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Think You’re Ready to Create ADA Signage?

“Twenty years ago, when we first started selling ADA signs, there were not many options. Today, the ability to offer full color, standoffs, and special shapes is changing the way ADA signs are produced,” said Jim Robert, CRS, owner of Plastic Engraving Inc., in Gulf Breeze, FL. “ADA signage can be a moneymaker.”

Think You’re Ready to Create ADA Signage?

Retailers Share Their Methods, Best Practices, and Challenges

By Julie Rogers

“Twenty years ago, when we first started selling ADA signs, there were not many options. Today, the ability to offer full color, standoffs, and special shapes is changing the way ADA signs are produced,” said Jim Robert, CRS, owner of Plastic Engraving Inc., in Gulf Breeze, FL. “ADA signage can be a moneymaker.”

As the creativity and skill of personalization intersect with the rules and regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), more retailers are examining ADA-compliant signage to see if it could become a profit powerhouse for their businesses.

It has for Zona Hudkins of Zona’s Engraved Creations Inc. in Topeka, KS. ADA signage accounts for 20% to 35% of her business each year from 2012 to 2016. Virtually all of it is custom and, recently, much of that business has come from schools.

Lisa R. Higginbotham, CRS, president and founder of 5Star Awards Inc. in Cary, NC, recently added ADA signage to her product lineup. She researched the idea and found that it made sense to further diversify her product offerings.

“I am always looking to offer something my immediate competitors do not. I deal with several sign shop customers who have very limited options to get ADA signage produced for their clients,” Higginbotham said. “I can produce it wholesale for them, locally, and we both make money.”

Zona Hudkins displays ADA signage in her Kansas showroom. The red sign with the Viking (near her right elbow) “started it all” when it came to custom Raster braille signs. The ones featuring a cardinal and a paw print were created for elementary schools, and the Room of Splendor sign was just completed for a rescue mission. The judge sign shows off Hudkin’s work with complex signs, featuring “a heck of a lot of Braille.” The blue sign with the dangler is one she created for a nursing home; the nursing home needed to be able to easily change the residents’ names without having to redo the braille numbering each time, so Hudkins came up with the hanging piece that can be swapped out for new residents.

Popular Methods

Also called “tactile signage”—especially outside of the United States—ADA-compliant signs must include braille. There are a handful of ways to accomplish this.

  • Placing a film negative on a photopolymer sheet and exposing it to UV light.
  • Routing out the substrate with a rotary engraver to leave behind raised dots. Robert, who began offering ADA signage in 1999, uses a Dahlgren Wizzard 2000 to create routed-out braille. If a customer needs or wants a different look, he can outsource to a company that has a license to create braille using Raster® beads.
  • Installing Raster beads with a special tool. Hudkins used the routed-out method when she began creating braille signage in November 1996, but she switched to the Raster bead system—acquiring a license from Accent Signage—in 2000. Some users say the Raster method is easier or that it produces more attractive signage. Hudkins switched after a blind coworker from a previous job had difficulty reading routed-out signs. “She could read it, but it was difficult for her to get her fingers in there,” she said. The coworker said, “I so prefer this” when she read a sign Hudkins had created with Raster beads.
  • Printing the braille in layers directly on the substrate using a UV-LED printer. When adding this new product, Higginbotham decided to purchase a Direct Color Systems 1024UVMVP6 UV-LED printer. “This has been in my sights for a couple years, and I have been doing my homework and trying to learn as much as possible prior to pressing the start button. It is not just about the ADA but what other things can I do with the equipment,” she said. “This is our first consistent foray into the UV space, and we are loving it.”

Seeking Customers

The method you choose may also depend on the target audience to which you’ll sell ADA signage. Options include:

  • Selling to existing customers. Robert’s ADA signage customers are existing customers to whom he provides signage as an add-on service. Using the routed method gives his customers a compliant ADA sign, but limits sales to customers that have or want signage made with Raster beads. He can still serve these customers, however, and does so by working with companies that produce Raster bead signage. The service is a convenience for the customers and protects Robert from losing business to a shop that actively markets signage services.
  • Partnering with other businesses. Higginbotham and Hudkins both partner with local sign shops, with the businesses sending each other customers for the services they don’t offer directly. “My goal is not to become a sign company but rather to be a resource for my sign shop clients. I don’t want to compete with them, and they appreciate that,” Higginbotham said. “When my customers ask for signage I refer them to my sign shop clients, who will do the design and the installation. Win!”
  • Building a base of new clients. This involves marketing your skills to the right people through many channels over years. Hudkins has done such a good job at this that ADA signage business now seeks her out. In addition to the local sign shop, her customers come to her through architects and contractors who have learned about her work on previous jobs.

