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Decoding ADA Standards for Classroom AV

When designing audiovisual systems in higher education facilities, accessibility standards are often overlooked. Here are the latest ADA Standards to keep in mind for any classroom AV project.

Classroom audiovisual systems can quickly turn into complex designs integrating a mix of technology, furniture and room design into one (hopefully) cohesive system. AV designers are not only tasked with determining the equipment needed in the system, but also the required infrastructure design specifications to make sure the system adheres to building, electrical, structural and life safety codes.

In the midst of all those specifications, one often overlooked — but critical — aspect of AV system design is compliance with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. The most recent revision, including the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, was established in 2010. Many regulations defined in the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design document apply directly to classroom audio visual system design. Disregarding these ADA Standards results in AV systems that are unusable by persons with disabilities, and may result in lawsuits.

As a quick disclaimer, this article is simply my interpretation of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design as they relate to AV system design, and should not be used as a substitute for seeking out the advice of an expert on accessible design. Every AV system design is different, so look to your campus ADA coordinator or a qualified design consultant for the final determination on the ADA compliance for your specific classroom AV system installations. This may not be a complete list of all the ADA Standards applying to your specific AV installation project. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design document is very extensive, and should be read carefully by anyone involved with classroom audiovisual design.

This article will focus on the aspects of the 2010 ADA Standards that apply to an audiovisual system installation, but not the numerous room design elements that also need to adhere to ADA Standards. Aspects like number of wheelchair-accessible seating areas, aisle pitch in auditoriums, fire alarm systems, signage, student desk height, door sizes, etc. need to be determined by the project's architect, facilities project manager or interior designer, and aren't addressed in this article.


The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design apply to both new construction and alterations to existing buildings/facilities. There are many exceptions for unique facilities (historic buildings, limited access spaces, etc.), so make sure to check Chapter 2 of the regulations to determine how they apply to your facility.

Classrooms are defined in the ADA Standards as "assembly areas" and are subject to these regulations. The types of assembly areas that are specifically defined in the ADA Standards, and may apply to higher education campuses, are: classrooms, lecture halls, public meeting rooms, motion picture houses, auditoria, theaters, playhouses, concert halls, centers for the performing arts, amphitheaters, arenas, stadiums, grandstands or convention centers.

Operable Parts: Sections 205 and 309

Sections 205 and 309 of The 2010 ADA Standards address "operable parts" on accessible elements, which can include classroom AV system components like touchscreen/button user interfaces, projection screen switches, laptop input plates, etc. that are mounted on lecterns, teaching stations and walls. ADA Standards dictate acceptable floor space, height, reach ranges and difficulty of operation pertaining to these operable parts, of which are defined in subsequent sections.

Work Surfaces: Sections 226 and 902

These sections apply to the acceptable height of work surfaces such as lecterns, instructor tables, and teaching stations. ADA Standards dictate that the height of work surfaces shall be a minimum of 28 inches AFF (above finished floor) and a maximum of 34 inches AFF. Lectern height is frequently overlooked by AV system designers, resulting in AV equipment mounted on lecterns with work surfaces that violate these standards. Lecterns that are 34 inches tall (to comply with the ADA Standards) are usually too low for standing users. Adjustable height lecterns solve this issue and create a comfortable teaching experience for all users. The AV equipment mounted on these work surfaces is subject to ADA reach range standards, which are addressed below.

Reach Ranges: Section 308

The 2010 ADA Standards clearly define forward and side reach ranges for users in wheelchairs. A forward or side reach by a user in a wheelchair can be defined as "unobstructed" or an "obstructed high reach."

An example of an "unobstructed forward or side reach" is when a person in a wheelchair approaches a wall-mounted AV control system touchscreen or a laptop input wall plate. These AV system elements can have a maximum height of 48 inches AFF and a minimum of 15 inches AFF. Take caution when specifying the height above the finished floor for wall boxes to be installed by electrical contractors. Typically, if you specify your 2-gang box for the wall-mounted touchpanel to be installed 48 inches AFF, the electrical contractor will measure 48 inches from the floor to the center of the box. All AV system user interface controls above the center line of that 2-gang box will be above 48 inches AFF, creating a violation of the ADA Standards. A common laptop input plate wall mounting height is 18 inches AFF, which matches typical power outlet heights. Make sure that the bottom of your AV input plate doesn't drop below 15 inches AFF.

Image: 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design

These minimum and maximum height ranges for unobstructed reach also apply to user-accessible rack-mounted AV equipment, projection screen switches, sliding white/chalkboard systems and manual projection screen pull strings. One exception described in the ADA Standards is that "floor electrical receptacles" (which I interpret to include AV input plates inside floor boxes) are not required to adhere to these reach ranges.

