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Hands-On ADA Signage

For ARA retailers and suppliers, the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act can make ADA signage a cash cow or a big headache. You can ensure it becomes a profit center for your company by doing plenty of research in advance to be certain you have the knowledge and capabilities required—or having a supplier who can do all that heavy lifting for you. Recognition Review can give you the basics to make a decision about whether this market is right for you.

Hands-On ADA Signage:

Requirements Are Intricate, But Tactile Signs Are a Profitable Market

By Julie Rogers

(Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Recognition Review.)

For ARA retailers and suppliers, the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act can make ADA signage a cash cow or a big headache. You can ensure it becomes a profit center for your company by doing plenty of research in advance to be certain you have the knowledge and capabilities required—or having a supplier who can do all that heavy lifting for you. Recognition Review can give you the basics to make a decision about whether this market is right for you.

Passed in 1990, the ADA took effect in 1992 to protect people with disabilities by prohibiting discrimination against them. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s “ADA Guide for Small Business” explains it well: “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities, such as buying an item at the store, watching a movie in a theater, enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, exercising at the local health club, or having the car serviced at a local garage.”

The law mandates signage that can be read by the visually impaired through a lengthy list of requirements. This signage can be referred to as ADA-compliant signage—or tactile signs, especially outside of the U.S. where ADA rules don’t apply.

That act has been very lucrative for the sign market and beneficial for society as well,” said Jimmy DuBose, sales and customer service manager at Xenetech Global.The ARA supplier sells the rotary and laser engravers and other tools used to create ADA signage. DuBose is an ADA signage pioneer. Before his career at Xenetech, DuBose began producing the signage at a Houston, TX–based sign company when the ADA took effect in 1992. He has taught ADA signage classes through ARA and presented on ADA signage during an In-Booth Education session at the 2014 ARA International Awards Market. 

The ADA mandates equal opportunity in employment, governmental services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation—a vast market. Different facilities, including private businesses, may face different ADA standards and a client may have to come back to you when the standards are revised or when their building is remodeled. Remodeling can render old wayfinding signs useless, call for a new look for signage, and make the building have to comply with stricter ADA standards. Many recognition retailers have the tools to create ADA signage, but the federal guidelines aren’t easy reading, and individual states and communities can have additional laws. California, for example, has exceptionally strict ADA requirements that are vigorously enforced. 

There aren’t ADA police trolling buildings to measure character distance for compliance, though local and federal building inspectors can do so. In general, enforcement occurs when private citizens notice violations and file lawsuits. From 2005 through 2013, more than 16,000 lawsuits alleging ADA violations were filed in federal courts. California sees many ADA compliance lawsuits, due in part to laws that virtually guarantee defendants with disabilities at least $4,000 in ADA violation cases despite a bill that took effect in January to limit some of this litigiousness.Though it is unlikely a sign maker would be on the hook for monetary damages, you don’t want your work to discriminate against people with disabilities or to put your customers at risk for lawsuits. 

ldquo;Braille is pretty easy to do, after some experience; it will become a welcome job and be very profitable,” said Fred Schwartz of ARA supplier Quality One Engraving. He should know. Schwartz, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, chose engraving for his career and has been a staple of the industry for 30 years. He and his shop are a great resource not just for engraving products and education but also for troubleshooting machinery. Schwartz has presented seminars throughout the country and recently demonstrated the creation of ADA signage at the 2014 ARA International Awards Market. 

Signage Guidelines

Federal ADA signage rules can be accessed on the ADA website. It mandates character proportions, height, and depth; pictogram requirements and sizes; and nonglare finish and a high contrast between the lettering and background colors. Further rules govern mounting location and height, symbols of accessibility (the pictogram of a figure using a wheelchair), and signage for elevators, phones, and more. Other ARA members are creating ADA signage under the same constraints and are happy to offer their assistance.ADA questions are answered on ARA’s Member2Member Forum and many supplier members offer formal and informal education on this topic. When you profit from ADA signage, so do the companies that supply your equipment, materials, or finished signage. It is in everyone’s best interest for these companies to help you become a success.There are two ways to do that—outsource the work completely or bring it in-house with help from equipment and product suppliers. 


ARA member Gemini International is among suppliers offering completed ADA signage. Anyone can get cheap, generic ADA signs from office supply companies; Gemini sets themselves apart by offering solid metal ADA and wayfinding plaques and panels. ADA requirements, the company emphasizes, don’t mean that signage shouldn’t look good. 

