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4A. Universal Design and Accessibility For The Disabled

On this page:

A.1 Universal Design
A.2 General Accessibility Guidelines for Individuals with Disabilities
A.3 Application of the More Stringent of UFAS or ADAAG
A.4 Compliance Submittals
A.5 Technical Assistance

A.1 Universal Design

The concept of universal design is philosophical and embodies the principle that all environments and products be designed to be usable by people of all ages and abilities, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. Universal design includes several principles, of which accessibility for individuals with disabilities is one component. An example of a universal design feature would be to site and grade the building so that neither stairs nor ramps are necessary at entrances and exits.

Providing universal design features in a building does not necessarily mean that you have complied with the legal and regulatory accessibility criteria contained in the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). These ideas must not be used interchangeably.

Universal design principles should be applied to the planning and design of all NIH projects to the greatest extent practicable.

A good resource on this topic is The Center for Universal Design, which is a national research, information, and technical assistance center that evaluates, develops, and promotes universal design in public and commercial facilities, and related products. The Center has an extensive publications list including material on many aspects of universal design, including accessibility as well as slide shows and videotapes to supplement print resources.


A.2 General Accessibility Guidelines for Individuals with Disabilities

Providing NIH facilities that are accessible to individuals with disabilities is as critical a project goal as providing facilities that respond to scientific program needs or provide ease of maintenance, energy efficiency, or a pleasing aesthetic. The design team should place the same importance on designing for accessibility during the entire design process as for all other project elements. Accessibility features should be seamlessly incorporated into the design beginning with the early planning stages and not be developed as an afterthought when compromises often result.

A.2.1 Applicable Legislation: The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 required the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Postal Service, and General Services Administration (GSA) to prescribe standards for the design, construction, and alteration of facilities to ensure that all facilities are readily accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires program access and reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities and is closer in spirit to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a civil rights law. The GSA prescribes standards for all buildings subject to the Architectural Barriers Act that are not covered by standards issued by the other three standard-setting agencies. GSA is the standard-setting agency for the NIH.

Congress established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board) under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to set minimum guidelines and requirements for uniform Federal standards and to ensure compliance with the standards set by the four standard-setting agencies. The Access Board Guidelines were implemented under 36 CFR Part 1190 and resulted in publication of the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), Federal Standard 795. UFAS is enforceable by the standard-setting agencies and the Access Board.

A.2.2 Revision of ABA and ADA Accessibility Guidelines: The Access Board’s guidelines issued under the ADA and the ABA are in the process of being completely updated and revised. The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) cover the construction and alteration of facilities in the private sector (places of public accommodation and commercial facilities) and the public sector (State and local government facilities). The accessibility guidelines issued under the ABA primarily address facilities in the Federal sector and others designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds. The guidelines under both laws are being updated together in one rule that contains three parts: a scoping document for ADA facilities, a scoping document for ABA facilities, and a common set of technical criteria that the scoping sections will reference. As a result, the requirements for both ADA and ABA facilities will be made more consistent.

The Board is reviewing and analyzing the comments received during the public hearing and comment period. After the guidelines are republished in a final rule, other Federal departments responsible for the standards to enforce the ADA and ABA must then develop their standards so that they are consistent with the updated guidelines. Until then, the current standards remain in effect.

A.2.3 Requirements for Making NIH Facilities Accessible: The UFAS is mandatory on all NIH projects. Current GSA policy has been adopted to also encourage compliance with the requirements of the ADAAG where those requirements are more stringent than UFAS.

The criteria in these standards are considered a minimum in providing access to persons with disabilities. Where dimensions for clearances are stated, allowance must be made in design for construction tolerances to ensure that the completed construction is in full compliance. Compliance demonstration is mandatory.

It is NIH policy to make all facilities, buildings, and grounds accessible to individuals with disabilities without the use of special facilities for the disabled. The intent of this policy is to use standard building products, set at prescribed heights and with prescribed maneuvering clearances, to allow easy use by individuals with disabilities.

A.2.3.1 Leased Buildings and Facilities: Facilities, buildings, and grounds, or portions thereof, that are leased by the NIH or by the Federal Government for the use of the NIH, shall be accessible to individuals with disabilities under the same standards as NIH-owned facilities.

