Frank Stoner / July 20th, 2012 / Blogs
Second Place: The ADA and Rollerblading

Since I know you aren’t going to read that, let me give you the highlights.

No railing may be below 34 inches high, and no railing may exceed 38 inches high.

Railings must be placed on both sides of the staircase.

Railings (and grab bars, like in your shower) must be between 1.25 and 1.5 inches in diameter.

Stairs may not be shorter than 11 inches in length.

The slope of stairs may not be less than the ratio of 1:16 and may not exceed 1:20.

Landings must be flat and level.

All railings must extend 12 inches beyond the top tread and bottom tread.

All railings must be fixed in their fittings and may not spin.

Where children are the principle users, secondary railings may be included in the railing design, but may not exceed 28 inches in height.

And last but not least:

All railings must be continuous. (When they cannot be, all railings must extend 12 inches beyond the top and bottom tread).

Now, this is all very interesting, but you might be wondering why it’s being covered here on Second Place.

Well, first of all, it’s because I really like handrails. I’ve always liked handrails and I think they’re one of the most enjoyable aspects of rollerblading. I also think nobody knows much about them. But that’s not the real reason.

The real reason this fits with the aims of Second Place is because the ADA is a prime example of how the larger forces in our world shape our experience, our language, our preferences, and even our hardware.

Let me put it this way, if you scroll back up and reread that list of ADA requirements, what you get is a condensed list of the last 20 years of rollerblading—at least, as far as handrails are concerned.

Let me show you what I mean.

Have you ever felt like a rail was particularly “low” for you or “high” for you? If it was low, it was probably at the minimum 34 inches. If it was high, probably 38.

Do you prefer “mellow” rails, or what some guys call “gradual” rails? Rails like that probably have a slope ratio of 1:16. Like your shit steep? Probably 1:20.

Have you ever heard of a “kinked rail?” Obviously you have. The reason we even had to invent such a term is because the ADA specifies that rails “must be continuous.”

Have you ever been “raped” by the “dick” at the top or bottom of a rail? Wish it wasn’t there? Well, tough shit, because they’re required by law:

Have you ever seen Chris Farmer or somebody else grind “the middle rail?” If so, you can bet your ass that rail is designed to accommodate children.

Now, we should also consider this: we take it for granted that rails don’t spin within their fittings. The ADA, and that specific requirement (for railings NOT to spin) went a long way toward creating the “rails” that we all now know and love. Before that, what you saw were mostly banister-style railings, many of which were joined with fittings that allowed long stretches of pipes (or cloth-covered wooden dowels) to spin—certainly no good for us.

So some things we take for granted, but other things from the ADA have played a significant role in what we do, and what we call what we do.

Here’s another thing.

Remember that one up there that says the diameter of the rail must be between 1.25 and 1.5 inches? Ever heard of a split frame? Ever heard of anti-rocker? Those two things are both specifically designed to provide enough space for the 1.5 inch (maximum) railing.

To be fair, rollerbladers grind many more things than railings. But the point is, if the ADA requirement was only 0.5 inches (say), rollerbladers skating handrails wouldn’t have the same set of problems we currently have. Many more rails would be skateable without a split-frame setup and (I bet) many more people would be riding flat rockered skates.

And all of this eventually goes back to Senator Tom Harkin, whose staff went to great lengths to standardize staircases and railings for the purpose of accommodating disabled Americans.

In several small but very significant ways, Senator Harkin has played a big role in what rollerblading looks like around the world.

As as final note and some food for thought, it might be worth looking into to find out whether the act of “capping” rails violates statute which reads: “Gripping surfaces shall be uninterrupted by newel posts, other construction elements, or obstructions.”

Maybe we can get in touch with the good Senator to find out whether he can do anything about all these pesky caps that are ruining some of our most glorious and treasured handrails—in the name of accessibility, of course.

Thanks for reading.


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Discussion / Second Place: The ADA and Rollerblading

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  • josip - July 20th, 2012

    great work again, frank. a fine piece of journalism.

  • Frank Stoner - July 20th, 2012

    Thanks, Josip!

  • Phil309 - July 20th, 2012

    Great read. Very interesting stuff Frank.

  • Frank Stoner - July 20th, 2012

    Hey Phil309! Thanks so much, man! Glad you liked it!

  • Bruce J. Bales - July 22nd, 2012

    Great article, Frank. Iowa bladers are doing very well. Check out our website ( It’s been around for over ten years.

    But again, great piece. I really enjoy your insights.

  • Frank Stoner - July 22nd, 2012

    Hey Bruce! Man, my apologies to Iowa bladers. I had no idea yall had such a thriving scene. Thanks for the correction and thanks for sharing the website. Those Davenport skate comps look like a lot of fun!

    Be sure to thank your senator the next time you’re in touch with him! We are all very grateful for his hard work!

  • Frank Stoner - July 22nd, 2012

    BTW, that’s everybody. Peep game.

  • Bruce J. Bales - July 25th, 2012

    And we are thankful for your hard work as hell. I’m looking forward to your next piece. Thank you.

