Meeting Needs

Ensuring Accessibility

By Richard Zowie


he recreation industry is growing as people search for places and ways to relax, have fun and get exercise. For some, it's to the gym for a game of hoops or to run on the treadmill. Others like to go to the pool for a swim. Some like to go to a park where their children can burn off energy at the playground.

Some who love to exercise aren't as fortunate. Physical and mental limitations prevent them from being able to participate in the same activities as others. That has been changing with the passage of laws like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, as more and more recreation centers work to make their facilities accessible for those with disabilities. Others are now building facilities targeted at those with disabilities. There are even companies that provide products and services designed to make it easier for the disabled to participate in recreational and sports activities of all kinds. Many gains have been made, but some industry experts say far more work needs to be done.

Play for All

In October 2005, Sacramento opened an accessible playground. The Accessible Playground at Southside Park, located in California's capital at 6th and U Streets, features a zero-entry wading pool and accessible piers. The playground is also integrated and intergenerational, designed to be for children with and without disabilities and for their parents, grandparents and caregivers.

The park was a collaboration between the city manager, United Cerebral Policy and Sutter Health. According to City of Sacramento administrative officer Bonnie Williamson, who served as the playground's project manager, this accessible playground replaced an older playground. It features rubberized surfacing, fully-accessible ramps on the structures, accessible swings, and poles with foot pedals that can be stood on while the participant spins.

The spin feature was designed especially for autistic children, Williamson said. "We also designed the playground, such as the swings, to be accessible and integrated," she added. "Kids with special needs can swing side-by-side with able-bodied kids."

Other features of Southside Park include a wheelchair-accessible raceway that's like a racetrack and a zero-entry wading pool with a splash feature. There's also a sensory garden. There's even an educational aspect to the park. At eye level the playground features Braille, designed to introduce kids to Braille and help them learn more about it.

Williamson said it took about eight months to design the facility. They received public input for what she described as a smooth process and didn't face many design challenges.

"We had a receptive neighborhood (at Southside Park)," she said. "The park's central to downtown and is a regional draw."

In the four years the park's been open, it's received rave reviews. The kids love it, and they receive many play dates at the park (mostly spring through fall due to Sacramento's winters). Parents bring their children while schools will come in groups.

"Parents like getting together and talking to each other about their kids and the challenges in raising them," she said. "We get children from nearby neighborhoods and from all over, including children with their siblings with disabilities."

What's more, Southside Park probably won't need any upgrades in the near future. The firm that designed the park came up with plans for $1.2 million, whereas Sacramento originally had budgeted $200,000 to $300,000 for it. But they liked what they saw with the bigger, more expensive design. To raise further funds for the larger design, they held off on construction until additional funds came in.

"The fundraisers stepped up and did a lot for us," Williamson said, adding they also received funds from local municipalities. "We ended up building what we wanted to build and didn't have to master plan it."

Focus on Needs

While facilities sometimes receive upgrades or are designed to be accessible in addition to their offerings for the general population, other facilities are built specifically to focus on those with special needs. Examples include Phoenix's Disability Empowerment Center (DEC) of Arizona, the Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (for which construction was scheduled to begin in August) and the Virginia Home in Richmond, Va.

Phil Pangrazio, executive director for the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), said the Disability Empowerment Center of Arizona, a sports facility, came about through a community need. "The disability community in the Valley of the Sun has been clamoring for such a facility for more than 20 years," he explained. "There are no fully accessible sports and fitness facilities available to people with disabilities that offer a wide range of programming that accommodate accessibility needs in this manner."

The ABIL moved into the 62,000-square foot DEC in 2008, and the center also serves eight other nonprofit organizations that help those with disabilities, including the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Raising Special Kids, the Arizona Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Joni and Friends, the Statewide Independent Living Council, Arizona Autism United, the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association, Valley Center of the Deaf and PRN Medical.

"Through co-location, the DEC has created synergistic relationships and collaborations that promote and enhance the choice, dignity, rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities and their families," Pangrazio said. "The DEC acts as a catalyst to engage individuals with disabilities, their families and organizations in efforts to provide integrated programs and services."

The DEC features lots of ADA parking with a four-level, 350-space parking garage with administration offices, meeting rooms, rooftop terraces, food service café, courtyard and computer labs that are fully accessible. There's also a completely environmentally safe meeting room for people who have multiple chemical sensitivities.

And, of course, the bathrooms for both men and women are on both building levels with many ADA-accessible stalls.

The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness center at the DEC, scheduled to open in 2010, will feature 45,000 square feet of sports, fitness and aquatics and, according to Pangrazio, will be the first of its kind in not just the Grand Canyon State, but in the western United States. Besides hosting competitive sports programs for people with disabilities, it will also accommodate fitness, health and wellness programs.

