How to Build a Wheelchair Ramp


Wheelchair ramps can be made of many materials, including wood. While wood is relatively inexpensive at the outset, it can be more expensive later due to maintenance costs.
Wheelchair ramps can be made of many materials, including wood. While wood is relatively inexpensive at the outset, it can be more expensive later due to maintenance costs.
iStockphoto.com/Phil Cardamone

­Twenty years ago, wheelchair ramps weren't the common structure they are today. It wasn't until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 that there were any sort of guidelines dictating the need for ramps and other aides to the disabled.

The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination again people with disabilities in everyday activities [source: United State Department of Justice]. Now, some public buildings are required to have ramps that make their building more accessible to ­those with disabilities. If you're thinking about adding a ramp to an existing structure, it may be a project you can take on yourself, but the responsib­ility shouldn't be taken lightly.

Wheelchair ramps, when constructed correctly, are safe, sturdy structures that allow disabled people access to places they might otherwise not be able to go.

The ADA made everyone more aware of the obstacles blocking disabled individuals from doing things they wanted and needed to do. The ADA has created a set of guidelines that standardizes the wheelchair ramp building process and specifies the materials that should be used, making ramps safe for everyone. There have been many lawsuits over wheelchair ramps that created a hazard, and most hazards are a result of neglect.

­In this article, you'll learn about ADA wheelchair ramp specifications, slope ratio and ­horizontal projections. You'll also learn about width, handrails and guardrails, and how best to protect ramp users. We'll also go over the different materials that can be used for building wheelchair ramps, as well as the pros and cons of each.

You'll also learn the basic steps used to install a wheelchair ramp, as well as some things you need to look out for before your ramp is ready for use. There are many wheelchair ramp options. You can build or purchase a ramp -- whatever is best for your specific needs.

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Wheelchair Ramp Specifications

­You need to consider your users and­ their limitations when you build a wheelchair ramp. The ramp must be wide enough to be safe, sturdy enough to carry the weight of electric wheelchairs and have a slope that's gentle enough for a manual wheelchair user to navigate. Safety is integral, and many different aspects must be considered.

The Americans with Disabilities Guidelines dictate how ramps are designed for all public places. The guidelines hel­p private homeowners create ramps that are usable, safe and sturdy. The ADA guidelines recommend a slope ratio of 1:16 to 1:20. (A 1:12 ratio is too steep for some people to navigate.) These ratios must be followed in all public places. Homeowners aren't required to follow these slope guidelines; however, if you have the space available, there's really no reason not to [source: Access-board].

ADA guidelines make the following stipulations:

  • Minimum ramp width must be 36 inches.
  • Ramps must have edge protection to keep anyone from slipping off.
  • Ramps must have landings at top and bottom that are as wide as the ramp and at least 60 inches long.
  • Handrails are required on both sides of all ramps that rise steeper than 6 inches or have a horizontal projection of more than 72 inches.
  • Cross slopes must be less than 1:50 and surfaces must be slip-resistant and stable.

Other surface requirements must be met and you will learn about them in more detail in the next section.

Ramps can be constructed from a variety of different materials, though some are better than others. Next, we'll learn which materials are best for what circumstances.

Wheelchair Ramp Building Materials

When building a wheelchair ramp, you have to consider not only wheelchair users but also people who must use crutches, canes and walkers, and people who can't walk with a regular gait.

You can make a wheelchair ramp out of aluminum, wood, steel or concrete. Concrete is expensive, but it's a great choice for permanent wheelchair ramps. Before the concrete dries, you can brush the surface to incorporate anti-slip properties right into the concrete.

Wood is one of the more inexpensive materials for ramp building, but the cheaper cost comes with a maintenance price. Wood must be protected with sealer or varnish to prevent rotting and warping. You must add nonslip protection, like grit strips, to prevent accidents. Wooden handrails must be finished and maintained to prevent splinters. Wood boards must be placed close enough together to prevent uncomfortable bumps but also be spaced far enough apart to allow water drainage.

Steel must be galvanized to prevent rust and corrosion, and a texture must be added to the surface to help prevent slipping.

Aluminum is strong, corrosion-resistant, and, unfortunately, expensive. Because lightweight aluminum bends, when you're building an aluminum ramp, calculate the weight requirements for an occupied wheelchair. You'll also have to add texture to the aluminum or it will be slippery and dangerous.

Ready to learn how to build a wheelchair ramp? Head on over to the next page.

Wheelchair Ramp Building Process

The type of ramp you build and the materials you use dictate how you build the ramp. In this section, we'll learn the general process for building a wooden ramp for a private home. Before we get started, though, keep the following things in mind:

  • Electric wheelchairs can be very heavy; therefore, you must use 2-by-6 lumber frameworks
  • Nails work their way back out of wood decking, causing a hazard. Use screws instead of nails
  • Exterior grade plywood should be used on decks, unless you are using a better material
  • All wood will need to be treated with a varnish or sealer to prevent rot [source: Young]

Generally, it is easier to build a ramp in sections, or modules. Starting with the doorway/landing section, you will attach each section one at a time, ensuring they are installed at the correct slope. Attach your first section to the house with concrete anchor bolts. Install your support posts at the far end of the first section [source: DallasRamps].

After making sure the slope ratio is correct, lay out the second section. Again, place support posts at the far end, double-checking your slope, and then bolt the sections together. Do this with each section until complete [source: DallasRamps].

The last section will have a beveled transition from ramp to surface. This transition will prevent wheels from getting caught where the ramp ends and the surface begins. It will also prevent wheelchair users from feeling a big bump when they come off the ramp [source: NewDisability].

Wheelchair ramps that follow ADA guidelines and are well-constructed can be helpful for pedestrians too. For more information about wheelchair ramps, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Building and Facilities. (Accessed 12/15/08)http://www.access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm#A4.8.1
  • Juy Verdict Review and Analysis "Trip and Fall - Ramp" (Accessed 12/15/08) http://www.jvra.com/Verdict_Trak/article.aspx?id=50196
  • New Disability "Guide to Selecting a Wheelchair Ramp". (Accessed 12/15/08) http://www.newdisability.com/wheelchairramp.htm
  • Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. "How to Build RAMPS for home accessibility" (Accessed 12/15/08) http://www.wheelchairramp.org/rampman/manual/ramp21.htm
  • The Dallas Ramp Project "How to Build a Ramp". (Accessed 12/15/08) http://www.dallasramps.org/HowTo/HowTo.htm
  • Young, Brent. "Wheelchair Ramp Construction Tips" National Council for Support of Disability Issues. (Accessed 12/15/08)http://www.ncsd.org/thoughts/wheelchairramp.htm