Made from a single piece of metal, Gemini’s ADA/wayfinding plaques won’t chip, crack, or lose Braille or lettering.Gemini’s patent-pending process doesn’t use loose beads for the Braille or use noncompliant castings. The company can add full-color images to the background, placing the image where it won’t interfere with lettering contrast. 

“Researching the ADA guidelines can be tedious and confusing. Gemini will do all the translating and make sure all guidelines are met,” said Tania Anderson, plaque sales supervisor at Gemini. “The best part is Gemini will ship standard ADA plaques in 6 days or less.” 

If outsourcing ADA signage can be fast and easy, why would anyone bring the service in-house? Doing it yourself may give you more control over the final product and the price; also, some jobs will involve trying to match an existing sign, which could be hard to do through a third party. 

To create the physical signs in-house, you’ll need signage materials, a rotary engraving system, Grade 2 Braille translating software, and a method to create the raised Braille. 

To design the sign, you’ll want software that specializes in ADA compliance. Doing it manually is time-consuming and frustrating, plus, you’ll have to hope you’ve done it right instead of knowing you have. Some engravers and package deals come with this software. Ask your suppliers. 

Signage Materials

When it comes to signage materials, Rowmark is a top name. “Rowmark does not claim to be an ADA signage expert, and we do not compete with sign makers for jobs,” said Jessica Heldman-Beck, marketing manager at the ARA supplier. “Instead, Rowmark inspires sign makers to visualize their projects to completion with a complete selection of sign-making materials and complementary products, including sign frames and stand-offs, to add functionality and visual appeal.” 

The ADA mandates a matte finish and contrasting lettering- and-background colors for signage. Rowmark has created product lines to fit these needs and provides charts of suggested contrasting colors as a guide. Rowmark always recommends consulting regulations in your municipality to ensure ADA compliance. 

"Over the years, Rowmark has been very responsive to market demands for new substrates suited for ADA and tactile sign making. We have introduced a variety of ADAcompliant product lines to appeal to ADA sign makers and fabricators, including industry staples like our ADA Alternative® Appliqué and Substrate and Ultra-Mattes Reverse and trendy new products like our ColorHues line of vibrantly tinted translucent matte acrylics,” Heldman- Beck said. The company works with Color Marketing Group (CMG) designers to add new colors all the time. 

Rowmark’s Ultra-Mattes Reverse is the first choice for DuBose, of Xenetech Global, when he is creating ADA signage. It meets ADA standards and can be reverse engraved. “If you have to do artwork, a border, something like that, you can reverse engrave it and paint it and you still have the (compliant) flat surface on the front,” DuBose explained.“It’s easy to use, and there are enough color options that you can satisfy your customer.” 

There is even an ADA-compliant version of LaserGlow, the company’s photoluminescent sign-making acrylic. LaserGlow absorbs energy when lights are on and glows when an area is darkened, for illuminated signs without electricity that last for decades. That means safety and egress signage will be useful to people with and without disabilities in the event of an emergency. 

“ADA signage has come a long way from its origins as being very utilitarian. Designers and sign makers alike now incorporate ADA-compliant signage as part of their larger signage vision,” Heldman-Beck said. “Customers can decorate ADA-compliant materials through digital printing, custom painting, and full-color sublimation. There are now so many different colors and substrates that can be used to create ADA-compliant signage, and this has opened the door to endless creative possibilities.” 

Helping you get there are resources from Rowmark, like the ADA color contrast chart; ADA signage in the Sign Kit Files with PDFs, JPGs, and CorelDRAW files; and a Working with ADA & Making an ADA Sign guide. All of these resources are linked to Rowmark’s ADA Alternative® Substrate & Applique page

Plastics aren’t the only option for ADA signage substrates, but they are one of the easiest materials to work with and make compliant. The various colors of acrylic engravable sheet materials make it easy to color match décor or existing signage. Metal, for instance, won’t be compliant if it’s reflective and may not provide enough contrast even if the lettering is done in black. You also wouldn’t have the option to route out any part of the sign with metal. 

