Basics of Accessible Stairways

Published September 24, 2020

Even though stairs may not be accessible to people in wheelchairs, there are a number of guidelines all stairs and handrails need to maintain to ensure maximum safety and accessibility. Fortunately, the guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are straightforward and well-defined. Here’s what you need to know to guarantee that stairs in your facility are up to code

Guidelines for stairs

Stairs can be a risk for anyone who uses them, regardless of the individual’s disability status. Uneven stair heights, for one, pose a huge fall risk even for people without disabilities. The accessibility guidelines are good practice for any stairway, regardless of who is using it.

  • Risers must be at least 4 inches but no more than 7 inches tall.
  • All steps should have uniform riser heights and tread width.
  • Stair treads should be no less than 11 inches wide when measured from riser to riser.
  • Open risers are prohibited, meaning the vertical space between steps must be filled or perforated such that openings in riser surfaces prohibit passage of a sphere not more than ½ inch.
  • The nosing – which is the part of the stair that projects over the stair below it - should not protrude more than 1 ½ inches outward and must be curved and the underside must be curved or beveled.
  • Angled and rounded nosings are allowed, but both must have a 60 degree angle when measured horizontally

Guidelines for handrail

Properly installed handrails can make a world of difference for people with mobility issues, giving them the proper support needed to traverse the stairs. As outlined by the ADA:

Handrails are required for all stairways that have at least four risers or vertical sections. However, stairs that are part of a required means of egress must comply, even if they are composed of a single riser.

  • Handrails should be on both sides of the stairs.
  • Space between the handrail and wall should be no more than 1 ½ inches.
  • Gripping surfaces should be continuous and uninterrupted. Brackets attached to the bottom of the handrail aren’t considered obstructions.
  • Handrails cannot rotate within their holdings or be otherwise loose.
  • They need to be mounted between 34 inches and 38 inches above the stairs.
  • The end of handrails should be rounded or return into the floor post, or wall.
  • Handrails must extend horizontally for at least 12 inches at the top of a stairway and the distance of one tread depth at the bottom.
  • There should be at least 2 ¼ inches between the handrail and any other object.
  • Handrails must be between 1 ¼ and 2 inches in diameter.
  • Handrails should be tested to be able to accommodate a load of at least 200 pounds applied both upward and downward.

Following these simple guidelines maximize accessibility and safety for everyone who uses them, and greatly reduces both the risk of injury and liability. You should also research any additional guidelines or regulations at the state level, as they can vary.



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