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Clear Floor Spaces – Are they Really Clear?



Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp © December, 2015

There are certain things in Access that at first and even second glance, appear to be clear. But many of the simple things are not as intuitive as you might imagine, particularly if you are not a wheelchair user. Clear floor spaces, for instance. We know that a clear floor space is 30” x 48” unless confined on all or part of three sides. But how do we apply it, how do we show it – particularly when we have enough space so the long edge can be either parallel or perpendicular to an element? That is the question.

When we talk about clear floor spaces, think of the approach to an element, whether forward or parallel, and in some circumstances both. But, it is not just providing a space, or drawing a rectangle perpendicular or parallel to an element. In most cases, clear floor spaces relate directly to reach ranges. So one of the questions is, what do I need to reach? If it is something on a vertical surface, then either a front or side approach is feasible. The rectangular space can then be placed either parallel or at right angles to this vertical surface depending upon the space you have.

Forward or Front Approach

But remember, for forward approach, where the long edge is perpendicular to the object or vertical surface, we can only reach as far as our toes. This is fine for a control or switch located on a wall or other vertical surface, but would not provide access for a recessed object. This is also true for forward reach over an object with knee/toe clearance below – again we are limited to the clear maximum distance of our toes below which may be suitable for some tasks and is actually preferable for others since the user does not need to twist their body.

Parallel or Side Approach

Side approach, where the long edge is parallel to the object or vertical surface, does have more flexibility. You can reach the vertical surface but you can also reach up to 24″ further (dependent upon obstruction height), whether recessed or over an object. If we need to reach beyond the vertical surface, then we are limited to side approach only.

Some examples;

  • Vending machines many times have the controls surface-mounted on the machine, so a front approach is possible. Generally though, the change and where the product is dispensed fall into a recessed opening so a parallel approach would be the only option to fully use the vending machine.
  • Another example would be a medicine cabinet located over a lavatory with knee/toe clearance below for the full depth. You will be able to reach the face of the cabinet, but if recessed, the interior shelves would not be within reach range. So either a surface-mounted cabinet would be the option for front approach in order to access the interior shelves or provide for a side approach.
  • With an appliance such as a range, with front approach you can reach items on the front vertical surface only, but nothing beyond that. This might work for the controls if located on the front face, but not for any pots and pans on the range-top. With side reach, though, you can reach 24” sideways dependent upon the height of the object being reached over.
  • With a retail counter, if there is no knee/toe clearance below the counter, then a forward approach does not allow one to make use of the counter top – only the front vertical surface, therefor it is unusable for transactions due to reach range. In this situation, a side approach would be necessary. What this means for most store or transaction counters, is, provision of a clear floor space with a parallel approach unless that counter has knee/toe clearance below.

Clear Floor Space Sizes

Clear floor spaces are typically 30″ x 48″ minimum unless blocked on all or part of three sides for more than half the distance. If blocked by objects or within an alcove, then the clear floor space increases from 30″ x 48″ to either 36″ x 48″ or 60″ x 30″. If it is the 48″ side which is blocked for more than half for front approach, then the width increases to 36″. For parallel approach, if it is the 30″ side which is blocked for more than half, then the length increases from 48″ to 60″.  If the clear floor space is even partially blocked on a side, one full edge of the clear floor space is required to adjoin an accessible route or another clear floor space.

Related Article: Path of Travel Considerations – for the Deaf Community & Others


In summary, when you are locating and placing a clear floor space, you will need to think of how the element is being used. Keep in mind, that the minimum space for a wheelchair of 30” x 48” covers about 80%-85% of manual wheelchairs. This means that this is not enough space for about 15% to 20% of manual wheelchairs and even less for powered chairs and scooters. The 30” x 48” space actually is enough for approximately half of all types of wheeled mobility devices. Clear floor spaces tie into reach ranges with parallel approach having more flexibility than front approach unless there is knee/toe clearance under an object. With parallel approach, about 85% of manual wheelchair users have a side reach of 16”, increasing to about 95% with a side reach of only 12”. With a forward approach, do remember that you can not reach further than your toes, but only about 77% of manual wheelchair users can even reach this far. And with both forward and side reaches the distance decreases further if holding a weight. So clear floor spaces do take a bit of thought of how they tie into reach ranges for access.


Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are more restrictive and providing greater access than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer. It is meant as a summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions.

© Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp 2015