Engraving Systems 

There are a few ways to create the tactile lettering required for ADA signage. “The applique is the easiest, and it works for most applications,” Xenetech’s DuBose said. You apply the appliqué (a 1/32-in. Thick acrylic with a sticky back) to your signage substrate and can have your laser cut through both layers to create the right size sign, and through the appliqué alone to create the raised lettering. You can raise the pictogram, but this is not required by the ADA. When you weed the appliqué, you leave behind the letters raised to a compliant height. 

It is more time-consuming to cut the appliqué with a rotary engraver after the base is cut, because debris can get stuck in the appliqué adhesive. “The advantage of cutting the appliqué on the laser instead of the rotary is much less cleanup,” DuBose explained. 

An alternative to the appliqué method is to route the base material to the exact depth required for the lettering. Experts don’t recommend it. “The routed method is very time consuming, looks just so-so, and makes it tough to get the right depth/fill pattern,” warned Schwartz of Quality One Engraving. "Very often when material is routed into, there is a significant color and texture change." 

Creating ADA signage is slower without a laser engraver, but it's nearly impossible without a rotary engraver. 

"From an equipment standpoint, to do Braille, you have to have a rotary system. It's helpful if you have laser system as well," DuBose said. "If you have a rotary system (only), build the demand and keep in mind that if you do a lot, the laser would help out a lot. It will increase how quickly you produce the signs because you won't have as much cleaning when the sign is produced." 

Raised Braille

"The Braille process needs to be done on the rotary, not the laser," Dubose said. 

Rotary engravers or routers are used for one of the most popular Braille methods, the Raster® Braille System. With the Raster® system, patented by and licensed through former ARA member Accent Signage Systems, you use a rotary engraver to drill holes that accept the tiny Raster® beads. When placed properly, the bead sticks out .017–.022 in. From the surface of the sign, providing the rounded Braille required by the ADA. 

The Raster® method largely replaced other processes, including routing, screenprinting, and using a photopolymer. 

To route the Braille, you use a rotary engraver or router to remove parts of the base plate, leaving the raised dots. Some dismiss this method, saying the results aren't rounded dots, a violation of ARA rules. DuBose said the method can provide the rounded ADA-compliant dots if you use the right tools and cut deep enough. "You have to get the correct router for the cutout," DuBose said. "If you get the correct tool, it'll be domed." He warns that "the correct tool" isn't the same for every machine. You need to talk to your engraver's manufacturer or a very knowledgeable provider to be certain the tool will provide domed dots when used with your specific system. 

The other mistake DuBose sees in routing the Braille is depth. "If you don't go deep enough, the surface of the dome will be flat instead of rounding," he said. "You have to have the proper cutter and proper depth." 

Silkscreening Braille limits material choices and though using a photopolymer is "quick once artwork is produced, it requires expensive equipment and may not meet ADA requirements for domed dots," Schwartz said. Using a photo polymer is sort of like a chemical version of routing. The photopolymer hardens when exposed to specific wavelengths of light; parts that were deliberately not exposed are removed. 

"The type of signage you create with engravers is more durable than the photopolymer process. These are the kinds of signs you see in Office Depot. It's typically one color and they paint the contrasting color on the raised bits. The Braille is usually flat, noncompliant, and not durable," DuBose said. "It can get crumbly in sunlight because it continues to expose. If it gets indirect sunlight, it's not going to last." 

That's why "the Raster® method is by far the most popular at this point," DuBose said. 

Schwartz also uses it and says the software for many companies' rotary engraving systems- including Vision Engraving, Gravograph, and Xenetech Global-allows for the drilling of the correct-depth hole that accepts the round bead. Some engraving systems have optional automation of the Raster® process for faster, consistent placement. 

At Quality One Engraving, Schwartz sells "many tools for the industry but especially for the Braille signage," including ones he has created himself. "We manufacture the Grava Drill (a cutter with a mini-collet to hold a drill bit) and tooling/fixturing to allow semi- and auto-Braille insertions. Tools we supply include drills, depth gauge, beads, Raster® pens, and cutters.” 

No matter what method you use to create the raised dots, you’ll first need to translate your sign into Braille. The ADA mandates the use of Grade 2 Braille, also known as English Braille. Like American Sign Language, Grade 2 Braille is not a letter-by-letter or word-by-word translation of spoken or written English. That means you can’t use an English-character-to-Braille-character chart, for instance. Further, spacing affects meaning, so it is vital that you use reliable software to translate the message and that you do not make changes to the translation unless you are fluent in Braille.Some rotary engraving companies sell ADA packages that include a trustworthy Grade 2 Braille translator. If you are creating tactile signs that will be used outside of the U.S., you’ll need to learn what Braille is used. 

