Feature Article - November 2012
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Changes Are Coming to ADA

New Regulation Standards Expected for Campgrounds, Parks & Beaches

By Rick Dandes

Ellis had a few other suggestions. "The park director must appoint an accessibility coordinator who can oversee and coordinate park accessibility efforts," she said. "Accessibility is everyone's responsibility, but it's important to have a coordinator."

Then, one of the most important initial things a park can do is to conduct a comprehensive accessibility assessment to identify the barriers to full participation in facilities, programs and activities by people with disabilities. After that, the park should complete an action or transition plan outlining how and when the barriers will be corrected—a road map to accessibility, so to speak. This will give the park an overall view of how to achieve accessibility in a holistic way, programmatically, as well as physically, rather than piecemeal.

Equally important, Ellis said, is staff training, which is very critical to the success of any accessibility program. "We can make facilities and programs accessible, but unless you also provide excellent visitor services with the needs of people with disabilities in mind to access those facilities and programs, your efforts will be for naught."

Outreach to the disability community is also critical, Ellis said. "Build it and they will come" doesn't work if no one knows about your efforts. Web sites, brochures, meeting announcements and your page on Facebook should include information about accessibility.

Designing With ADA in Mind

Accessibility should be included in any design or planning activity from the beginning, not as an add-on. Planning something and then trying to figure out how to make it accessible is a recipe for disaster. Park design should incorporate the principles of universal design throughout the planning.

Accessible design is design to the minimum accessibility standards to meet the minimum needs of people with disabilities, noted Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects, National Center on Accessibility, Bloomington, Ind. By contrast, universal design is the design of products and environments meant to accommodate the widest spectrum of users without need for specialized design or adaptations. The terms accessible and universal design are not interchangeable, Skulski emphasized.

"Accessible is the minimum" she said. "Universal is going above and beyond the standards to meet the needs of all ages and all abilities as inclusively as possible."

Utilizing the principles of universal design actually makes for better design than simply designing to the minimum standards, Skulski said. "For example, planning the placement of picnic tables in a park does not mean plunking down 20 picnic tables in the middle of a grassy field. Good design would consider the dispersion of the picnic tables to create choice among a variety of opportunities. Some might be placed in the shade, some in the sun, some at a shelter, some near the playground, others near the trailhead. Good design would consider the location along an accessible route and amenities like inclusive table design, grills and running water. While an accessible picnic table accommodates wheelchair seating, it can also provide extra tabletop space for setting up paper plates, hotdogs, ketchup and the cooler. The design is attractive to more users because it gives them more space to spread out.

Universal design is also the best argument for making good economic decisions. For a park restroom building, the medical shallow sink with gooseneck faucet can cost $200 more than a standard lavatory that is installed at the accessible height with compliant hardware and knee clearance. A tilted angled mirror over the lavatory is also much more expensive than a full-length mirror that can serve the same purpose. A well-planned-out multi-height drinking fountain is much more cost-effective than installing two separate units.

For both universal design and accessibility improvements to be cost-effective, however, they must be considered at the beginning of the planning process.

Ellis of the National Park Service wholeheartedly agreed. "Merely following the regulations/standards is reflective of the 'What's the least I can do to be in compliance' attitude. Accessibility standards are based on the average person with a disability. Often the minimum requirements are still restrictive to many people with disabilities. Going beyond the minimum provides accessibility for a much larger group of people who would benefit."

Accessibility is usually a function of three factors: design, installation or manufacture, and maintenance. "We often, especially here in the Midwest, see a properly designed site that because of freeze-and-thaw cycles heaves and changes," said John McGovern, with Recreation Accessibility Consultants. "Or we'll see the properly designed site poured or installed incorrectly. Perhaps a properly installed site fails to meet the access requirements because maintenance fails. Or, yes, occasionally we'll see a site that isn't properly designed."

Why would anyone design a ramp slope at exactly 8.33 percent? McGovern asked. "Go with 8 percent, or 7.8 percent, and you instantly accommodate thawing and heaving, or a bad pour, or changing circumstances at the site. Being on the receiving end of an ADA complaint can be expensive. It includes intensive staff time, your own legal fees, and if you lose, the legal fees for the complainant. Exceeding the requirements of the ADA can help you avoid these costs."