Feature Article - October 2008
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All-Access Recreation

Going Beyond ADA to Meet All Needs

By Stacy St Clair

A High Price

The amendments are so detailed, they even dictate accessibility at miniature golf courses. Under the proposed law, putt-putt centers must make at least half of their holes accessible. It sounds reasonable, but when you're a business based on cramming lots of fun into confined spaces filled with twists and turns, it could also be costly. Experts predict millions of dollars will be spent to retrofit miniature courses if the changes are passed.

And it's not just putt-putt palaces. The proposed changes also would spur changes in amusement park rides, stadium seating, water fountain placement, boat slips and fishing piers, to name a few.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates the new rules, if adopted, would impact 7 million businesses and government agencies nationwide. The federal government believes it will cost those groups $23 billion over the next 40 years to become compliant. Officials, however, also point out that the groups will realize additional revenue by making their facilities accessible to everyone.

The rules primarily would apply to new businesses and facilities, as well as any alterations made to existing ones. The law also would require existing entities to remove any "readily achievable" barriers, which are defined as changes that don't require much difficulty or expense. The federal government released the proposal in June and enactment could come as early as next year.

The proposed rules—and the time requirements set by them—have drawn criticism from several recreation-based agencies and associations. Some groups recently sent representatives to a hearing on the changes to ask the federal government for more time to review the laws. Stephanie Thienel of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) also has cast doubts on the financial impact analysis performed by the U.S. Justice Department.

"Many cost impacts are not included in the analysis such as those related to exterior facilities, retail space, food service establishments, pools, dry play areas, wet play areas, waterpark elements and ride vehicles," Thienel said. "We believe the economic impact on places of amusement exceeds $100 million. We believe a parallel but separate economic impact occurs on family entertainment centers, waterparks, miniature golf and other small businesses."

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) has publicly voiced support for a safe-harbor clause that would protect play areas that followed the Access Board's revised 2002 guidelines. Many recreation departments and municipalities obeyed those regulations, believing they were following the law and doing what was best for their communities. To force those agencies to renovate those areas would be unfair and expensive, said Richard Dolesh, the association's director of public policy.

"NRPA believes that to now require agencies to redo projects which were completed in good faith would be unfair and a waste of scarce local government resources," Dolesh said during a recent public hearing on the issue.

Under the current requirements, a public entity's program and services are viewed in their entirety. The American Psychological Association has concerns about such language and worries it could isolate some of the 5 million children in America with disabilities. The organization has said it would like to see standards that would require some entities to have more than one accessible playground or facility.

"Research has shown that the ability to play with other children and interact in an inclusive and integrated setting has a significant positive effect on the social growth and development of children, including children with disabilities," said Day Al-Mohamed, the association's federal affairs director.

Though the plan has incurred criticism from both advocates for the disabled and business lobbyists, at least some sort of change will be headed your way. The two major presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, both have said they would like to the see the laws changed to expand accessibility for all Americans.