“The architects come straight to me. Five years ago, a local architect was doing a school near me. They drew what they wanted the sign to look like and be ADA compliant, and it was cool. They asked me if there was any way it could be made. I wrote the specs for them,” Hudkins said. “Legally, jobs have to go for bids. I won the bid. Since then, that whole school district has redone every school. I have done one-three schools each year for this district with these cool signs.”

Because the district needed the signs to match, Hudkins didn’t have to bid on the rest of the school jobs. The contractors working on the schools, however, did. That has been a boon to Hudkins. Different contractors got the jobs, but were all told to go to Hudkins for signage. Now, they come back to her for signage at other jobs they work.

Her expertise also leads to increased jobs through the sign shop she works with. The sign shop referred a client to Hudkins when a new owner bought a 12-story bank and office building. She did a walk-through of the building to help them keep existing signage and add needed tactile signage. She went a step further, recommending both what they needed immediately for compliance and additional signage for maximum accessibility. They placed the immediate-compliance order with her and then built her suggestions into the budget for a second phase of signage she will create.

Creating Compliance

Some customers think they don’t need ADA-compliant signage because they don’t currently have people who are blind on the premises. That’s a misconception for a few reasons:

  • “People say, ‘We don’t have to have braille because we don’t have any blind employees,’ but you don’t know who you’re going to hire,” Hudkins reminds them.
  • The law is the law, and depending on the type of business your customer operates and its location, your client may need ADA-compliant signage to meet the law’s requirements and to avoid hefty fines and costly litigation.
  • People who are blind are not the only ones who benefit from ADA-compliant signage. “I encourage the raised lettering and pictograms and the required contrast,” Hudkins said. “At my previous job at a hospital, I worked with people who were visually impaired. They need that contrast to be able to see it. Pink on white? They can’t distinguish it. It doesn’t have to be people with disabilities. It can be an older person with cataracts. You want them to function in the world, and you’re putting blue on blue?”

When customers do acknowledge needing ADA signage, some ask for designs that aren’t compliant with the letter or spirit of the law, such as noncontrasting letters, a shiny background, or lowercase lettering. The retailer is put in a tough spot when a customer wants a braille sign that doesn’t comply with ADA requirements and won’t agree to changes.

In these situations, Hudkins stands her ground. “I will say, ‘That’s a beautiful color combo, but think of the people (with disabilities),’” she said. “I’ve worked with so many people who had disabilities that I understand why the laws are this way and I’m able to put myself in their shoes.”

There are two instances in which she has agreed to create noncompliant signage, but she took action to document the client’s decision to purchase noncompliant signage.“I told them it wasn’t legal by the code. They didn’t care,” she said. “Because I was matching (the existing signage) I did it, but I put on their invoice that it didn’t meet the law and had them sign it.”

This smart move could protect Hudkins if the customer is cited for noncompliant signage and tries to blame her.

The ADA requirements are voluminous, and the guidelines regarding signage seem so specific that it’s hard to imagine there’s any room for interpretation. But there is, and that can be a problem for retailers creating ADA signage.

The government won’t tell you exactly what is compliant, but signs that aren’t compliant could result in fines for the business owner displaying them. As a result, even the experts seek validation of their interpretation of the law.

The federal government does offer some help with interpretation, but there’s a catch. “You can call an 800 number—if you have 24 hours to stay on hold,” Hudkins joked.

Instead, she relies on industry friends Joe and Toni Hayes of Graphics Galore in Marion, IL. “We call each other a lot, saying ‘How do you interpret this?’ These laws require interpretation,” she said.

Hudkins would like an organization to create a certification for ADA signage that would require the certificant to pass a test before being allowed to use certain letters after his or her name to signify the mastery of the topic. This would likely require the signage industry to create materials that the government would have to agree to verify as correct and compliant before certifications could begin.

Education and Experience

Though Higginbotham is a newbie to ADA signage, she’s been a successful personalization retailer for years. As a Certified Recognition Specialist and chair of our association’s Education Committee, Higginbotham demonstrates her commitment to industry education. ADA signage was no exception. She did her research before jumping in, the importance of which is something Hudkins and Robert have emphasized.