Raster® Braille licensees pay Accent for permission to use the method and for the Raster® pen, spheres, ADA signage guide, and other materials and tools. Business owners who don’t do enough ADA work to justify a Raster® license can outsource ADA sign work or try a new technology, such as UV-LED printing. 

UV-LED Printing

If you’re already saying that there has to be an easier way, you’re right. ARA supplier Direct Color Systems has a patent- pending method for creating ADA-compliant signage that’s nearly as easy as typing and hitting the print button. 

Normally, you’d have to complete the sign in multiple steps with multiple pieces of equipment. That’s not the case with DCS’s printers and ADA module. The UV-LED printer not only prints ADA compliant colors but also the raised elements, including Braille, pictograms, and lettering. “We’re talking about a complete sign from beginning to end,” said Matt Sands, software development analyst and technical sales for Direct Color Systems. 

“We offer Color Byte RIP 9.1. That’s our propriety software,” Sands said. “That comes with a RIP for interacting with a printer, but also a front-end design portion similar to CorelDRAW. Some users will already have their designs, whether in Illustrator or Corel, and will bring them into the front end. But what we have in our software is a complete ADA module.” 

DCS’s customers have embraced the new module. One DCS customer even purchased multiple printers to allow the business to more efficiently handle a large order of ADA signage for a hotel. Imagine doing that work with multiple steps and bead placement. 

Even with a single UV-LED printer from DCS, the time to print a sign is impressive. A 6-in.-by-8-in. men’s room sign with a raised pictogram, Braille, and a printed background prints in 4 minutes and 45 seconds. Without a background, the time is reduced to 3 minutes and 40 seconds. The time for other signs depends on the ADA-compliant pictograms, which are chosen from a library that comes with the software. 

With a UV-LED printer, a noncompliant substrate can be turned into an ADA-compliant one. ADA regulations mandate a matte finish and contrasting colors. “We have a glossy white metal in stock. If I put a pictogram and text, it would not be compliant,” Sands explained, “but I can print a nice matte color and use that piece of material.” That means you could use a substrate you had on hand to print a sign instead of ordering an ADA-compliant substrate and waiting for a delivery. 

DCS sells metal and acrylic ADA-compliant substrates to make them truly a one-stop shop, but customers can use substrates from other providers, such as Rowmark, with no problems. 

The printers can be used even if users have to match the look of existing ADA signage created with other methods including appliqués, routing, and Raster® beads. “For most of the companies, we can mimic those processes,” Sands said. “It really is a one-stop solution for it.” 

Though this capability is relatively new, it has been built on a strong foundation, leaving no doubts about its trustworthiness. The basis for the software has “been used on these routers and engravers for the past 10 years. We’re using the same setup in a different way,” Sands said. The software allows for translation into Braille Grades 1 and 2, English, Spanish, and French. 

ADA mandates the use of Grade 2 Braille, so why would a new product allow for Grade 1? The United States certainly is not the only country that posts signage that doesn’t discriminate against people with disabilities. Because the ADA is a United States law, different mandates apply to signage internationally. DCS’s ADA module allows editing for international customers. Sands, who is well versed not only on his company’s products and software, but also on ADA rules, knows offhand what type of changes have to be made for this signage in Australia, for instance. 

For U.S. jobs, the software makes Braille easy. “If you start typing, it’s going to translate,” Sands said. 

The software takes care of translation, letter spacing, and more. The user still needs to design the sign, but that’s true of every method of creating ADA signage.“Other than that, there’s essentially no setup time (with DCS’s printers.). It’s laying your part on the table and hitting print. The setup time is really where we save a lot of time and a lot of cost,” Sands said. 

DCS’s two newest printers can produce ADA signage.“Hardware changes are not required to these printer models to produce ADA signage. All they are doing is adding an ADA module to the front-end software,” Sands said. “They can still do everything normal printers do.” Keep in mind that for DCS’s UV-LED printers, “normal” includes printing on various substrates and printing raised textures that allows people to feel a printed image. The Braille is printed in a manner similar to the texture technology, except more layers are printed to create higher raised dots.

DCS offers webinars on creating ADA signage with UV-LED printers. Visit the DCS website for more information.

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