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ADA Considerations When Designing AV Systems

A/V Compliance in an ADA world

In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, was signed into law, and since then, integrators have made numerous ADA considerations when designing A/V systems for their clients. The ADA serves an important purpose in ensuring that everyone can take full advantage of all installed A/V technology. Not only does this empower users who would otherwise have difficulty presenting material or organizing a meeting, it guarantees every meeting or presentation goes off without difficulty or prejudice.

What A/V integrators must do to remain ADA compliant

Regarding the ADA, the first question is: Does this project necessitate ADA compliance? Because this is a federal act, there are numerous exceptions and gray areas that integrators may have to consider. In general, though, if the A/V technology is installed in an “assembly” area or an area accessible to the public, it must remain ADA compliant. These are very open-ended definitions, and they include classrooms, most meeting rooms, theatres, auditoriums, concert halls, stadiums, arenas, convention centers, lecture halls, public lobbies and the like. Any room that is not accessible to the public, including some A/V rack rooms, do not have to be ADA compliant. However, even in this instance, there may be exceptions. For example, if an A/V equipment room is attached to an auditorium or lecture hall, and academic staff are expected to access it to configure or control equipment, then it does have to be ADA compliant. For the sake of perfect compliance, and just because it’s beneficial to make A/V technology as accessible as possible, some A/V integrators design their systems for optimal accessibility no matter what space they are placed in.

What are some specific ADA considerations when designing A/V systems?

1. Assistive listening systems – An assistive listening system, or ALS, is what most integrators and system designers think of when they consider ADA regulations. That’s understandable, as ALS technology is the only dedicated A/V technology that’s designed to improve accessibility. Most ADA regulations refer to where technology can be placed and how much space must be allocated to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities. ALS, however, enhances the output of A/V technology so that people who are hard of hearing can better hear what is being said. There is plenty of research confirming that increasing volume between 15 and 25 decibels makes a big difference for people with hearing difficulties.

An ALS system is required in any assembly area where audio is an integral part of communication in the space. Classrooms and lecture halls are obvious examples of where this would be relevant. Courtrooms are often overlooked in this respect, but they also require ALS technology to be ADA compliant.

In addition to an infrared, radio frequency or induction loop ALS, there must also be signage present that informs people of the technology’s presence, as well as the presence of audio receivers. According to both the 1994 and 2004 ADA standards, venues must provide a number of receivers proportional to the amount of available seating, with a minimum of two receivers made available.

2. Height of work surfaces – As far as it concerns A/V integrators, the rest of the relevant ADA sections only specify how technology should be placed in a room or public space. These guidelines are in place for people with physical disabilities, such as those using a wheelchair.

One ADA section that may be overlooked by A/V professionals is Section 902. Section 902 states that work surfaces must be at least 28 inches above the floor, and no more than 34 inches above the floor. This is to ensure that people in wheelchairs can access the work surface comfortably. This most often comes into play when installing a lectern. Standard lecterns usually comes with a work surface much higher than 34 inches from the floor. To ensure ADA compliance, the lectern should be built with an adjustable work surface or with a removable control panel for managing A/V equipment.

3. Reach ranges – In Section 308, the ADA specifies what reach ranges A/V integrators may account for when installing A/V equipment on a wall. This usually concerns a control touchscreen or a wall plate intended for a device input. To remain ADA compliant, the element must be between 15 inches and 48 inches from the floor, which allows people in wheelchairs to access both the top and bottom of the element.

Although a simple regulation to follow, Section 308 often poses challenges for the integrator that isn’t thinking ahead. Electricians aren’t usually thinking ADA when they are asked to install the electrical infrastructure behind the system elements. In many instances, an electrician will complete their work in a way that makes it impossible to meet this standard. Careful communication with the electricians is essential to avoiding this complication.

4. Unobstructed and obstructed forward and side reach – Section 308 also specifies how deep of an obstruction is allowed in front of a system element. Specifically, designers should not force someone in a wheelchair to perform a forward reach beyond 25 inches, and should not force a side reach (side reach refers to a reach over the wheel of the wheelchair) longer than 24 inches. These numbers fluctuate a bit depending on how high off the ground the system element is, so careful reading of the section is required.

5. Protruding objects – Protruding objects represent a hazard to people who are visually impaired, so the ADA dedicates Sections 204 and 307 to defining what an unacceptable protrusion looks like. These sections largely concern integrators expecting to install digital signage, and they are the subject of many violations.

Wall-mounted A/V system elements should protrude no more than 4 inches from the wall. Installers frequently violate this standard, and the signage may need to be recessed to guarantee compliance. This section is aimed at “circulation paths,” which refers to any space that is used for moving from one room to another, or one part of a room to another. This is a gray area that integrators often have trouble defining, so the safe choice is to ensure all wall-mounted signage does not protrude.

ADA standards are exacting and require careful consideration when designing and installing a system. Following ADA guidelines ensures that even those with disabilities can fully experience what the A/V system has to offer.