Guide to Designing Accessible Buildings for the Disabled

Published Categorized as Building Design
Accessible Ramp

With the establishment of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, governments and industries worldwide realize that no one must be left behind. Societies all over the world have become less unaware of the needs of people with disabilities. So how do you design buildings that cater to the needs of the disabled?

Here’s the complete guide to designing buildings for the disabled:

  1. Provide an accessible entrance/door.
  2. Build ramps at the correct height.
  3. Add smooth handrails to accessible stairways.
  4. Provide an accessible elevator.
  5. Build a bathroom with accessible features.
  6. Ensure a safe floor surface.

The ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual provides rules and guidelines on constructing new buildings accessible to individuals with disabilities. All contractors designing new buildings must comply with the standards set by the ADA. Keep reading to learn more.

1. Provide an Accessible Entrance / Door

Public buildings must have an accessible entrance or door. It must be at least 36” (91.4 cm) wide to accommodate a wheelchair or an individual using crutches with enough clearance.

People with locomotor limitations have difficulty moving certain parts of their bodies, thus limiting their ability to perform daily activities. Some of them depend on wheelchairs, crutches, or canes to move around, while others can walk by themselves, although less efficiently than most people.

They may suffer from congenital conditions, such as clubfoot, or may have acquired such conditions from illnesses like poliovirus infection and stroke or injuries later in life.

Therefore, they will have difficulty using regular entrances.

If a building has two or more entrances, they only need to make one accessible. It doesn’t have to be the main one used by most guests. However, there must be appropriate signage in place to lead people with disabilities to the accessible entrance.

When creating a new building, construction contractors must avoid using turnstiles at the main entrance. If they wish to do so for security purposes, they must provide an alternative accessible entrance alongside it for people on wheelchairs or with crutches, canes, or walkers.

2. Build Ramps at the Correct Height

The ADA stipulates that ramps must follow the 1:12 ratio, which means that for every inch of height, there must be a 12” (30.4-cm) ramp. Also, it must be 36” (91.4 cm) wide, similar to the entrance.

In addition, ramps in buildings must be built-in. They must not be portable or detachable, because these kinds of ramps are unstable and may be dangerous for people with locomotor limitations.

The initial slope of the ramp must be smooth, and the bottom and top landings must be at least 48” (122 cm) long and 36” (91.4 cm) wide. The spaces on the bottom and top landings are necessary for individuals on wheelchairs to turn around when needed.

3. Add Smooth Handrails to Accessible Stairways

Even though not all two-story public buildings are required to install elevators, if they have services available that compel people with disabilities to climb up to the second floor, they must at least provide accessible stairways with smooth handrails.

Each step must be 4-7” (10-17.8 cm) high and must be the same all throughout the flight.

In addition, the depth of each step must be at least 11” (28 cm). People using crutches or canes cannot make big steps, so these measurements will make it easier or tolerable for them to climb up and down.

Handrails must be steady and have a smooth surface, with a steady incline of 34-38” (86-96.5 cm) from the edge of the steps. It must have an inclined extension equal to one step’s depth at the bottom landing and a 12” (30 cm) horizontal extension at the top.

The ideal diameter of the bar is 1.25 to 2” (3 to 5 cm) for an easy and comfortable grip, and it must be at least 1.5” (3.8 cm) away from the wall.

4. Provide an Accessible Elevator

One- or two-story buildings with less than 3,000 sq ft (278.7 sq. m.) per floor are not required to have an elevator.

This exemption, however, does not apply to:

  • Two-story health centers
  • Transport stations
  • Airport terminals
  • Shopping centers or malls with more than five stores

Public buildings with at least three stories and an area of over 3,000 sq ft (278.7 sq. m.) on any floor must install an elevator. Here are some guidelines for the features of an ADA-compliant elevator.

Door and Car Dimensions

Elevators must have an opening of 36” (91.4 cm) wide and the car must be 80” wide (203 cm) with a depth of at least 51” (129.5 cm) to accommodate a person on a wheelchair and allow a 360-degree angle turn.

