Accessibility for All?
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012
According to NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), the term “readily accessible” means that a person can quickly reach a piece of electrical equipment with ease, without having to remove impediments, and without the use of tools or ladders. The term is used in requirements for electrical equipment such as disconnecting means, overcurrent devices, ground-fault circuit interrupters, and similar items where quick operation is necessary for personal or property safety. Not all electrical equipment need be readily accessible, though, and even equipment that meets the requirements of the NEC definition may not be easily accessible in accordance with other standards that affect some electrical installations.
These notions of accessibility take on a new importance when considered from the perspective of people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility disabilities. In general, commonly used electrical devices such as general purpose receptacles and light switches need not be readily accessible. In dwellings, the NEC mandates the maximum horizontal spacing along walls and countertops in order to provide power for the myriad plug-in devices and cord- and plug-connected appliances used in today’s homes. The function of this requirement is to accommodate cord- and plug-connected equipment and minimize the need for extension cords.
The same can be said for wall switch locations. The NEC is even more permissive in the location of these devices provided there is switch control for general illumination in specified areas. Most people can access switches and receptacles mounted on the wall near the floor or above a counter, island, or bathroom vanity, but for those with mobility disabilities these locations may present insurmountable barriers.
When a building project has to comply with federal and state requirements for access for people with disabilities, the location of receptacles, light switches, and other electrical devices is governed not only by the NEC, but also by requirements such as those found in the 2009 edition of ICC/ANSI A117.1, Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, the 2010 design standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other accessibility standards. These provisions do not conflict with those of the NEC, but where ADA compliance is required, accessibility requirements must dovetail with those of the NEC.
To help designers and installers integrate accessibility provisions into the electrical system, Code-Making Panel 1 accepted a proposal (1-191a) to add a new informational annex, “2010 ADA Requirements for Accessible Design,” in the 2014 edition of the NEC. At least one new Informational Note will be included in the NEC pointing to this new annex.
The material in the new annex will provide designers, installers, and authorities having jurisdiction with relevant, fundamental accessibility requirements that affect the installation of electrical equipment such as receptacles, switches, disconnecting means, and similar devices that require manual interface to operate or program. While the current edition of the NEC does not preclude designing to facilitate access for people with disabilities, inclusion of this new annex gives NEC users basic accessibility concepts in the safety standard used by the design, installation, and enforcement communities so that safely installed electrical equipment will be easily accessible to any user.
The proposed inclusion of this new annex is another example of the way in which every revision of the NEC provides the public with the necessary safety requirements and support information to address society’s increasing reliance on electrical energy.
This proposal can be viewed at the NFPA 70 document information page at nfpa.org/70.
Jeffrey Sargent is a regional electrical code specialist for NFPA.