Image: 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design

The "obstructed high reach" minimum and maximum ranges for forward and side reaches depend on the size of the obstruction the person in a wheelchair has to reach over, and are clearly defined by illustrations in Section 308. These obstructed high forward reach ranges apply to the acceptable depth of ADA compliant teaching stations/tables that wheelchair users can roll up to, with their knees under the desk. Knee and toe clearance is addressed in a different section of the Standards. Obstructed high side reach ranges define the maximum acceptable depth and height of obstructions wheelchair users can reach over to access AV equipment. Even though you may have a height adjustable lectern in the classroom, if wheelchair users are expected to perform a side reach over the lectern to access AV equipment that doesn't meet this section's requirements, you're in violation of the ADA Standards.

Image: 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design

Knee and Toe Clearance: Section 306

Teaching stations or instructor tables that allow users in wheelchairs to roll under the desk/table are subject to ADA Standards for knee and toe clearance, which are defined in Section 306. Minimum and maximum height and depth ranges are defined for the space under these desks/tables; AV-related items like keyboard trays/drawers, cable trays, under-table-mounted AV equipment, and the underside of elements like table boxes can decrease the available knee and toe space, causing a violation of ADA Standards.

Turning Space and Clear Floor/Ground Space: Sections 304 and 305

These sections of the ADA Standards address the required space needed for wheelchair access to AV system components. Users in wheelchairs need proper access to approach lecterns, instructor tables, teaching stations, AV equipment racks, walls with mounted AV equipment, etc. — and enough room to turn their wheelchair. As a minimum, there needs to be 30 inches by 48 inches of clear floor/ground space in front of the accessible element, with a turning space minimum of 60 inches in diameter, or a T-shaped turning space that is defined in section 304.3.2. Clear floor/ground space is defined for "either forward or parallel approach to an element."

Image: 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design

Protruding Objects: Sections 204 and 307

Sections 204 and 307 address the distance that wall- and post-mounted items can protrude and the vertical clearance required for overhead items. These standards often come into play when designing wall- and ceiling-mounted digital signage displays in hallways as well as ceiling-mounted projectors in classrooms. For example, the ADA Standards dictate that a wall-mounted digital signage display between 27 inches and 80 inches above the floor may not protrude more than 4 inches from the wall. This is a common ADA Standards violation. Recess your display, mount, media player and power/network outlets in the wall to adhere to this standard. Another example that this section addresses is a digital signage display ceiling-mounted in a hallway or a ceiling-mounted classroom projector. The bottom of that display/projector must have at least 80 inches vertical clearance above the floor.

This section specifically addresses protrusion minimums and maximums for items in "circulation paths." The ADA Standards define a circulation path as: "An exterior or interior way of passage provided for pedestrian travel, including but not limited to, walks, hallways, courtyards, elevators, platform lifts, ramps, stairways, and landings." I've heard differing opinions on applying the circulation path definition to objects mounted on a classroom wall or ceiling. I err on the side of caution in this respect, and make sure any wall- or ceiling-mounted AV equipment in my designs meets these protrusion standards. I frequently see wall-mounted ultra-short-throw projectors and ceiling-mounted projectors installed in classrooms that don't meet these ADA standards.

Assistive Listening Systems: Sections 219 and 706

When audiovisual system designers think of ADA Standards, assistive listening systems are the first thing that come to mind. It's required that assistive listening systems be provided "in each assembly area where audible communication is integral to the use of the space." Classrooms certainly fall into this category, as do meeting and event spaces on campus. The ADA Standards dictate the specific number of required receivers in relation to the audience size, as well as some technical requirements for the different types of assistive listening systems (induction loop, infrared and FM radio transmission). Section 703.7.2.4 addresses the necessary signage required when there's an assistive listening system present. The assistive listening system requirements are commonly neglected ADA Standards in schools, but AV support departments can look to the assistive listening system manufacturers for some guidance on becoming compliant.

Wheelchair Spaces in Assembly Areas: Sections 221 and 802

Sections 221 and 802 address requirements for wheelchair spaces in assembly areas like classrooms and meeting/event spaces. Many of these requirements (number and location of wheelchair spaces, the size of those spaces, companion seats, etc.) fall under the architect or interior designer's responsibilities, but these sections do address sight lines from wheelchair spaces, which affect the AV designer. The sight lines to a "screen, performance area, or playing field" from the wheelchair spaces are specifically addressed. AV designers need to work with the project's architect or interior designer to make sure that sight lines from all wheelchair spaces meet these ADA Standards.

Image: 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design

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