Braille for your Feet: A New World for Blind and Visually Impaired

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New ADA design standards featuring Â?Universal DesignÂ? allowed user groups with conflicting needs to come to a Â?compromiseÂ? solution on detectable warnings. These new standards eliminate earlier lack of continuity in installed systems.

Since 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created far reaching, new compliance problems for designers and implementers nationwide. Thanks to the vague way some of the guidelines were written, the confusion that has reigned in every state has been unending, even as forthcoming new revisions attempt to clarify old concerns.

Every architect, public works director or commercial real estate owner has bemoaned these quatrains, yet all of us have no choice but to work within them. One of the more vexing issues has been that of “detectable warnings” or truncated domes. These of course are the small rounded textures that go on ramps and pedestrian access points to benefit blind and visually impaired persons or basically “Braille for your feet."

Jon Julnes of Vanguard ADA Systems of America, a nationwide manufacturer of detectable warnings and provider of approved details and specs says “these are for all practical purposes, STOP signs for those with low vision or blindness. Continuity in design, shape and texture is vital for these folks”.

The early 1991 ADAAG required that detectable warnings be placed the “full width and depth of the ramp”. Due to retail building owners (think “shopping carts”) and user complaints (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.), the requirement for detectable warnings was suspended in the mid 90’s for study.

A great number of people were under the mistaken impression that the mandate had been deleted, when in fact, it had only been suspended such that discussion could take place among persons most affected ultimately determining a solution that met the needs of everyone.

Blind people knew this new surface texture had already saved untold thousands of lives all over the world, including here in the United States at transit platform edges and the like, but the vibratory issues that followed “full width and depth” were troublesome for those in wheelchairs. Being in such mobility devices for extended periods of time can cause atrophy of musculature, and by virtue, even minor vibration could cause spasms and loss of control for some users.

Clearly a new design standard had to be determined that met the needs of all parties, and by July 26, 2001, the committed parties compromised, agreed to new standards and the suspension was lifted making the requirement for detectable warnings renewed on all public ramps and vehicular/pedestrian access points.

So, the question was no longer “are detectable warnings required?” but rather, “what are the approved shape, size and dimensions to properly install detectable warnings in all cases?”

The majority of states adopted the PROWAAC design criterion (2 foot deep by width of ramp), a very small faction retained the original mandate of full width and depth, while still others have adopted a 3 foot depth by width of ramp.

If it’s true that detectable warnings are tactile STOP signs, then it’s clear they need to look and act like every other Braille sign in existence, that is, they need to have the same textural message, and mean the same thing whether the person accessing them is in Detroit, Miami or Tokyo. Continuity is clearly the key. Universal design is the solution.

Again Julnes states, “If a red octagonal sign in Spain says ‘ALTO’, while still another in France says ‘ARRET’, thanks to ‘Universal Design’ no one needs to speak the language, we all easily know it means to stop."

Considering the March 2003 document from the Federal Access Board which states; “The Board believes that the specifications for detectable warnings in the draft rights-of-way guidelines provide a level of access substantially equal to or greater than that currently specified by ADAAG” it becomes clear, the 2 foot standard allows form to follow function, and at lower cost while insuring Universal Design.

Whether on public right of ways or for the current mandate for detectable warnings on ramps and pedestrian/vehicular way access points on private commercial properties, finally there is clarity as to design standards for these important additions to our communities.

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