“You do have to be educated about it,” Hudkins said.

Robert learned everything he could from “our suppliers’ information, education classes, and trade magazine,” he said—and “trial and error.”

“It’s only responsible business to do your homework before jumping in,” Higginbotham said.

As software becomes more robust, Hudkins worries that users may believe that all ADA-capable software will automatically produce ADA-compliant signage. That’s not always the case, she emphasizes.

“You can’t just design it in Corel, engrave, and think you’re legal. Where in Corel does it tell you? There are restrictions even to the height of the text. They might adjust it for the braille, but they are going to do whatever text height you enter. You still have to learn,” Hudkins said. “You better know how to type it in before you convert it to braille. Many type in a name in all caps because that’s how you engrave it, but that’s not how you do it in braille. I do a lot of work with the courthouse, and I understand when you have to cap it and when you don’t. You don’t just type the word and hit convert and it’s fine.”

Those fears were one of the reasons Higginbotham did so much research before deciding to offer ADA signage and purchasing a UV-LED printer.

“The equipment is expensive, and there is the learning curve and the consumables, as well as maintenance to consider. I weigh all of those when making any purchase for my business. Because of government regulations, ADA is even trickier, which is why the DCS system was such a positive for us,” Higginbotham said. “One of the selling points for me was that DCS’s braille package is very self-contained. I was worrying about creating text, then converting it to braille, or typing in braille using a font. The error opportunity for those methods seemed daunting to me. They have done all the homework on the fonts, the rules about spacing and it is all part of their newly patented package that accounts for the ADA specifications.”

This ADA sign was printed with a Direct Colors Systems UV-LED printer.

Until that magical day when every sign maker has to be certified and design software can prevent all ADA errors, Hudkins will be faced with noncompliant signs like one she recently saw.

At a historic building that had just been restored—an event that triggers the need for ADA-compliant signage—Hudkins “went to the restroom, saw the sign, and about had a heart attack.”

The bathroom signs weren’t even close to being compliant.

“The number one rule is that the pictogram has to be a 6-in. square with nothing else there. This sign had the pictogram, text, and braille in the 6-in. square,” she said. “I approached them about it. They replied, ‘Well, we bought it off the Internet, so it must be legal.’ That’s what I fight big time.”

Time to Hang It Up?

When you’re personalizing a gift or award, your role ends when the customer picks up the product. With signage, that’s not the case because there’s another step—installing the sign. Should you install the signs you create? Our experts have differing views.

Yes, hang it yourself: This is a money maker that benefits the client, too. “We offer installation, which can be very profitable,” Robert said. This benefits customers because the ADA mandates sign placement. A compliant sign isn’t compliant if the customer hangs it at the wrong height or the wrong side of a door.

Don’t hang it yourself: Higginbotham doesn’t install her signage, instead relying on her partner sign shops to work with the customers and handle duties like sign hanging.

Empower the customer: Hudkins offers mounting services, but customers tend to either want to save the mileage costs or to use their own maintenance departments to hang the sign. “I have a nice sheet I print and give them. It includes the mandated distance from the doorframe and floor,” Hudkins said. “You print the sheet and hand it to them.”

If you opt to install the signs, make sure your business insurance covers you. If you install or assist your customers in doing so, you also will need to know the best methods to use or share with your clients, as Hudkins does. For instance, she doesn’t use double-sided foam tape to mount signage because teens can stick their car keys between the wall and sign to pull it from the wall, a real risk at high schools.

“I always recommend that they use a silicone to push it to the wall and get a tight seal. On brick, it fills in the grooves. Use painter’s tape to hold the sign in place overnight,” she said. “Sometimes, I give customers a cartridge of silicone that I have tested and found to work well with signs I’ve made.”

This method also has an advantage when it’s time to remove the sign. “I have seen so much damage from people removing signs that had tape on them,” Hudkins said. When a sign is held to the wall with silicone, the customer can slide a taught line of dental floss between it and the wall to pull it cleanly off. So far, the vandals haven’t figured this one out—or don’t use dental floss.

Sometimes Crime Pays

Signage is vulnerable to vandals and thieves. Ask your customers if certain signs tend to be targeted and then make plans for creating duplicates. Hudkins makes three signs at a time for hotels’ honeymoon suites due to thefts, and Robert has had to replace a hotel’s sign for room 420 after it was stolen.

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