  • Bruce J. Bales - July 25th, 2012

    Correction: And we are thankful for your hard work as well.

  • Frank Stoner - July 27th, 2012

    you bet!

  • Mike Hogarty - August 29th, 2012

    Just a Nod to Mr. Harkin! – Also side note – I know several rollerbladers who are employed as design/welders at steel companies and are responsible for some great rails in the Norther VA area – if you see a great spot someone may have been looking out for more than just the disabled!

  • Frank Stoner - August 30th, 2012

    Hey Mike!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this article and thanks so much for sharing this! You raise an excellent point, and it’s one that I’ve often wondered about: just how many people might we have “on the inside” looking out for us in one way or another? Some spots I’ve seen I have thought to myself must’ve had a skater contributing to design/planning/building or some other aspect that makes them (the spots) seem particularly well-tailored to our preferences.

    If any of those rollerbladers would be interested in contacting me, I’d LOVE to hear from them to learn more about what they’re doing for us and HOW they’re going about it. My contact info is available on my main Blade Blog site here at ONE over at

    They are also welcome to post something as a comment here on this page.

    Thanks again, Mike!


  • Nate H - September 4th, 2013

    Great article Frank.
    The bullet about the slope of stairs immediately caught my attention as my inner engineer immediately converted those slope ratios to angles. The ratio limits between 1:16 and 1:20 can be read as Rise:Run, or dy:dx. Those are very small angles, 2.9-3.6 degrees.
    The link given for the full ADA text given is now broken, but this is a good site:
    It turns out those slopes are for ramps not stairs.
    This begs the question what are the slope requirements for stairs? With a quick search I couldn’t find any. Which makes sense; the disabled don’t care about the stairs much, they’ll use the ramps or elevators.

    The article makes that case that the 1990 ADA act was a great thing for rollerblading. At first I was totally on board with this but after some pondering and comparing my mental catalog of the best rails against the ADA standards I think I disagree. I think some of the very best rails were designed and built before 1990 and grandfathered in. I doubt the ADA act was completely retroactive for stair rails, it’s most relevant for new stair rail construction and requiring that ramps be built everywhere. I concur that the ADA act has created more rails, and made them decently skate-able. However, its ruled out the possibility for the really fun, session-able rails sometimes under 34″ height as well as the really fun, unique rails that make for great photos and clips. If you assume this to be true than its bad news for the future of American rollerblading. It means that the best rails will continue to slowly die off and be replaced with standardized, mediocre ADA compliant rails as time progresses. An interesting study and extension of this article would be to determine the ratio of ADA complaint to non ADA compliant rails that occur in a given magazine or video.

    For the record, I think the ADA is overall a great thing for Americans as a whole, just maybe not so great for American bladers.

  • Frank Stoner - September 4th, 2013

    Hey Nate!

    Thanks for weighing in on this! I’m always glad to have somebody from another discipline look over my shoulder with these things! I wish I could have had you look this over when I wrote it last year!

    To address your question, I found a document that appears to be a 2008 revision of the ADA—though I’m not sure whether the part that addresses your question was part of the original 1990 text or part of the revision. Either way, the relevant quotation is this:

    1009.3 Stair Treads and Risers:
    Stair riser heights shall be 7 in. (178 mm) maximum. Stair tread depths shall be 11 in. (279 mm) minimum.

    I had to ask around for some basic geometry help since it’s been like 15 years since I had to figure out a sin, cos, or tan problem, but it seems to me that a maximum riser height of 7 inches and minimum tread length of 11 inches would produce a rail angle of about 32.47 degrees for a maximum (or steepest) slope permissible. Does that math bear out for you?

    As for the rest, we might have to respectfully disagree on the ADA being generally bad for rollerblading. The law effectively mandates that all rails be built so that they are skatable. Sure most rails won’t be lower than 34 inches, but to me the height is a small price to pay for universal skatability. Also, as I think I may have said in the article, the ADA requires railings to be on both sides of the staircase—which I take to be a real luxury—and, the ADA effectively mandates kinked rails.

    I can see that codifying the whole thing causes certain limitations, for instance, staircases have to be at least 48 inches wide (which henceforth eliminates the possibility of close transfer rails), but again, I take that as a small price to pay for universal skatability.

    One thing I would completely agree with you about is your intuition that the ADA was not retroactive. As far as I can tell, there were still TONS of rails that didn’t meet compliance in the mid 90s, and many of them are still out there today.

    One thing that might be worth looking into is what the builders call a “variance.” There’s a new elementary school in Austin (where I live) where they just built a brand new rail leading to the playground. The rail itself couldn’t be more than about 20 inches high because, presumably, it has been built to accommodate children—perhaps even disabled or special needs children. It makes me wonder whether schools, businesses, churches, etc. can apply for a variance that would let me them build those lower rails you were talking about. I’ll see what I can find out and I’ll post if there’s anything interesting to report.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting. Hit me up on FB if you ever want to get in touch!

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