All-Access Recreation

Going Beyond ADA to Meet All Needs

By Stacy St Clair

You can't put a price on universal accessibility, but that hasn't stopped contractors from putting steep price tags on plans to make buildings and parks more accessible.

Recreation facilities and sporting venues have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 18 years to make themselves compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that ensures everyone has access to public settings. As the legislation marked its 18th anniversary this summer, the federal government has been weighing 1,000 pages of suggested changes to the law.


or the first time, the proposed regulations will establish requirements for an array of recreational facilities including playgrounds and swimming pools, amusement parks and golf courses, according to Grace Chung Becker, the acting assistant attorney general for the department's civil rights division. Proponents say they hope the changes will make it easier for individuals with disabilities to travel, enjoy sports and leisure activities, play and otherwise participate in society.

"We expect that measures will be taken to ensure access to places of public accommodation and government services, and we now have a common appreciation that to live a full and fulfilling life, one must have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of American life," Becker said. "And while there has been much progress since the enactment of the ADA, there is still more work to be done. As times change and with advancement in technology and other developments that enhance our quality of life, we must update our regulations to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity for full engagement and involvement in our civic life."

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.

A Moral Imperative

Despite their costs, the changes can create a wonderful challenge for recreation managers, who dedicate themselves to providing their communities with healthy lifestyles and entertaining diversions. For more than 51 million Americans with disabilities, spending the day at the park or working out after a long day at the office isn't always an option.

While the existing rules have increased recreation opportunities for people with disabilities, they haven't removed all the barriers. Studies show people with disabilities are twice as likely to avoid participating in their communities as people without limitations. The poll specifically cites attending sporting events and using recreation facilities as evaded activities.

No one can promise the current proposal will immediately solve the problem. Public comment period on the changes began in July, so the end result is still unknown.

But accessibility is not just a legal obligation, it's a moral imperative. Recreation facilities can—and should—be doing more, whether it's making sure families with autistic members feel welcomed, building a play garden all children can enjoy or simply having a Web site that everyone can use.

"We believe that access to recreation opportunities improves quality of life for all Americans including those people with disabilities," Dolesh said. "Therefore, access and inclusion are part of what we do and what we stand for."

The National Park Service (NPS), for example, has made a concerted effort in recent months to ensure that visitors with special needs know they have access to many of the same amenities and attractions enjoyed by 276 million people each year. In July, the NPS launched a Web site to help visitors with disabilities and special needs find accessible trails, programs, activities and other features at national park units nationwide.

The site shows the accessible trails and vistas for the visually impaired and the hearing impaired, as well as accessible camping and picnic areas. There's also the broad category of accessible opportunities for visitors with disabilities.

"It's my personal favorite of what the Web site has to offer," said Elise Cleva, the National Park Service intern who proposed the online service. "It tells you about places like the Longfellow site in Massachusetts where visitors who are visually impaired can go on a tour with a ranger of the historic home. They'll put on special gloves and be able to touch historic objects."

The site also promotes programs such as the week-long camp for the visually impaired at the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. The program gives blind visitors a chance to learn about ocean life by going into the water and interacting with sea creatures.

va hopes the site allays myriad concerns for potential visitors. If someone in a wheelchair, for example, wants to vacation at the beach or the desert but isn't sure how they'll function in the sand, the site informs them that Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado are just two of the parks that offer sand wheelchairs.

The site is continuously updated, as any such Internet service must be in the modern age. When it was first launched, the National Park Service media relations department did not have the accessibility information for all locations. As the site's popularity grows, however, parks are contacting the office to make sure their amenities and programs are included.

The online service also helped park officials realize how much further they must go to address the needs and concerns of disabled visitors.

"One of my co-workers even said that this Web site makes parks aware that the NPS could be doing more for people with disabilities," Cleva said. "Maybe this will help so that more can be done."

Even as they contemplate how to improve the site, the park service knows that it's already helped families enjoy our natural, national treasures.

"We've recently received an e-mail from a man thanking us for the Web site," Cleva said. "He has a disabled child and was able to obtain an 'America the Beautiful Free Access Pass' for him, a pass that is free for citizens who have a lifelong disability, while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park because of the information we provided on our Web site. He was very happy."

Swim to Access

When it comes to changing the rules of accessibility, it's a long and complicated process, and just because the Access Board makes recommendations, that doesn't mean those recommendations will be enacted.

"It's still a state of flux," said John Caden, president of a company that manufactures pool lifts. The Access Board sets guidelines, which are then turned over to the Department of Justice.

