Congress and the executive branch enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 to provide protection and accessibility for disabled people in public facilities. Regulations to codify the act were published in 1991, but they were later revised published in the Federal Register on Sept. 15, 2010. New construction must meet these 2010 standards. Section 505 of the revised regulations covers handrail requirements.

old spiral staircase
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Handrails have design specifications for people with disabilities.

General Requirements

Handrails are required on stairs and ramps with a change of elevation greater than 6 inches. Handrails must be continuous along the full length of a stair or ramp run. Handrails along the inside diameter of switchbacks or doglegs must also be continuous.

Handrail Height

The height of handrails must be a minimum of 34 inches and a maximum of 38 inches above the stair tread, walking surface or ramp area. For public areas used primarily by children, a vertical height of 28 inches is recommended. In areas where adults and children may be present, two sets of handrails should be used, with a minimum of 9 inches clearance between them to prevent children from being trapped.

Clearance and Gripping Surface

Handrails must have a minimum of 1 1/2 inches minimum clearance between the handrail and any adjacent surface. Handrail gripping surfaces must be unobstructed along their top and sides for their entire length. Obstructions along the bottom surface of handrails must not exceed 20 percent of their length. Horizontal projections, such as railing supports, must be a minimum of 1 1/2 inches below the handrail. Gripping surfaces and adjacent areas must be free of sharp or rough surfaces and have rounded edges.

Handrail Cross Section

Handrails with a circular cross-section must have an outside diameter of 1 1/4 inches minimum to 2 inches maximum. Handrails with noncircular shapes must have a total cross section perimeter of 4 inches minimum to 6 1/4 inches maximum. Noncircular handrails must also have a maximum cross-section dimension of 2 1/4 inches.

Handrail Extensions

Handrails must extend a minimum of 12 inches past the top or bottom step of stairs or at each end of ramps. Extensions can also be connected directly to adjacent stair rails or ramp areas to create continuous handrails. Extensions must return to the wall, landing or be continuous to another rail; capped open rail ends are not permitted.

Exceptions to Requirements

Exceptions exist for assembly areas where standard handrails may not be practical. Assembly areas may include stadiums, theaters or other venues where railings must be interrupted to allow access to seats. Exceptions include requiring only one handrail on ramps or stairs and allowing noncontinuous handrail sections for seating access.