How to Build a Wheelchair Ramp

Build a safe structure for your church that meets accessibility standards.

For your church to be a place where people of all ages feel welcome, it is important to make it accessible. One step toward improved accessibility involves building ramps at entrances with stairs. These ramps are important not only for wheelchair users, but also for people who have arthritis or who use walkers, crutches, or canes.

It’s Important to Do it Right

Many times, church leaders don’t realize that a building’s stairs are an obstacle until a member of the congregation requires a wheelchair.

Then, the need for one is so urgent that volunteers may hastily build a ramp without consulting local building codes first. Some ramps may lack proper handrails, be too steep, or have slick surfaces.

An improperly built ramp can injure wheelchair users and cause back strain for caretakers. Follow local building codes, state accessibility requirements, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines to make sure your ramp meets or exceeds minimum safety standards.

The following instructions will help you build a sturdy ramp that follows general accessibility recommendations. Consult with local building officials before starting a ramp construction project to be sure that your project will meet all local, state, and federal requirements for accessibility. Also inquire whether you’ll need a local building permit or additional insurance coverage for your project.

Picking the Right Ramp for Your Church

One of the first steps in building a ramp is deciding what type of ramp you want to build. Some options include berming, post-and-beam construction, and solid construction.

  • Berming.  A bermed ramp works well for rises of less than 18 inches. When building a bermed ramp, the slope up to the door is built up with dirt or sand, and then a sidewalk is paved over the new ramp with concrete or blacktop. Sod or grass seed can cover the rest of the mound, making this type of ramp the least visible of the three options.
  • Post-and-beam.  Post-and-beam ramps are built with wooden framing. All wood should be treated with preservatives to prevent rotting. Non-slip coating or sand grit strips should be applied to the ramp surface to prevent slipping. Because it deteriorates so quickly, plywood should never be used.
  • Solid Construction.  Solid ramps, typically built of concrete, are the most durable and stable of the three options. They’re built by pouring concrete into temporary forms. The best concrete ramps are built by professionals, who know how to add expansion joints, install reinforcements, and properly attach the ramp to your church’s building.

Measuring the Slope

Next, you must calculate the slope, or how steep your ramp will be. This is a crucial step, because a ramp that’s too steep can be difficult or unsafe for people to use.

A slope is typically presented as a ratio. The first number represents the rise in elevation, or vertical height. The second number denotes the run, or the horizontal length of the sloped surface. A slope of 1 to 24 would have 1 inch of rise and 24 inches of run. That’s two feet of run for every inch of height, a very gradual slope.

When building a ramp, the slope should be no greater than 1 to 12, or one foot of run for every inch of height. Any slope steeper than 1 to 12 is difficult for most wheelchair users to navigate. Electric wheelchairs ascending steep slopes can actually tip backwards because of the weight imbalance caused by a battery pack in the back.

Let’s say that your ramp must reach a platform 30 inches from the ground. If you use a 1 to 12 slope ratio, the ramp should be at least 30 feet long. It could be longer if you desire a more gradual slope or include a landing. A contractor with expertise in ADA construction can help you figure out the rise, run, and slope of your ramp, as well as the amount of space needed for a wheelchair to be able to safely turn on a landing.

Adding Landings

Landings are areas on the ramp that are level with the ground. Landings allow a person in a wheelchair to perform tasks like transferring out of a vehicle at the ramp’s bottom, opening a door at the top, navigating corners in ramps that make turns, or resting in the middle of longer ramps. 

To allow wheelchairs to move more easily, the ramp’s endings should be flush with the ground at the bottom and with the platform at the top.

When building a landing at the top of a ramp, allow room for a wheelchair user to open a door from the landing. An out-swinging door necessitates a platform of at least 60 inches by 60 inches. If there is no out-swinging door, the landing should be a minimum of 48 inches.

On long ramps, intermediate landings should be added at least every 30 feet to allow people to rest.

When adding turns in the ramp, the following guidelines should be followed:

  • 90-degree turn. Landing should be at least five feet by five feet.
  • 180-degree turn. Create a landing at least five feet by eight feet.

Ramp Width and Surface

When building a ramp, it is important to imagine yourself in a wheelchair. Consider how easily a wheelchair would fit on to the ramp and how slippery it could become when wet. To ensure that wheelchairs can fit up the ramp, no ramp should be less than three feet wide. A width of 42 to 48 inches is recommended.

The ramp’s top platform should be nearly level with the doorway. A bump any higher than half an inch can stop a wheelchair or trip a person walking along the ramp, especially if he or she has an irregular gait or uses a walker or cane.

Ramps that may become wet, either from weather conditions or from foot traffic, should have an anti-slip surface. Some ways to increase traction on wooden ramps include adding sand-grit tape, putting down strips of rolled roofing material, or sprinkling sand into freshly applied coats of polyurethane. Non-slip surfaces should be inspected annually and replaced when they lose traction.

To add rough texture to the surface of a concrete ramp, the surface can be brushed with a broom before the concrete sets.

Adding Safety Features

No ramp is truly complete without safety features. These features include handrails, guardrails, and edge protection.

  • Handrails. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a wheelchair ramp more than six inches in height or more than six feet long must have handrails on both sides. These handrails must be able to support at least 250 pounds of weight at any point along their length. The handrail should be 31 to 38 inches up from the ramp’s surface, and at least 1 ½ inches from the wall or guardrail. Wood is the preferred material for handrails, which should have smooth or rounded edges.
  • Guardrails. Vertical guardrails go along the length of a ramp and ensure that wheelchairs will not roll off of the side. Rail slats should be no more than three and a half inches apart to avoid head entrapment if children are using the ramp.
  • Edge protection. Without edge protection, there’s a risk of wheelchair wheels or canes slipping off the edge of the ramp. One way to fix this is to add a wooden lip, also called a curb, crutch-stop, or bump board, to both sides of the ramp. The wooden lip can be mounted onto the ramp surface, or a half an inch above the ramp surface to aid water run-off. It should be at least two inches high.

Having a safe wheelchair ramp allows people who can’t climb stairs to participate in activities at church. Use these general guidelines to get started, but be sure to follow any additional rules detailed in your local building codes. By building a strong, sturdy ramp for people with limited mobility, you have taken an important step toward making your ministry a place where everyone who enters can feel safe and welcome.