An Overview of Ramps

(To request alternative formats, call 703-324-5421, TTY 703-449-1186, or send an e-mail.)

A ramp allows a person with mobility impairments, particularly those who use wheelchairs, to go up or down safely. The Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design—based on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)—lay out the requirements for ramps that allow safe access to public programs, places of employment for employees, and places of public accommodation such as restaurants and hotels. The Fair Housing Act contains the requirements for ramps in multi-unit and public housing. And finally state and local building codes contain the accessibility requirements for places of public accommodation and other public buildings. There are no accessibility requirements for private single family homes, but the information contained here can be useful in building usable ramps.

The following is a brief overview on how to build ramps in Fairfax County and liberally uses the material contained in the Minnesota Ramp Project ( and an unpublished guide to ramp building developed by the Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corporation ( This is not a definitive guide, and Fairfax County permit requirements must be consulted before building a ramp. Information on those requirements can be found in the section on construction permits, and the Permits Division of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services can be reached at 703-222-0801, TTY 703-324-1877 for specific information concerning a building permit for a ramp.

Consumers should know that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act transcends any limiting provisions that may be contained in legal housing documents such as homeowner association by-laws, condominium covenants, and apartment rental agreements. In many cases, homeowners and condominium associations and landlords must allow reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities to enjoy their homes, even if the cost of modifications fall on the residents. Questions about possible unfair treatment in housing can be directed to the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission, 703-324-2953, TTY 703-324-2900.

Building Fixed Ramps

Generally speaking, the ADA Guidelines for Accessible Buildings define the best ramps as those with:

  • a gentle slope (no more than a 1-inch rise for every 12 inches or 20 inches in length, but up to a 1-inch rise for every 8 inches is allowed); however a slope of 1:16 (a 1 inch rise in 16 inches in length) is preferable to ease wheeling up or to maintain walking balance
  • little or no crosswise slope (no more than a ¼-inch rise for every 12 inches in width, i.e., practically level crosswise);
  • landings at the top, bottom, and in the middle if there is a change of direction in the ramp, or a total rise greater than 30 inches;
  • handrails; and
  • a slip-resistant surface.

Each of these features is discussed below.

In addition, the site conditions for the ramp should be considered, keeping in mind safety first. Secondly, the needs of the person who will use the ramp most must be considered. Some questions to ask prior to building the ramp include the following:

  • Will the ramp be inside or outside?
  • If outside, how much of it will be protected from the elements?
  • Will the ramp be added to new construction or an existing structure?
  • Which entryway will be best for the ramp, considering an accessible route once inside?
  • What are the local zoning requirements?
  • What will be the cost of the ramp, and how will it be paid for?
  • Does the primary user use a wheelchair, and is it a power or manual chair?
  • Will the primary user’s mobility needs change over time or remain the same?

Safety should always be the main consideration in constructing a ramp. Several excellent references provide detailed step-by-step instructions on the construction and/or installation of a ramp, but the most comprehensive is the Minnesota Ramp Project’s The Ramp Manual, a complete step-by-step construction manual available online at or for purchase by calling 651-603-2029, TTY 651-603-2001. A companion videotape is also available for purchase.

Slope is the term used to describe how steep a ramp is. By regulatory definition, a ramp is an accessible route with a slope equal to or greater than 1:20, that is the slope rises one inch for every twenty inches of flat surface distance covered. It is important to point out that the larger the run figure (the horizontal length) in a slope ratio, the gentler the angle of the inclined surface (the slope); for example, a slope of 1:20 is not as steep as a slope of 1:12. The bigger the number in a slope ratio, the gentler the slope will be.

A ramp’s slope may be expressed in different terms. For example, 1:12 or 1 to 12 which means a 1-inch vertical rise in a 12-inch horizontal run or length. This may be also be expressed as a 5? (degree) slope, or an 8% (percent) slope. It doesn’t change the slope if it’s expressed in equivalent ratios, degree, or percentage. Some guides present measurements in metric units, but for clarity, this guide will present all measurements in inches and feet.

A ramp’s slope is generally a project’s most critical consideration because of its impact on layout requirements, the cost, and the ramp’s ultimate usefulness. In general, the maximum ideal slope for an exterior ramp is 1:20 (1-inch rise for every 20 inches in length or run), to insure that ice, snow, wet leaves or other debris do not create a slipping hazard. Exterior ramps should be constructed to prevent the accumulation of water on the ramp surface. On wooden ramps, having spaces between the boards to help drainage can do this. The maximum ideal slope for an interior ramp is 1:12 (1-inch rise for every 12 inches in length or run). This is about the maximum incline that the average manual wheelchair user can manage without help. However, building code allows for up to a 1:8 slope.

