Feature Article - November 2012
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Changes Are Coming to ADA

New Regulation Standards Expected for Campgrounds, Parks & Beaches

By Rick Dandes

While the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has undoubtedly led to the promotion of social inclusion and the increased empowerment of people with disabilities by mandating greater access to transportation, public services and public accommodations, some of the law's access-related regulations have been more challenging to apply to public park and recreation spaces, according to ADA experts.

"It's true," explained Bill Beckner, research manager, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), Washington, D.C. "The ADA has, up to now, required us to make trails accessible, for example. But it doesn't always specify exactly how."

That will change soon. "New" guidelines that park and recreation officials should be on the lookout for this coming year include guidelines for outdoor developed areas, such as trails, campgrounds, picnic areas and beaches. When they are formally announced, they will affect everyone who plans and designs those areas.

Those changes in ADA regulations have been promulgated through the U.S. Access Board, but they have not gone through final rule-making yet, said Ray Bloomer, director of education and technical assistance, National Center on Accessibility, Bloomington, Ind. "What I am hearing from the Access Board is that all new rule-making has been put on hold until after the presidential election, according to the wishes of the current administration. We are expecting that they will be passed sometime this spring. When they pass, they will affect the federal government."

There's nothing new, or recent, about the federal government's regulatory response to accessibility legislation; the government has set standards for the past 40-plus years through the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (physical access) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1978, as amended (program access).

The ADA has been in place since 1990. The "new guidelines" you'll see this spring are not really new; rather, they have been recently revised. All park and recreation facilities (and programs) have been required to be accessible for a long time.

Keeping Up With ADA Standards

The National Park Service (NPS) has had an accessibility management program in place for many years, dedicated to making sure that public facilities, programs and services are available to the range of visitors, including people with disabilities.

"With 297 million visitors to our 397 park units, many of which contain rough terrain, historic sites and wilderness areas, accessibility can sometimes be a challenge," said Kay Ellis, accessibility program manager, National Park Service, Washington, D.C. "But it is a challenge that we embrace, providing technical assistance, training and policy development for park staff to ensure we provide the highest level of accessibility feasible, while still meeting our mandates for preservation and protection of our resources."

Unfortunately, many municipalities are way behind when it comes to ADA compliance. It is very common for architects and contractors to follow only their local building codes, which may not provide the same degree of accessibility to people with disabilities. Compliance with local building codes does not ensure compliance with the ADA.

You should make access a priority, suggested John McGovern, with Recreation Accessibility Consultants, Hoffman Estates, Ill. "Every staff meeting should have this as an agenda item," he said. "Every budget proposal ought to include some access retrofit work, and certainly every project ought to include a tangible access element. Job descriptions ought to note access and inclusion of people with disabilities as a task for every employee. Your mission statement should be revisited for this purpose. Certainly, rolling plans, strategic plans, capital plans and so forth ought to be revised to significantly capture access and inclusion work."

Then, you must walk the talk, he continued. Make merit increase systems include a discussion about access and inclusion. Get people with disabilities who have an interest in parks and recreation on advisory boards. Recruit and hire people with disabilities. Consider hiring, if your budget can accommodate it, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), to work with families and instructors and monitor participants' progress.