Doors must also have at least a 3-second waiting time before closing.

In addition, they must have a reopening device that will allow them to automatically reopen in case of an obstruction, without contact to the object or person obstructing the entry.

The device must detect obstructions at two points: 5” and 29” (12.7 cm and 73.7 cm) from the floor. It must also stay active for at least 20 seconds before closing the doors.

People with visual impairment or locomotor limitations can benefit from this time delay.

The horizontal gap between the hoistway and the elevator car must not exceed 1.25” (3 cm), with an acceptable vertical gap of 0.5” (1.27 cm). These measurements will help prevent crutches and canes from getting trapped between gaps, posing risks for people with disabilities.


Buttons outside the elevator, called hall buttons, must be 42” (106.7 cm) above the floor. If there are up and down buttons, the midpoint between the two must be the basis for the measurement.

Each button must be at least 0.75” (2 cm) wide with Braille designation. It must display visual response signals when pressed. The signal must reflect on the hall lantern, at least 2.5” (6.4 cm) in dimension, 72” (183 cm) above the floor.

Audio signals must also be available 60” (152.4 cm) above the floor on the hoistway, with one beep or ding denoting going down, while two denotes going up.

Verbal instruction may also be used instead of bell sounds.

Control Panels

Elevators with center-opening doors must have a control panel on either side of the door, while those with a side-opening door must have a control panel on the side where the door retracts or the adjacent wall where the door opens.

To help people on wheelchairs access the control panel, the top buttons must be below 54” (137 cm) for side panels or 48” (122 cm) for front panels.

The alarm and stop buttons must be at the bottom, ideally 35” (89 cm) from the floor.

In case of total lack of vision, individuals with visual impairment may benefit from a car control panel inside the elevator with Braille characters alongside the buttons and embossed or engraved Arabic characters and symbols.

The control panel must also have two-way communication features such as a screen and a speaker for people with visual, speech, or auditory impairment. They are very handy in case of emergency power outages or mechanical troubles inside the elevator.

Speech impairment may be caused by a neurological disorder causing an inability to relay thoughts into words. Or it could be a motor function disorder limiting the movement of speech-producing organs and body parts, such as the vocal cords and the muscles of the face and mouth.

Deafness comes in different levels for different people. Some people totally lack the physical ability to hear due to congenital problems that persisted into adulthood.

In contrast, others need to use a hearing aid to amplify the sounds they hear.

Not all people with hearing impairment also have a speech impairment. Only those who were born deaf did not learn how to produce sounds due to lack of hearing ability, thus becoming mute.

As a result, they need to use sign language to communicate, and elevators in an accessible building must provide them with such means.


Visually impaired individuals suffer from varying degrees of blindness ranging from total lack of vision to needing handy materials or equipment, such as corrective eyeglasses or bright lights, to help them see a little more clearly.

Therefore, the sill, the control panel, and the platform must have at least 5’ candles (53.8 lux) of illumination.

5. Build a Bathroom with Accessible Features

Each floor of a multi-story building must have an accessible bathroom and the entrance to it must display the international symbol for accessibility. The sign must be 48 to 60” (122 to 152 cm) above the floor on the latch side of the door, with the Braille markings at the bottom of the raised sign plate.

Gender-specific symbols that follow international standards can help people with intellectual disabilities understand which room to enter.

It can help prevent confusion and make the individual feel comfortable with a familiar image.

Intellectual disabilities or mental illness may limit a person’s ability to understand, remember, or react accordingly to certain situations. They may not be able to focus on reading or listening to instructions, but they find it easy to remember symbols, colors, or shapes.

People with developmental or genetic intellectual disability, such as autism spectrum disorder or trisomy of Chromosome 21 (Down’s Syndrome) may have a short attention span and easily get distracted.

However, in many cases, they do pay attention to details.