The maximum rise for any run is 30 inches; a ramp that has a rise greater than 30 inches requires an intermediate landing. An intermediate landing should be at least 3 feet in length, ideally 5 ft. or more. The maximum cross slope—the extent to which the ramp is inclined from side to side—for a ramp is 1:48 (no more than a ¼-inch rise for every 1 foot in width), and can be used on ramps to facilitate drainage. Ideally, there should be no noticeable cross slope in a ramp.

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Ramp Widths
The ramp must be wide enough to accommodate the user. The minimum width for a ramp is 36 inches inside the handrails. The ideal width for most situations is 48 inches.

All ramps should have a level landing at the top and the bottom, and an intermediate level if the ramp changes direction or has a vertical rise of 30 inches or more. A landing is also needed where a door opens on to a ramp. These landings allow the user to maintain balance while opening doors, resting, or changing direction when a ramp makes a turn.

All landings should be a minimum of 3 feet in length, ideally 5 feet (larger than most front stoops). If the intermediate landing is to accommodate a change of direction of the ramp, the landing should be 4 feet by 4 feet (ideally 5’ x 5’) to provide the space necessary for a wheelchair to turn around or change direction. All landings must be at least as wide as the widest ramp run approaching it. The top landing should be flush with the door threshold.

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Handrails serve three principal purposes, to

  • provide a safety barrier;
  • serve as an aid to balance; and
  • provide a means of propulsion for a manual wheelchair user.

Handrails should be provided on both sides of any ramp with a slope equal to or greater than 1:12, and on any ramp or landing of sufficient height to pose a potential danger to the user. Handrails should be installed on both sides of a ramp parallel to the ramp surface and at a height to best suit the principal user (as a guide, between 34 inches and 38 inches high).

Handrails should be smooth and continuous. A handrail with a 1½ inch diameter normally provides the most satisfactory grip. The handrail must not rotate within its fittings. Handrails should be mounted to provide a 1½ inch clearance between the handrail and any adjoining wall. Wall surfaces behind handrails should not be rough or of a highly textured surface to avoid scraped knuckles.

Handrails must extend beyond the top and bottom of the ramp a minimum of 12 inches to enable a manual wheelchair user to pull ahead onto a level surface. The ends of the handrail should be rounded or returned smoothly to the wall or the floor of the ramp.

Edge Protection
An additional safety feature on a ramp designed for wheelchair users is a curb for edge protection. Edge protection, sometimes referred to as a crutch stop or bump board, is provided to prevent people from traveling off the ramp. Edge protection on ramps should be a minimum of 4 inches high, and is mandatory for ramps that do not have handrails or other barrier protection.

Ramps should have an anti-slip running surface. Most residential ramps are constructed of pressure-treated lumber; 1 inch by 6 inches pressure-treated pine is typical. Commercial facility ramps are generally constructed of concrete or metal. The most important consideration here is the surface finish of the ramp; it should prevent slippage but not be so rough as to make wheelchair travel difficult.

A non-slip surface can be applied to a wooden ramp by means of a carborundum grit runner, strips of rolled roofing or shingling, or laying down coats of polyurethane into which sand is sprinkled). Paint mixed with sand (1 pound of silica sand to 1 gallon paint) can also be used. Some paint manufacturers make a non- skid deck paint that provides a suitable surface coating for a ramp.

Concrete ramps can be made non- slip with the addition of aggregate to the concrete mix, or by a broom finish that provides non-slip characteristic to the ramp.

Planning the Ramp
To determine how much space a ramp requires, start with the amount of rise the ramp has to cover. For example, the project involves building an exterior ramp that will go up two feet (24 inches). Assume that the ramp will have a 1:20 slope. Therefore, the following applies

  • The required length of the horizontal projection can be determined as follows:
    • 1/20 = 24/X
    • X = 480 inches (40 feet)
    • Alternatively, multiplying the amount of rise by 20, the slope ratio, also yields the length of the ramp.
  • The ramp will have a 5-foot landing at the bottom and a 5-foot landing at the top.
  • Since the rise is less than 30 inches, an intermediate landing is not required.
  • Thus, the entire ramp length in this example is 50 feet (the horizontal projection of 40 feet, plus the 2 ramp landings of 5 feet each).