Among the spacious, accessible options will be sports courts, a running track, therapy pool, lap pool, whirlpool, fitness/training equipment, rock climbing wall, locker rooms, showers and dressing areas for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Other activities include adapted fitness equipment, aquatics, hand cycling, nutrition education, over-the-line softball, power-soccer recreation programs, scuba-diving, snorkeling, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair hockey, wheelchair quad rugby, wheelchair racing, wheelchair volleyball and other paralympic sports.

"There is simply no other place where people with disabilities have equal and accessible fitness capability with professional staff to advise them in a non-medical environment," Pangrazio said. "The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center is designed to bring people together with different types of disabilities of all ages and encompass not only the more cerebral aspects of wellness but also to encourage physical fitness and nutritional health. This goal holds true for children growing up with a disability, adults who have acquired a new disability and are adjusting to it and older citizens who acquire a disability through the natural aging process."

It took four years to complete construction for the DEC, including retrofit and reuse of an existing 35-year-old, 35,000-square-foot, two-story office building. The property had what Pangrazio described as a "considerable elevation slope" and wasn't flat.

"This created significant design challenges for accessibility," he added.

So far, he estimates the Arizona community's reaction to what they've seen so far as extremely positive. Among the adjectives used? Fabulous, phenomenal, gorgeous, beautiful and spectacular.

On the east coast, the Virginia Home (a private, nonprofit facility providing nursing, therapeutic and residential care to adult Virginians with special needs) and the Department of Parks Recreation and Community Facilities in Richmond, Va., worked together to build a handicapped-accessible picnic shelter and a wheelchair-accessible garden near Swan Lake in Byrd Park and close to the home. The garden is on an elevated bed, allowing the Virginia Home residents to landscape with plants, flowers and shrubs.

"Richmond City Parks and Recreation got involved and worked with us to come up with something with immediate accessibility that would be useful and meaningful," said Bob Crouse, administrator at the Virginia Home. "It's also for anyone in a wheelchair who wants to use the park."

The project took about two months, from design to the work by the volunteers. A company that landscapes for the Virginia Home's grounds donated time while the Parks and Recreation staff built the picnic shelter. And the home's residents even got involved.

"They got their hands dirty and did some of the work," Crouse added. "They love it. It's really a nice spot for them, immediately across street from facility. It's a pretty spot and a nice place for them to go when their families visit. They can enjoy a picnic or have private time. They also like to sit around the planter under shade of huge oak trees."

Recreation & Sports for All

In the recreation industry, countless businesses compete to design, manufacture, produce and supply products. The same rings true for the segment of the industry committed to accessibility, where companies offer a wide spectrum of products to help recreational facilities better serve those with special needs.

Access to Recreation President and Founder Don Krebs came to the industry from his personal desire to return to his favorite sports. At 17 years old, he had water-skied at speeds up to 90 mph, but a racing accident in 1978 rendered him a quadriplegic.

"I did my best to find a water ski that would allow me to get back to the sport I loved, but what I found were hundreds of items for other sports and/or hobbies but nothing for me to ski on," Krebs explained. "Being a quad who was so active before my injury, I was not one to just sit and watch others having fun on TV. There was also a real need to find an occupation I could love. I don't know who said it but it is true: 'If you love your job it is not work.'"

Before the accident, he had recently graduated from California Lutheran University with a degree in business administration and went for his master's degree. He took a course in entrepreneurship and, for the final project, had to write a complete business plan with three years of financial projections. Ultimately, his professor encouraged him to put that plan into action, and now he supplies products across the sports and recreation industry to improve accessibility.

"I know when I water skied again for the first time, I felt that if I can water ski as a quadriplegic, I can do almost anything," he said. "Such as start my own business, buy a house, get married and raise a family. All those things I have done since then."

Even with the success of his business, Krebs has found that recreation-accessible products are still somewhat of a secret. "Nearly every time I hand someone a catalog for the first time, their reply is almost always the same, 'I never had any idea there were so many products out there for people with disabilities,'" he said.

Rockland, Md.-based Bankshot Sports also provides accessible products and services, specializing in non-competitive sports equipment: Bankshot Basketball, Bankshot Tennis, Bankshot Soccer and a Bankshot Tri-Sport option featuring tennis and pitch-and-throw.

The games are easy to set up, family-friendly, non-aggressive and have safety features requiring no running and no physically-aggressive play. In these sports, players play alongside, but not against, each other. They are "total mix" sports based on a universal design offering integration, socialization and inclusion of athletes from all abilities. There is neither an offense nor a defense. Gender, size, strength and speed are irrelevant.

Often, those who try the various stations in basketball, tennis and tri-sport find them "difficult but doable."

Brenner came up with the idea for Bankshot in 1981 as a way of providing the first total mix, non-exclusive game where wheelchair athletes and able-bodied persons could play where nobody was at a disadvantage. He drew inspiration for the company from his cousin, who was in a wheelchair.

