchbacks or dogleg turns can be constructed. However, the ADA requires landings – level areas having the same minimum width as the ramp – at the bottom and the top of every ramp segment.
These ramps should be completely level, but slope ratios of up to 1:48 are permitted. It is not surprising that the dimensions of these landings are also regulated.
The minimum landing width must be 36 inches, like the ramp itself. However, if any ramp that leads to the landing is wider than 36 inches, the landing must be as large as that ramp. Landings on ramps that continue in the same direction should measure at least 60 inches in length. That means that these landings must be at least 36 inches by at least 60 inches, and must be level rather than sloped.
Changes in Ramp Direction and Doorways
Where the ramp changes direction at a landing, the landing must be larger to allow a wheelchair to turn. These landings must be at least 60 inches in length and also 60 inches in width.
If a doorway is located at a landing, this must be taken into account when the dimensions are calculated. The landing must allow sufficient space for a wheelchair when that door is opened.
What Is a Curb Ramp?
When a person is using a wheelchair or some other mobility device, they may have difficulty crossing the street in a crosswalk if there is a curb on either side. They have no good choices: they can stay at home or take the risk of using their mobility device in the street alongside vehicles.
That is why the ADA mandates that state and local governments provide curb ramps to make pedestrian crossings accessible to people with disabilities. Everyone has seen a curb ramp. Curb ramps are cuts in a sidewalk curb that are sloped like a short ramp.
When designed as wheelchair accessible, curb ramps provide an accessible route that people with disabilities can travel from a roadway to a curbed sidewalk.
Two Alternative Curb Ramp Standards
Generally, the government must provide curb ramps wherever a sidewalk or other pedestrian walkway crosses a curb. But they are also required when necessary to allow a person with a mobility disability to travel from a sidewalk on one side of the street to the far side of the street.
The ADA also mandates curb ramps at public transportation stops where walkways intersect a curb. The ADA sets out specific standards for width, slope, cross slope, placement, and other features.
The Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) also provides standards for curb ramps, and state and local governments can choose between the two standards when building walkways and pedestrian crossings.
Must Use Only One Standard
This does not mean that the government in charge of the construction can mix and match particular portions of the ADA Standards and the UFAS standards.
Rather, for any one construction project, the state or local government must select one of the standards and stick to its requirements and restrictions throughout as they build or change the pedestrian crossings on a street and the curb ramps that provide sidewalk access.
Every feature of the project must comply with the selected standard. However, when it is clear that equivalent access has been provided, deviations from the exact requirements may be accepted.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.