The latest version of guidelines, ADAAG 2004, was turned over to the Justice Department in December of last year. In mid-June, the department came out with its own recommendations based on the guidelines, which was followed by a comment period, which ended in mid-August.

"What they do is take the ADAAG rules and go out and tweak them a bit based on the feedback they get," Caden said. The result is some changes to the ADA rules, and when it comes to existing pools, the department erred on the side of not requiring as many modifications.

Under Title II, Caden said, which pertains to government entities like cities, counties and states, "the big change with respect to existing pools is under the program accessibility requirement," he said.

The ADAAG requires every pool to be accessible, but the Department of Justice changed that requirement to make "a reasonable number but at least one" pool accessible. What's a reasonable number? That's not defined.

That means that for a small town with a single existing pool, a lift or other accessible means of entry and exist must be added. For a city with 100 pools? A single pool must be made accessible.

Most people would argue that 100 percent of pools should be made accessible, Caden said. If the rules as outlined now by the department go through, he added, it would mean, "…someone who lives, for example, on the south side of Chicago across the street from a swimming pool might have to go to the north side to use an accessible pool."

Some might argue that as long as something is being done to address disabled patrons' needs, that's enough, but Caden points out that we're talking about 20 percent of the population here.

"When you're talking about ADA and dealing with disabled people, you have to put it in the context of Civil Rights," he added. "Saying only one out of 100 pools needs to be accessible to the disabled is the same as saying women can only use one pool out of 100."

The problem goes beyond publicly owned facilities, too. For both Title II and Title III, which covers privately owned public pools, like those at hotels, private schools, health clubs and so forth, the Justice Department also changed the recommendations from the ADAAG. Now, while existing pools over 300 linear feet must have one accessible means of entry (downgraded from the ADAAG's recommendation of two entries), pools of less than 300 linear feet are not required to feature an accessible entry at all.

"That's a big problem, especially when you look at Title III," Caden said. "For example, 80 percent of hotels with pools have pools that are 300 linear feet and under, and those don't have to be accessible. So a person with disabilities who wants to swim when they're at a hotel—often the only exercise they're able to take part in and enjoy—is limited to just 20 percent of the hotels out there."

So where do things stand now? The Justice Department is still sifting through the feedback it's received, and a decision is expected before the current administration leaves office in January 2009. In the meantime, what should you do to prepare?

Regardless of the new rules that are eventually handed down and enforced, it pays to consider reaching a larger audience by improving accessibility by adding sloped ramps or pool lifts.

"The more you can market your facility as disability-friendly, the more you can attract an audience," Caden said. "You'll make your own decisions, but you're talking about 20 percent of the population. Not all of them need a pool lift or other means of improved accessibility, but many do. And a lot of senior citizens may need a lift."

This may become an even more central issue as baby boomers age and fill out facilities.

"Baby boomers are an active generation," Caden added. "And swimming is a great exercise, but one of the big issues is getting out of the pool, and a sloped entry or pool lift will allow people with disabilities or just aging patrons with arthritis or limited mobility to enjoy the water more often."

-Emily Tipping

Play for Everyone

The Great Neck (New York) Park District is also going the extra mile to ensure the entire community can enjoy recreation opportunities. When officials began making plans for a major park renovation in 2004, they wanted the space to be something special—for everyone. To accomplish this goal, they formed a playground committee to help design the area and invited special education teachers and other educators to join so they could develop a site that would bring entertainment, exercise and fun to any child who visited. As the process moved along, the group's vision gradually turned away from a traditional playground and evolved into a sensory playground, an innovative playground designed using traditional playground equipment and landscape features to create a sensory play experience for children and adults.

&qu ot;The community didn't deserve another cookie-cutter playground," said landscape architect Spencer Levine, project manager at Creative Design Associates. "We were taking the Victoria Garden style and expanding from there."

The project, which celebrated its groundbreaking in June and is not yet finished, will place elements along a garden path. It will encourage visitors to use four senses—sight, touch, hearing and smell. A lot of the structures will be sculptural and have interpretive kiosks that are custom-designed to be large and whimsical.

"It's a place for everyone, where an elderly person would be comfortable sitting and where young children would enjoy playing," Levine said. "We wanted it to serve the needs for all adults and children and people with special needs. We wanted everyone to be able to be a part of it."

A spot that used to be a patch of sand with a small playground now is being transformed into an incredible space that will be enjoyed by the entire community. Levine likes that it will attract young children, as well as seniors from a nearby retirement center.

"That's really unique for a playground, how all of the pieces come together in providing recreation opportunities for people of all abilities within a learning garden atmosphere," he said. "Even though special needs children are the main target group, the Great Neck Village Green is a space that can be enjoyed and used by everyone."

