Home by Charlie Braun

Universal design doesn’t use ramps, but they are common for accessibility.

We are working on a new resource that highlights how important it is for people to understand how others function when building or designing things, specifically in various parts of a building. We’re hoping to finalize the resource in a few months, but I wanted to discuss a few things about ramps.

Please recognize that when we say that “universal design doesn’t use ramps,” we’re speaking to the nature of ramps typically being disability-specific, often alongside a set of stairs. Universal design is about design that functions well for as many people as possible, regardless of one’s ability level, without being disability-specific, and thus segregating. In other words, universal design promotes ease of use for everyone.

home with ramp outside front door(Photo Credit: Alin S via Compfight)

Let’s say that you see a big ramp (obviously an add-on) on the front of a house.

1) It screams, “Hey there’s someone who lives here that has a disability.” This can be a safety risk for the homeowner.

2) A big ramp slapped onto a house drastically changes the curb appeal of a home. While it does provide necessary access into the home that a resident likely didn’t have, the home now looks modified, whereas if universal design principles were used, the accessible features would be integrated much more naturally and be invisible to an untrained eye.

A better option is to apply universal design principles by building up the landscape to create a zero-step entry. The intent here is to create an appearance of the accessible characteristics being natural, not institutional.

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) gives guidelines for helping businesses accommodate people with disabilities. Universal design is marketable to anyone and is used by many – regardless if a disability exists or not. Yes, we know there are situations when modifying or adapting existing construction in which ramps are the only option, but that should be a last resort if other universal design options aren’t practical.

When access is needed, it’s important to provide it. Ramps are afterthoughts in universal design projects. A sloping surface that isn’t as steep as an ADA ramp disguised with the overall landscaping is the way to go.

What are the characteristics of a “good” ramp?

This is an example of a ramp with measurements from the ADA. Keep in mind, this is only a law for commercial places. You can find the ADA guidelines here. Each city and state may have different codes, as well separate ones for homes.

man going down ramp in wheelchair

(Photo Credit: mateoutah via Compfight)

ADA suggests a slope with a ratio no greater than 1:12 (4.8º) for exterior ramps.

This is a standard, yet may need to be altered in private residences based on the need of the homeowner. Partnering with an occupational therapist will prove to be helpful when determining what the homeowner is best able to physically use. If a ramp is too steep, some individuals may get stuck going up because their strength does not allow them to propel themselves against excessive forces of gravity. Steep ramps can be unsafe going downhill for wheelchair users with the risk of gravity pulling the person down the ramp faster than they can control themselves, especially if they’re using their hands as brakes.

Platforms are needed at the top and bottom of ramps (a 60″ square, minimum).

Level surfaces at the tops and bottoms of ramps are super important. It’s pretty difficult to try and open a door if you are sitting on a sloped surface!

Long ramps need a platform every 30 feet (a 60″ square, minimum).

It is also important to remember that long ramps need a level platform in the middle to give people a space to rest, which is crucial for individuals with decreased activity tolerances. The ADA requires landings for any ramps 30 feet or greater. This flat surface should be big enough for a wheelchair to turn around. Landings help decrease fatigue and ultimately create greater safety.

Don’t forget about railings on both sides of the ramp.

Some individuals may only have use of one arm, and using their “good” arm to hold a railing on the opposite side of their body can be difficult.

Put a barrier along the edges of ramp so a foot or wheel doesn’t slip off.

This is to prevent someone’s foot and/or their mobility device (wheelchair, etc) from slipping off the side of a ramp. Individuals with limited balance or impaired eyesight may not even recognize this as a hazard until it’s too late.

Ramp surfaces should be durable and slip-resistant.

Durability and slip-resistance is important, especially if the ramp is permanent and there’s potential for rain or snow in its location.

Ramps should be wide enough to accommodate user needs.

Will someone use with a manual chair or a power chair? How is their endurance and ability to walk? These are important considerations for the design; homeowners should consult with the design team, which ideally includes a healthcare professional (hint, hint).

What does a universally-designed pathway look like to get into a home?

Home by Charlie BraunUniversally-designed access gradually makes a way to the front door without steep slopes or the need for handrails. Think of it more like a gradually sloping ramp and needs to be planned for because often times it’s bringing the landscaping up to a different level. See the difference between this picture and the first two? This design will accommodate a wider range of people while maintaining a natural aesthetic  Big thanks to Charlie Braun of Equal Access Homes Inc for allowing us to use an example of his work!

But – do NOT forget about the slope!! Check out my “What were they thinking?” Pinterest board to see some pretty crazy slopes for ramps.

Have you ever walked through a “fun house” where the floors were sloped different directions making it tricky to walk around? That’s what individuals with less than perfect abilities can feel like when trying to negotiate steep and sloping terrain, particularly when significant cross slopes exist.

How do you measure slope?

A simple math problem can be used to determine the slope, or an electronic angle finder can be used to quickly find the degree of slope.

Per the ADA, running slope should not be greater than 1:20 (2.9º), and Cross slope should not be greater then 1:50 (1.1º).

If not level, the running slope (forward and backwards) and the cross slope (side-to-side) can make things difficult for individuals walking if they have decreased balance and/or activity tolerance, and will be hard for individuals pushing a wheelchair who are simultaneously trying to carry items on their lap. Sidewalks and pathways leading to the entrance of your business or organization are ideally flat and wide in all directions.

YES – there are times where it is less costly to put in a ramp or add a vertical lift, but consider all the options and needs with those who are working on the project.

I hope this helps give a little more insight into a simple yet important project – getting from point A to point B safely. Gradually sloping surfaces are safer and add more value to the home.

Do keep in mind that we’re big advocates of universal design, which doesn’t rely on the use of ramps for access. That said, we understand accessibility needs and ADA compliance issues as well, so if you’re going to use a ramp, please do so correctly. We’re happy to help!

Published by

Sarah Pruett

Sarah is a registered/licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L) and a Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS), with a background in physical rehabilitation.

  • Sarah, nicely done; bravo!
    Clearly described, and distinction well placed.
    RT here we go…


    • Sarah Pruett, MOT, OTR/L, CAPS

      Thanks Patrick for the comment and glad the perspective came across well! Appreciate the tweet!

  • The Accessible Home

    Good summary, Sarah! Thanks for layout out the issues so clearly!