A.2.3.2 Historic Structures: Special accessibility requirements may be applied to “qualified” historic buildings and facilities. “Qualified” buildings or facilities are those buildings or facilities that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Accessibility provisions defined in the UFAS and ADAAG should be applied to historic facilities to the maximum practical extent. In cases where accessibility modifications would damage the significant historic features, a review by the NIH Federal Preservation Officer shall be requested to determine whether a change to the building as described in the accessibility standards would have an adverse affect on historic property. If the NIH Federal Preservation Officer determines that the undertaking will have an adverse effect on historic property, the NIH Federal Preservation Officer will consult with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) in accordance with 36 CFR 800 Section 106. Nevertheless, historic buildings are covered by the Architectural Barriers Act and must adhere to the provisions of UFAS when renovations are undertaken.

Should the undertaking deviate from UFAS a trilateral Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) must be executed between the NIH, GSA, and SHPO. The NIH Federal Preservation Officer and the NIH Associate Director for Research Facilities will execute the MOA on behalf of the NIH, and the Commissioner of GSA will execute the MOA for GSA. A fully executed MOA must be obtained prior to the A/E implementing the special application provisions outlined in the UFAS in the NIH project design.


A.3 Application of the More Stringent of UFAS or ADAAG

The following information is provided to assist designers in determining where UFAS is more stringent or contains different requirements than the ADAAG. Bold type designates which standard shall be applied to the NIH design project.

Both the UFAS and the ADAAG references used for this comparison were current as of the date of the NIH Design Manual. The A/E should check all updates to the respective requirements before proceeding with the design.

The following two conditions apply:

  • Those elements where UFAS provisions are clearly more stringent than ADAAG.
  • Those elements where differences are “de minimis,” or where provisions result in an equivalent level of access, do not significantly impact accessibility, or are outdated and no longer serve the intended purpose. In these cases, the NIH has the option to choose between the relevant options. Direction will be provided by the NIH Project Officer.

A.3.1 Where UFAS Is Clearly More Stringent

A.3.1.1 No Elevator Exemption: UFAS has no exception to the elevator requirement and requires elevators in all multi-story buildings and facilities. ADAAG provides an exception to the elevator requirement in certain buildings that are under three stories or have less than 279 m2 (3 000 square feet) per story. [UFAS 4.1.2(5); ADAAG 4.1.3(5) Exception 1]

A.3.1.2 Entrances in Multi-Grade Buildings: UFAS requires at least one principal entrance at each grade floor level to a building to be accessible. ADAAG requires (1) that at least 50 percent of all public entrances be accessible and (2) that the number of exits required by the applicable building/fire code be used in determining the total number of accessible entrances required in a building or facility. UFAS would require more accessible entrances in certain “multi-grade” buildings. [UFAS 4.1.2(8); ADAAG 4.1.3(8)]

A.3.1.3 Work Surface Scoping: UFAS requires that 5 percent of all fixed or built-in employee work surfaces be accessible. ADAAG does not require work surfaces in work areas to be accessible. Both UFAS and ADAAG require that 5 percent of fixed tables in public and common use areas be accessible. [UFAS 4.1.2(17) and 4.32; ADAAG 4.1.1(3) and 4.1.3(18)]

A.3.1.4 Work Areas: UFAS requires that all areas that may result in the employment of physically disabled persons be accessible. ADAAG requires only that people with disabilities be able to approach, enter, and exit a work area. [UFAS 4.1.4; ADAAG 4.1.1(3)]

A.3.1.5 Vertical Clearance at Van Parking Spaces: UFAS requires that the vertical clearance at accessible van spaces should be 2 895 mm (114 inches). ADAAG requires that the vertical clearance at accessible van parking spaces be 2 490 mm (98 inches). [UFAS 4.6.6; ADAAG 4.6.5]

A.3.1.6 Elevator Controls: UFAS requires elevator controls to be mounted no higher than 1 220 mm (48 inches) “unless there is a substantial increase in cost,” in which case the maximum mounting height may be increased to 1 400 mm (54 inches). ADAAG allows 1 400 mm (54 inches) whenever a parallel approach is provided. [UFAS 4.10.12(3); ADAAG 4.10.12(3)]

A.3.2 Where UFAS/ADAAG Differences Are “De Minimis”

A.3.2.1 Entrance Signage: UFAS always requires the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) at accessible entrances. ADAAG requires the ISA at accessible entrances only when there are inaccessible building entrances in the facility. If all entrances are accessible, the ISA is not required by ADAAG. [UFAS 4.1.1(7); ADAAG 4.1.2(7)]A.4 User Input

A.3.2.2 Stairs Exception: UFAS exempts stairs from complying with Section 4.9 only if an elevator connects the same levels the stairs do. ADAAG exempts stairs from Section 4.9 when there is any accessible means of vertical access connecting the same levels that are connected by the stairs. [UFAS 4.1.2(4); ADAAG 4.1.3(4)]