In laying out the ramp, consideration should be given to any possible zoning requirements and whether a setback variance would be needed. Information on the zoning processes can be found at or by calling the Planner of the Day at 703-324-1290.

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Alternatives to Fixed Ramps

Portable Ramps
Portable ramps can work as well as fixed ramps when there is a small change in level. The size and length of portable ramps depend on the total height and the number of steps. Portable ramps are available locally from several vendors of medical equipment and supplies; look in the phone book for possible vendors. They can be rented for a short-term need, or purchased. Since they do not have landings, consumers should be careful that there is adequate landing space at the top and bottom of where the ramps will be used.

Long-tread Low-riser Steps
When construction of a ramp is impractical, and/or the person who will use it uses mobility aids such as a walker or a cane, long-tread low-riser steps may be a good alternative for some. Long-tread low-riser steps have sufficient space for mobility aids and the gentle rise in the step make them easy to navigate. In addition, some users of manual wheelchairs can use long-tread low-riser steps safely with assistance. They are not a good alternative for people who use power chairs or other power mobility aids such as scooters. For more information on long-tread low-riser steps, visit the Minnesota Ramp Project Web site at, or contact them at 651-646-8342, TTY 651-603-2001.

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  Building Ramps in Fairfax County

Building Permits
The construction of a ramp requires a building permit if the ramp is permanently attached to the structure, or if it is connected to a “primary means of egress,” which means a main entrance to the building.  

To apply for a building permit, go to the Permit Application Center at the Herrity Building in Fairfax.  To learn more about the permit application process, please refer to the Permit Process section.

Building Plans
In order to build a ramp, you need to submit the following during the permit application process:

Keep in mind that all ramp building plans must meet the current building code.

Contact Information
If you have any questions, please e-mail or call the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services at 703-222-0801.  The permit, plan review and inspection status can also be accessed through the Fairfax Inspections Database Online.

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What to Consider in Choosing a Building Contractor for a Ramp

Depending on the requirements for the person using the ramp, a contractor may not be needed. A handy do-it-yourself person can obtain a permit for an entry landing and ramp that follows the “Fairfax County Typical Deck Details,” which can be found at Most landings and steps can be built to these specifications.

A good rule of thumb for getting the right contractor is getting three written quotes or estimates for the work to be done. A good source of information for ramp contractors is the Endependence Center of Northern Virginia 703-525-3268; TTY 703-525-3553.

Consumers should determine if the contractors they wish to hire are properly licensed to do business in Virginia. To determine if contractors are licensed in Virginia, an online search by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation is available at The department can also be reached at 804-367-8500 or e-mail at

Consumers can also determine if there have been complaints against specific contractors with the Fairfax County Consumer Protection Division (703-222-8435). In addition to providing information about a specific contractor or business organization, both will also investigate consumer complaints.


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Funding Assistance Programs

There are several local funding agencies that a person can contact to help pay for home modifications for accessibility, including ramps, through grants and low-cost loans. These agencies usually have eligibility requirements and an intake process, which often include a determination of the applicant’s income and status as a person with a disability or a senior. Other funding possibilities include private insurance, and civic and fraternal organizations such as the Lion’s and Kiwanis Clubs.

Assistive Technology Loan Fund Authority
866-835-5976, TTY 804-662-9000,

Variety of loan programs for consumers for assistive technology, including home and vehicle modifications.

In addition, some banks and credit unions offer special rates and terms for loans to make homes accessible. Consumers should contact their banks and credit unions and ask if such services are available.

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Tax Deductions for Home Modifications

Livable Home Tax Credit

The credit is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Starting in tax year 2010 (filed in 2011) individuals may be eligible for an income tax credit of $2000 for the purchase of a new accessible residence and 50% of the cost of retro-fitting activities not to exceed $2000. Any tax credit that exceeds the eligible individual’s tax liability may be carried forward for five years. If the total amount of tax credits issued under this program exceeds one million in a fiscal year, DHCD will pro rate the amount of credits among the eligible applicants. Applications are to be filed with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) by February 28 of the year following the year in which the purchase or retro-fitting was completed.

The cost of a permanent modification may be also be tax deductible on federal income tax returns. The Internal Revenue Service provides detailed information on this deduction in Publication 502-Medical and Dental Expenses.

Additional Resources

Access Services of the Fairfax County Public Library, located at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, has a collection of publications related to disabilities. To arrange to view the documents, call 703-324-8380, TTY 703-324-8365, or send an e-mail.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has a publication, “ Wood Ramp Design: How to Add a Ramp that Looks Good and Works Too.”

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