September 8, 2020

A Guide to ADA Handrails in Stairways

September 8, 2020

A Guide to ADA Handrails in Stairways

September 8, 2020

If you’re designing a building with plans for stairs, you may find yourself uncertain about requirements for handrails that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We hope that this article provides a brief overview of ADA regulations for handrails specific to  stairways. A complete list of ADA requirements can be found at or a more accessible version at

Handrails are only required for stairways and ramps, but it’s best practice to install a handrail in areas where people may be at risk of falling. For more information on best practices and a summary of general ADA handrail requirements, see our guide to handrails here. This article only covers regulations unique to handrails on stairways.

General Questions

Do I need an ADA handrail in my stairway?

You are required to provide an ADA compliant handrail in an interior or exterior stairway if it is the only option for entering or leaving an area. The standard does not apply to more uncommon stairway configurations such as alternating tread devices, ship’s ladders, and aisle stairs in assembly areas (section 210).

Do I need to provide a handrail on both sides of a stairway?

Yes. Handrails are required on both sides of a stairway. One exception is assembly areas where a handrail is provided within the aisle width or at either side of the aisle (section 505.2).

Do handrails need to be continuous within stairways?

Yes. Handrails must be continuous within the full length of each flight of a stairway, including switchback or dogleg configurations. One exception is that handrails do not have to be continuous in assembly areas on aisles with access to seating, such as a theatre (section 505.3).


Do handrails need to extend past the stairway?

Yes. Handrail gripping surfaces must extend beyond and in the same direction of stairways, although extensions are not required for inside turns in switchback or dogleg configurations. In assembly areas, extensions are not required where aisles provide access to seating (sections 505.10.2 and 505.10.3).

How far does a handrail need to extend?

At the top of a stair flight, the handrail must extend parallel to the ground for 12 inches minimum starting above the first riser nosing. At the bottom of the stair flight, the handrail must extend at the slope of the stairs for at least equal to one tread depth beyond the last riser nosing. At each end, the extension must return to a wall or the walking surface or continue to the handrail of an attached stair flight (sections 505.10.2 and 505.10.3).

Wooden stairway and handrail with correct ADA dimensions for extensions
ADA Handrail Extension Requirements in a Stairway

Dimensional Requirements

Height – How High Should a Handrail Be?

The top of the gripping surface of a handrail must be between 34 and 38 inches vertically above stair nosings and must be at a consistent height throughout the stairway flight (section 505.4).

Black and white infographic showing the correct height dimensions for an ADA handrail in a stairway, slope, and flat surface
ADA Height Requirements in Stairways, Ramps, and Walking Surfaces

Clearance – How Much Clearance does an ADA Handrail Need?

The distance between the grip on the handrail and the wall or the adjacent surface must be 1 ½ in. (38 mm) minimum (section 505.5).

A handrail attached to a wall with a line measuring the 1.5 inch minimum clearance between it and the wall
ADA Handrail Clearance Requirements

Gripping Surface

Your handrail cannot be obstructed along the tops or the sides. The bottoms of handrail gripping surfaces can be partially obstructed by attachments to the wall but not for more than 20% of their length. Any attachments to the wall should occur 1 ½ in (38 mm) minimum below the bottom of the handrail gripping surface, so that people can firmly grasp onto the handrail. Seniors and people with disabilities may benefit from handrails that are completely unobstructed for optimal gripping ability (section 505.6).

Cross Section

Handrails with circular cross sections must have a diameter of 1 ¼ in. (32 mm) minimum and 2 in. (51 mm) maximum (505.7.1).

Handrails with non-circular cross sections must have a perimeter dimension of 4 in. (100 mm) minimum and 6¼ in. (160 mm) maximum. They must also have a cross section dimension of 2 ¼ in. (57 mm) maximum (505.7.2).

Horizontal lines across a circular handrail grip and non-circular grip showing the correct ADA cross section diameters
ADA Handrail Cross Section Diameter Requirements
Lines around a circular handrail grip and non-circular grip showing the correct ADA cross section perimeters
ADA Handrail Cross Section Perimeter Requirements