A.3.2.3 Handrail Height: UFAS requires that handrails at stairs and ramps be placed with the gripping surface between 800 mm and 900 mm (30 and 34 inches) above the surface of the stair or ramp. ADAAG requires that such gripping surface be placed between 900 mm and 1 000 mm (34 and 38 inches). [UFAS 4.8.5(5) and 4.9.4(5); ADAAG 4.8.5(5) and 4.9.4(5)]

A.3.2.4 Tactile Warnings: UFAS requires that doors to hazardous areas be equipped with tactile warnings. This provision is reserved in ADAAG. [UFAS 4.1.2(14), 4.13.9, 4.29.3, and 4.29.7; ADAAG 4.29.3]

A.3.2.5 Pictograms: UFAS requires pictogram symbols to be tactile and does not permit simple serif characters. ADAAG does not require pictograms (pictorial symbol signs) to be raised and does allow the use of simple serif and sans serif tactile characters. UFAS allows
only sans serif characters. [UFAS 4.30.4; ADAAG 4.30.4]

A.3.3 Special Occupancies

A.3.3.1 Assembly Areas. Scoping for 101 or More Fixed Seats: UFAS requires a greater number of wheelchair locations than ADAAG in larger assembly areas where the number of fixed seats exceeds 101. [UFAS 4.1.2(18); ADAAG 4.1.3(19)(a)]

A. Dispersion for 300 or Fewer Fixed Seats: UFAS requires that wheelchair spaces be dispersed throughout the seating area, regardless of seating capacity. ADAAG requires that wheelchair spaces be provided in more than one location when seating capacity exceeds 300. [UFAS 4.33.3; ADAAG 4.33.3]

A.3.3.2 Transient Lodging. Scoping: UFAS requires 5 percent of transient lodging facilities to be accessible to persons with mobility impairments that, in very large facilities, would result in a higher number of accessible units than ADAAG would require. As required by the ADA, ADAAG provides for an exception for facilities with five or fewer units that contain the residence of the proprietor. UFAS does not provide for such an exception. [UFAS 4.1.4(11); ADAAG 9.1.1 Exception 9.1.2]

A. Scoping and Technical Provisions: UFAS has scoping and technical provisions for housing. Section 13 Housing of ADAAG interim final rule has not been adopted as a standard by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Board is considering reserving Section 13 in its entirety when the final guidelines for State and local government facilities is issued. [UFAS 4.1.1(5)(d), 4.1.4(11), 4.34; ADAAG – proposes to reserve housing]

A.3.3.3 Restaurants and Cafeterias

A. Table Aisles: UFAS requires that there be access aisles between tables in restaurants and cafeterias that comply with 4.3 Accessible Routes. ADAAG requires that all accessible fixed tables shall be accessible by means of an access aisle of at least 900 mm (36 inches) clear between parallel edges of tables or between a wall and the table edges. [UFAS 5.1; ADAAG 5.3]

A. Vending Machine Controls: UFAS requires that the controls and operating mechanisms of vending machines in restaurants and cafeterias comply with 4.27. ADAAG only requires that the spaces where vending machines are located comply with the space allowances and reach ranges requirements. [UFAS 5.4; ADAAG 5.8]

A.3.3.4 Health Care

A. Canopy at Passenger Loading Zone: The application of the term “Health Care buildings and facilities” in UFAS, which is not expressly defined, may require more facilities to provide a canopy or roof overhang and a passenger loading zone at their entrances. ADAAG specifically defines “Medical Care Facilities” which must have a roof canopy or overhang and a passenger-loading zone at an accessible entrance. [UFAS 6.1; ADAAG 6.1]

A. Patient Bed Spacing: UFAS requires that there be 900 mm (36 inches) along each side of a bed in patient bedrooms, 1 200 mm (48 inches) between beds, 1 100 mm (42 inches) between the foot of a bed and the wall, and 1 200 mm (48 inches) between the foot of the bed and the foot of the opposing bed. UFAS separately identifies requirements for one-bed rooms, two-bed rooms, and four-bed rooms. ADAAG treats beds in all rooms similarly and requires that there be 900 mm (36 inches) along each side of a bed. [UFAS 6.3; ADAAG 6.3]

A.3.3.5 Mercantile

A. Service Counters: UFAS requires that “a portion” of service counters in mercantile facilities be between 700 mm and 860 mm (28 and 34 inches) high. ADAAG requires a 900 mm (36 inch) length of service counter, which is a maximum of 900 mm (36 inches) high. [UFAS 7.2; ADAAG 7.2]

