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How to Add a Ramp for Wheelchair Access

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ADA Guidelines for handicapped access

With Baby Boomers reaching retirement age and over 1.9 million Americans living in the over 13,000 nursing homes, having access to your home and being able to come and go freely has never been more important.

The ramp that was one of the six simple machines taught in school science classes, has become a common, and often legally required, exterior feature of many buildings. At home a ramp can provide convenient access for wheelchair-bound residents and others with mobility difficulties.

The appearance of the ramp can sometimes outweigh their utilitarian function especially where they are situated. Decisions such as color, baluster style and post tops are both aesthetic and functional. Architects can choose a long straight ramp, a switchback arrangement, or wraparound layout in which the ramp hugs the building’s exterior. Landscaping is an important design element which can mitigate any visual problems homeowners may have with the ramp.

Specifications for access ramps may vary slightly, depending on whether the wheelchair is pushed or powered; whether crutches, walkers or other aids will be used; and whether abilities are likely to change. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines recommend that ramps have clear widths of at least 36 in. with no tilt and slopes not exceeding 1:12. This means that the slope of the ramp can only increase or decrease 1 inch in elevation for every 12 inches in length or run. This works out to an angle of a little over 8 degrees. Typically slopes of 1 inch in 20 are more acceptable. Depending on how much property you have, how high the finish floor (FF) of the home is will depend on what configuration your ramp will have. If the sill of your front door is 18 inches above grade, then you will need 30 feet of ramp to access it with a 1 in 20 slope. To figure out, multiply the distance the finish is above grade by the slope you want, in this case 20. This will give your 360 inches, divide by 12 to convert that to feet and you get 30 feet (18 x 20)/12 = 30. For a 1:12 slope you would only need 18 feet. (18 x 12)/12 = 18.

A small difference in slope you select can mean a significant change in the length of a ramp. The visual impact of a long ramp can be reduced by changes of direction at landings. ADAAG recommends that landings measure at least 5 ft. in each direction, or 5 feet by 6 ½ feet for a smooth U-turn.

Ramps may be constructed out of concrete or wood. Concrete construction would be similar to sidewalks, with the notable addition of side supporting walls to carry the weight of the concrete slab and pedestrian traffic. Although concrete would support heavy traffic and have a longer useful life, the cost is substantially higher than that of wood access ramps. For this reason, wood is the most frequently used material for residential ramps; however, some designs may combine concrete sloped sidewalks up to a point and then change over to an all-wood structure.

The construction of an access ramp is similar to that of wood decks. Special consideration should be placed on the decking material itself. If the decking is too smooth or too rough, it could hinder access from owners who used walkers or wheelchairs. People who live in colder regions of the country should make sure that the ramp can be easily cleared of snow and ice. Wood decking should be attached using galvanized or stainless steel deck screws and all the structural wood should be treated. The decking can be any rot resistant wood such as cedar, redwood, ipe, or composite material.

Construction Guidelines

Slope and Rise

As stated before, the maximum slope in is 1:12, (every inch of rise will require one foot of run). Example: A step that is 6" high would require a ramp 6' long. The maximum rise for any run is 30". The slope should be as small as possible to make the access easy for the homeowner.

Clear Width

The minimum clear width of a ramp is 36" between railings, but a width of 40 inches is preferable.

Landings

Level landings are required at the top and bottom of each run. This allows the user to open and close the door in a wheelchair while not on an incline.

If the run is over 30' long, you'll need a level landing 5' long and as wide as the ramp. For an L shaped turn, a 5' x 5' landing is required. For a switch back turn, 5' x 8' is minimum.

Handicap Handrails

If a wheelchair ramp has a rise greater than 6", or a horizontal run greater than 72", it requires handrails on both sides. A 12" extension is required but can not project into another path of travel.

Edge Protection

Ramps and landings with a drop off require edge protection to prevent people and wheelchairs from slipping off. This can be accomplished with curbs that must be a minimum of 2 in. in height. You can also install the protection using the lower rail of a hand rail.

Slip Resistance

Slippery surfaces can be a real problem, especially for the elderly. Concrete is easy, a rough broom finish. Wood can be very slippery when wet and will create a hazard and potential liabilities. Wood ramps have not been clearly addressed by TAS or the ADA. Possible solutions include sand grit strips and additives to paint. You can also add 36" wide asphalt, rolled roofing.

Aluminum Wheelchair Ramps

Aluminum ramps are strong, durable and weather resistant, and are a great alternative to provide quality and functional assess to many areas. Aluminum ramps require minimal maintenance and will last a lifetime.

Always use a qualified contractor if you are not confident you can do the work yourself. Check with your building department to determine if you require a permit for the work, which most likely is the case. Don’t cut corners, safety is always the most important criteria for you, your family, and guests.

Resources

ADA Accessibility Guidelines – www.access-board.gov

Center for Universal Design – www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/

The Home Ramp Project – www.mcil-mn.org

Ramp Construction Components

http://www.adaptiveaccess.com/index.php

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Daniel Snyder

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