"It led me to realize the imbalance of recreation in the world," Brenner explained. "We don't take certain segments of the population into account."

The equipment is featured at the King Farm Mattie Stepanek Park in Rockville. The park was named after the late Mattie Stepanek, who had Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy (a disease that hinders the body's muscles from functioning properly). Stepanek authored many books and became a symbol of peace before passing away before his 14th birthday. His message, as Brenner described, was "to reach for peace to overcome hostilities, setting aside combat in favor of companionability, friendship and taking small steps toward one another in harmony and goodwill."

He added, "Bankshot Sports are all about peace at play, and teaching peace through play. Bankshot represents cooperation, accord, cordiality, fellowship and brotherhood. Participants don't play against one another and don't try to beat one another although there is plenty of room for competition."

The Past, Present and Future of Accessibility

In 2009, with the decade approaching its end, much has been accomplished as far as making recreation more accessible, but industry observers say more still needs to be done.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, calls for equal participation in various sectors, including public accommodations, for persons with disabilities. The 1991 ADA Accessibility Guidelines provided for equal participation in public accommodations and other sectors for all people. In 1994, Texas passed the Texas Accessibility Standards as a state supplement to ADAAG. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Justice approved the Texas law as an equivalent of ADAAG.

"Getting all people involved has always been a goal, but the big push was the passing of the ADA law," said Joseph Walker, assistant professor of recreation at the University of North Texas. "This made it a legal responsibility so all facilities had to be developed to meet the minimum requirements—thus architects, designer and operators had to learn the rules."

More recently, among the biggest improvements Walker has seen as far as facilities becoming more accessible has been developing the pool lift to improve older pools. He noted the sloped entry design has really made most pools accessible.

While these improvements are a step in the right direction, they have to be met with other critical improvements to be effective."If the bathrooms are not useable, it sort of limits the use of any part of a facility," he explained.

Today, Walker described the recreation industry's job of being accessible as "moderate," adding that there's still catching up that needs to be done. Furthermore, if the new ADAAG is passed, many will fall further behind, he believes.

What improvements still need to be done? Facility design and the operations and creation of programs.

"All of this has been done but it can still improve," Walker added.

On the aquatic side, accessibility involves making adjustments when needed and making sure the new facilities are ADA-compliant.

"The newer aquatic facilities feature zero entry and are more user friendly," said Hilary Boen, aquatic supervisor for the City of Lewisville, Texas, near Dallas. "For some of the facilities built in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, it wasn't that they weren't trying to be accessible, it was perhaps they didn't understand how to better facilitate everyone in the public."

These days, besides those who are in wheelchairs or have other special needs, aquatic facilities also work to serve those in the senior generation, Boen said, by having things like better slopes on stairs.

Other ways aquatic facilities work to be more accessible include upgrading restrooms and adjusting swim classes to accommodate those with disabilities. At Lewisville's swim facility, they also have a Special Olympics swim team that trains there along with an area summer swim team.

"We also have to keep the State of Texas requirements in consideration since we want to make sure we're doing the best job possible," said Boen. "We have ramps at our facility and do what we can to make it all inclusive. We address needs right away."

For others, though, the process of implementing can be a longer one.

"With the accessibility guidelines, for some people it's taken a while to implement," Boen said. "It's been an ongoing thing as people are learning and understanding more about their different customers."

Sometimes, the problem involves trying to make accessibility improvements when there's not a lot of money to work with. It's the reason why some facilities, built years before the ADA laws were passed, tend to stay that way as they wait for available funds. As a result, some who need accessible facilities have to travel to recreational facilities farther away, sometimes even to the next city.

What's needed for the recreation industry to continue improving? While Boen speaks primarily from the aquatic side, it's advice others probably could find beneficial also.

"The major thing is education and figuring out what the population they're serving and what they're doing to meet that need," Boen said. "Some issues come up and not all of the supervisors might be aware of current trends in legislation in Washington and might not be aware of what's going on."

Some feel leery about using the term "accessibility." Brenner, who's written many books on recreation and how to include everyone into them, believes accessibility without inclusion doesn't do very much.

"We must first focus on activities and facilities that are inclusive and you don't have to continue the program all the time to get use out of it," he said. "You can have a facility that doesn't need programming and where anyone can do it at anytime. That's what's missing."

He added: "We're raising consciousness to all special segments of the population and beginning to finally be sensitive to needs that aren't the most apparent needs. We're still not doing a very good job."

An example of the unsatisfactory job society's doing is putting far more money and space into aggressive sports that, as Brenner described them, are "war like." Companionable sports haven't been as fortunate.

Brenner believes doing a better job entails balancing the needs of the community and not having it lacking in symmetry.

"I think on many levels it's more than just an advance, it's a critical advance when all types of people can be brought together in a universal application," he said. "It used to be segregated and segmented and still is. Making things universal, where everybody can do it, is what's needed to turn the ship around."

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