A. Check-Out Counter Height: UFAS requires at least one checkout counter to be no higher than 900 mm (36 inches). ADAAG requires that a specific number of checkout counters be no higher than 970 mm (38 inches) and that the top of the lip of the counter not exceed 1 000 mm (40 inches). [UFAS 7.3(2); ADAAG 7.3(2)]

A.3.3.6 Libraries

A. Knee Space at Check-Out Areas: UFAS requires that at least one lane at each check-out area provide a counter surface that is between 700 mm and 860 mm (28 to 34 inches) high with knee clearances that are 700 mm (27 inches) high, 800 mm (30 inches) wide, and 500 mm (19 inches) deep in libraries. ADAAG requires that at least one lane at each check-out area provide a 900 mm (36 inch) length of counter which is a minimum of 900 mm (36 inches) high. ADAAG does not require knee space. [UFAS 8.3; ADAAG 8.3]

A.3.4 Additions and Alterations Where UFAS Is More Stringent or Different From ADAAG

A.3.4.1 Additions: UFAS requires that if an addition to a building or facility does not provide an accessible route, an accessible entrance, or accessible toilet facilities, and such facilities are provided in the existing building, then at least one of each shall be made accessible. ADAAG may require these items to be accessible under the path of travel obligation, depending on the amount of money required to build the addition. [UFAS 4.1.5; ADAAG 4.1.5]

A.3.4.2 Substantial Alterations: UFAS requires greater accessibility when substantial alterations are made to a facility depending on the amount of money spent on the alteration and the size of the building or site. ADAAG requires that, when an alteration is made to an area containing a primary function, the path of travel to that altered area and the restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains that serve that area be made accessible unless the additional cost of doing so would be disproportionate to the overall cost and scope of the original alteration to the primary functional area. The level of disproportionality is set at 20 percent of the cost of the original alteration to the primary function area. [UFAS 4.1.6(3);
ADAAG 4.1.6(2)]

A.3.4.3 Alterations: ADAAG provides that, in alterations, the requirements of 4.1.3(9), 4.3.10, and 4.3.11 concerning egress and areas of rescue assistance do not apply. UFAS does not have a similar exception but does not define areas of refuge. [UFAS – no exception; ADAAG 4.1.6(g)]

A.3.5 Procedural Where UFAS Is More Stringent or Different From ADAAG

A.3.5.1 Equivalent Facilitation: UFAS does not include a provision for equivalent facilitation. Entities covered by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA) must use the waiver and modification process as provided in the ABA in order to deviate from the requirements of UFAS. [UFAS – no provision; ADAAG 2.2]

A.3.5.2 Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation: UFAS allows only the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to make determinations in cases of alterations to historic properties. ADAAG allows both the Advisory Council and the State Historic Preservation Officer to make such determinations. [UFAS 4.1.7(1)(b); ADAAG 4.1.7(2)(a)(ii)]


A.4 Compliance Submittals

A.4.1 Compliance Certification Statement: Compliance with applicable criteria and certification of compliance is the responsibility of the A/E for all NIH projects. The A/E will be required to provide written certification that the design prepared for the NIH complies with the UFAS/ADAAG. This written certification shall be provided to the Project Officer with the transmittal letter for every design submittal.

A.4.2 Compliance Drawing: Every project must be accompanied by a compliance drawing layout showing all accessibility access required on the site and within the building, at all rooms, fixtures, and components required to be accessible. Typical layouts can be provided when more than one space of a particular type is included in the design. Drawings shall be included which identify, at a minimum, all accessible site and access features outside the building, parking, access routes and entrances, clear spaces required at common-use rooms, spaces, or elements (including clear spaces at room entrances, toilet, shower, bathing and locker room fixtures, wheelchair turnaround space, etc).

A.4.3 Record Drawings: Record drawings provided at the completion of the construction project are required to identify all features included in the project related to accessibility. The compliance drawings may be used as the basis for these record drawings. Refer to NIH Division 1 Specification Section "Closeout Procedures" and Section "Project Record Documents" for specific requirements that must be included in the Construction Contract Documents.


A.5 Technical Assistance

The Access Board provides technical assistance on the ADAAG and UFAS for project specific questions. They can be reached at the following numbers:

1-800-872-2253 (voice)
1-800-993-2822 (TTY)
(202) 272-0080 (voice)
(202) 272- 0082 (TTY)
(202) 272-0081 (fax)

This page last updated on Jan 26, 2006