At the groundbreaking this summer, Great Neck residents showered the concept with praise. The excitement surrounding the play garden, Levine says, is a direct result of the community's early involvement with the plans.

"We've had a huge reaction," Levine said. "It's been just great. We've had community support and input throughout the entire project, from the beginning until this point."

Behind the Scenes: Locker Rooms & Restrooms

Some of the most common questions building departments receive pertain to bathroom design and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most inquiries tend to be on the highly technical side, but others delve into issues such as whether the requirements vary depending on bathroom size or whether they even have to offer public bathrooms at all.

We've talked to the experts and they had lots to say on the topic. Here are their tips for making sure your locker room or restroom meets ADA requirements—and, in some cases, goes beyond the federal government's expectations:

  • The requirements for accessible bathrooms vary depending upon the type of building involved, as well as whether it is an existing facility, new construction or alteration of an existing facility. The act establishes federal requirements for 12 categories of public accommodations, including stores and shops, restaurants and bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities, private museums and schools and others. Nearly all types of private businesses that serve the public are included in theses categories, regardless of size.
  • Under the ADA, existing facilities that serve the public must remove physical barriers where that is readily achievable, meaning it's easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense. The "readily achievable" requirement is based on the size and resources of the business or organization. Barrier removal is an ongoing obligation.
  • The ADA requires that newly constructed facilities and alterations to facilities, spaces or elements (including renovations) must meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADAAG). The ADAAG requires every public and common use bathroom to be accessible. Generally only one stall must be accessible. When there are six or more stalls, there must be one accessible stall and one stall that is 3 feet wide. The ADAAG also provides detailed physical requirements regarding such items as toilet stalls, grab bars, doors, lavatories and mirrors, among other things. The ADAAG can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations at 28 C.F.R. Part 36, Appendix A. You may view the Access Board Web site for details at
  • Doors to changing rooms and restroom stalls should swing out to provide maximum maneuverability.
  • Make sure paths through the locker room and restrooms are at least 36 inches wide.
  • In general, accessibility proponents recommend that buildings with 5,000 square feet of gross public area or with occupancies of 100 or more persons shall provide public restrooms.
  • Consider family bathrooms and locker rooms. Though long hailed by parents as an answer to their locker room woes, they're also a godsend to families with members needing restroom and changing room assistance.
  • A fold-down seat in an adequately sized shower stall (at least 3 feet by 3 feet) makes it useable by almost everyone.
  • If your facility has full-length mirrors, situate them so they can be used by both seated and standing individuals.
  • Check that lockers are positioned within the reach of someone seated in a wheelchair and have easy-to-open latches. Be sure countertops are high enough and have clear space underneath so a customer in a wheelchair can use the mirror and sink.

Recreation & Autism

As the garden proves, just because someone can physically access your facility, that doesn't mean they can fully enjoy it. Progressive recreation managers have begun training their employees on how to assist and communicate with autistic patrons. The training is becoming increasingly important as autism diagnoses climb at an alarming rate. Today, one in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.

Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe, which means there's no one-size-fits-all recreation service for families with autistic members.

"You need to make sure you train your staff, not only in communication but also about sensory environments. Everyone with autism is different," said Dennis Debbaudt, the Autism Society of America's chief safe and sound consultant and the father of a 25-year-old son with autism. "Some are negatively affected by loud noises, others by bright lights and colors. There's no catch-all for everyone. It's best to talk to the individual families to find out the special needs of that person with autism."

Deb baudt, however, recognizes that identifying patrons' needs can be difficult because it's impossible to tell if a person has autism simply by looking at them. He recommends putting a line in printed materials and on the agency Web site that encourages parents to inform the staff of any children with special needs.

Flexibility can mean the difference between a good visit and an unhappy one, experts say. The more staff members know about autism, the easier it will be for everyone involved. Autistic children may not understand the lifeguard's role, for example, so they may not immediately respect the guard's authority.

"Certainly a lot of kids with autism love water, like most people do," Debbaudt said. "Lifeguards would need to ramp up your their eyes in that situation."

A little patience and strong communication with parents can eliminate potential problems. Likewise, slight adjustments in lighting or sound systems may go unnoticed among most patrons, but the minor changes may make a huge difference to someone with autism.

None of these things can happen, though, unless the facility has open lines of communication between the staff and patrons. Recreation managers must reach out to the community and ask patrons how they can best serve their needs.

"The ADA doesn't require disclosure, but common sense does," Debbaudt said. "They need to let you know who they are and what they require. The more information you can get from families before they visit the better able you are to adapt programs."

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