In addition, bathrooms must be located next to an accessible entrance. If possible, single-use or family toilets must be available for people in wheelchairs. Let’s now talk about the features and dimensions of an accessible toilet.

Grab Bars

Grab bars or handrails must have smooth, continuous surfaces with rounded edges similar to stairway handrails. They must project 1.5” (3.8 cm) away from the wall, and 33-36” (84 to 91.4 cm) above the floor.

The side grab bar must start 12” (30.5 cm) from the back wall and be 42” (106.7 cm) long. The rear grab bar must be 12” (30.5 cm) long from the plumbing to the wall side, and 24” (61 cm) from the plumbing to the open side.

Toilet Roll Dispenser

The toilet roll dispenser must be located at least 12” (30.5 cm) above or 1.5” (3.8 cm) below the side grab bar, with its midline 7-9 inches (18-23 cm) away from the front edge of the toilet seat. This location helps ensure that the dispenser is within arms’ reach and does not hinder the user’s movements and grip on the grab bars.


The entrance to the accessible bathroom must be 36” (91.4 cm) wide. Push open doors must rest against the wall on a full swing (90-degree angle). There must be a 60” (152.5 cm) distance between the wall and the front edge of the toilet bowl.

On the other hand, there must be a 24” (61 cm) distance from the side edge of the open area of the bowl to the latch side of the door jamb, making up a total of at least 60” (152.5 cm) of open space from the bowl to the sidewall.

The 60 X 60 open space will allow enough turning space for people in wheelchairs. Meanwhile, for pulling open doors, an open area of 48” x 48” (122 cm x 122 cm) is enough.

Toilet Bowl

The seat of the toilet bowl for adults must be 17-19” (43 – 48 cm) from the floor, with the flush knob or lever at most 36” (91.4 cm) above the floor. This allows those with movement difficulties to be able to reach the toilet without too much difficulty.


The top of the sink must be at most 34” (86.4 cm) from the ground, with the depth from the wall to the front end between 17 and 25” (43 and 63.5 cm). The plumbing must be exposed to allow some clearance for the user’s knees and feet.

There must be a 36” (91.4 cm) lateral space and a 48” (122 cm) clearance from the wall forward for a person in a wheelchair to use the sink comfortably.

Bathrooms for Children

Children’s toilet seats can be 11-17” (28 – 43 cm) above the floor, while the grab bars are 18-27” (45.7 – 68.6 cm) from the floor. The recommended height for the toilet roll dispenser is 14-19” (35.6 – 48.3 cm).

6. Ensure a Safe Floor Surface

Materials such as concrete, tiles, and asphalt provide sufficient grip for wheelchairs and shoes, which make them safe for people with visual and locomotor impairments.

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) require floor surfaces to be:

  • Firm
  • Stable
  • Slip-resistant

Carpeted surfaces are allowed inside buildings, but they must have beveled edges and a maximum of 0.5” (1.27 cm) in height. The transition from carpet to tile must not exceed 0.25” (0.64 cm) fall.

They must also be attached firmly to the floor and resist wrinkling or folding against the wheels of a wheelchair. The presence of such wrinkles or bumps can pose a risk for people on wheelchairs and individuals with visual impairment.

Horizontal gaps between tiles or grates must not exceed 0.5” (1.27 cm) to allow slip resistance and minimize uncomfortable vibration for wheelchair users. The bottom of crutches, walkers, and canes won’t get stuck into such gaps, either.

Final Thoughts

Most countries in the world participate actively in initiatives to create a more inclusive society.

With a heightened awareness for mental health issues and local rules calling for consideration for the needs of people with disabilities, the world is shifting towards a more open and just community. In the US, there is the ADAAG, which guarantees that.

The ADAAG has set more compliance requirements for new buildings but many factors need to be considered, such as:

  • The type of building (residential, public, healthcare, transport)
  • Number of stories
  • The feasibility of creating accessible facilities based on the area’s land features.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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