Are You Accessible?

Tips From the Pros on Compliance With New ADA Standards

By Margaret Ahrweiler

If You Build It, They Will Come

While that adage applies to baseball fields in the middle of Iowa, it now also applies to playing fields—and every other form of recreational facilities across the United States for disabled users.

The 2010 ADA standards—formally known as Revisions to Title II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act—were announced in July 2010 and take effect March 15, 2011, with compliance required by March 15, 2012. They require that recreational facilities, not covered in the original 1991 Americans With Disabilities Act, be accessible to disabled users. All new construction must conform to the standards.

Among the areas they cover:

  • Amusement rides
  • Recreational boating facilities
  • Exercise machines and equipment
  • Fishing piers and platforms
  • Golf facilities
  • Miniature golf facilities
  • Play areas
  • Swimming pools, wading pools and spas
  • Shooting facilities with firing positions
  • Event seating
  • Service animals
  • Means of transportation for disabled people.

What does this mean for your facility? The short answer is that, short of natural areas and trails, every recreational facility must meet the same standards as other public and commercial spaces. The long answer is that the dense guidelines, filled with technical provisions and specifications, still leave room for questions and may have some recreational facilities scrambling to comply.

And while a new set of federal mandates that bring a new round of renovations can leave some site managers grumbling, many recreation professionals are counseling that facilities put a positive spin on the work they must do. Making their facilities accessible will open their businesses to a whole new client base, increasing traffic, exposure and positive word-of-mouth.

Advance planning pays off (as it does for most things) when it comes to the new rules, said John McGovern, president of Recreation Accessibility Consultants, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill. He counseled that, if they haven't already done so, recreation districts and facilities should take an accessibility inventory and create a response plan.

"Usually, park and rec departments without solid policies in place about accessibility will incur a much bigger hit," he said, to bring themselves up to the new guidelines.

None of the new standards should come as a surprise, McGovern added, since they adopt, word for word, the recommendations published by the U.S. Access Board in 2004. Districts in a leadership position, along with those active with special recreation programs, have been using those recommendations as guidelines for renovation and new construction work for the last six years, he added.

Recreation facilities need to start planning immediately, agreed Rob Sperl, director of planning for the Wheaton Park District in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb of about 55,000. Wheaton may be in better shape than most districts, he said, because it began preparing for more stringent accessibility standards in 2004, when it took a formal accessibility survey with its special recreation partner, the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, said Sperl. Wheaton also has been working with McGovern on an accessibility inventory and made a priority list, he said.

While many recreation professionals would rather not spend the extra time and money upgrading their accessibility, the process will pay off as facility usage increases, counseled Dr. Sherril York, director of the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. Millions of disabled users have plenty of discretionary income to spend, as long as they can access the places to spend it, she said.

Demographics of the disabled can be startling: 54.4 million Americans reported some level of disability in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with 35 million severely disabled. More specifically:

  • 11 million people over the age of 6 needed personal assistance with everyday activities.
  • 3.3 million age 15 or older used a wheelchair.
  • 10.2 million used a cane, crutches or walker.
  • 7.8 million had trouble seeing words in formats like this magazine, and 1.8 million could not see at all.
  • 7.8 million had difficulty hearing conversations; this did not include people who used hearing aids.

What's more, these numbers don't include senior citizens who, despite diminished mobility, refuse to count themselves as disabled—a number sure to rise with the aging baby boomers.

"The disabled constitute a significant portion of our population," said John Caden, director of pool lifts for an aquatic supply company and an industry expert on accessibility regulations. Caden suggests looking at accessibility laws differently to appreciate what they're trying to do. "I like to tell people, 'What if you said that this law—or the barriers unfortunately in place—applies to women?' You'd never bar someone from using a facility because they're female," he noted. "You have to consider disabled people the same way."

While most recreation professionals think of physical barriers for users in wheelchairs, York reminded that planners need to consider people with other impairments, such as visual.

"We always find it interesting that we can go to places that will have brochures in multiple languages—won't have Braille and large print but will have something in Portuguese. They're trying to meet demand, but they're not meeting their legal requirements," she said. "Chances are, you're going to have more disabled users than Portuguese users."

Pool Accessibility

When it comes to the laundry list of areas covered under the new rules, providing access to pools has topped the list of concerns for many facilities. Pools with more than 300 linear feet of wall must include two means of access, one of which must be a lift or a sloped entry. Pools less than 300 linear feet only need one means of access—but it must be a lift or sloped entry. Practically speaking, this means any commercial pool in the country—270,000 by some estimates, said Caden—needs a lift or a sloped entry.

Fortunately, this area can provide the easiest fix, and, despite grumbling over costs, shouldn't force closure of even the smallest facilities. Pool lift systems have been available for years. Smaller lifts cost as little as $4,000 to install, Caden said. Ramps, on the other hand, require more space, along with an architect and contractor, and can cost $20,000 to $30,000.

Some confusion still exists about wading pools and zero-depth entry pools with the 2010 guidelines, Caden added. The guidelines require a 1 to 12 ratio slope for graded entries, while many commercial zero-depth pools, including those in Florida, use a 1 to 10 grade. It's also unclear where and when railings must be installed.

Many districts, including the Wheaton Park District, are avoiding that quandary altogether by installing lifts at the deep end of the zero-depth pools.

Districts with multiple facilities also can apply a program accessibility test to ensure that aquatics programs are accessible, without having to upgrade every facility, said Mike Benard, Wheaton's executive director. Wheaton Park District operates two aquatic facilities, Rice Pool & Water Park and Northside Family Aquatic Center. Rice, built in 1989, features a zero-depth entry, while Northside, built in 1958 and renovated in 1995, features a more traditional design of an L-shaped pool with lap lanes and a diving well. The district offers lessons and other programming at both sites, but offers full accessibility for that programming only at Rice, Benard said. They chose to make Rice fully accessible because it is larger, with up to 200,000 visitors each summer compared with Northside's peak of 80,000, he said.

Not every section of an aquatic facility must be accessible, either. Existing waterslides do not have to meet ADA requirements, York noted, but said that new construction should have accessibility built into the design.

Segways and Horses?

The new regulations expand the definition of mobility devices and service animals, as disabled patrons have sought assistance from things other than wheelchairs and dogs. Segways and other "power driven mobility devices" such as scooters must be allowed unless the facility shows the vehicle would alter its programs or create a hazard.

Similarly, miniature horses may be allowed as alternatives to dogs, and the standards expand the circumstances in which service animals may be required. Service animals also can assist people during a seizure or help with a host of mental, sensory or psychiatric disabilities.

Safe Harbor?

When it comes to pool regulations—and other areas of the new regulations—many recreation professionals also are confused about the "safe harbor" clause. Caden reported he's been fielding a number of questions about this provision. The safe harbor clause gave cash-strapped facilities that were compliant under the old rules the loophole of waiting until they made overall alterations to their facility to comply.

Safe harbor does not apply to pools, Caden has been advising, because the regulations specifically state: "Elements in the 2010 Standards not eligible for Safe Harbor are identified as follows: - (j) Swimming Pools, Wading Pools and Spas. Play areas and golf facilities also are exempt from the safe harbor clause. Further, safe harbor only applies on a program-by-program basis. Planners who think their facilities may enjoy safe harbor status should seek professional advice, Caden counseled.

Recreation professionals also are finding that when it comes to applying these rules and planning facility work, the best defense is a good offense. Some districts and facilities have embraced universal design principles or simply applied ADA's principles well before the new regulations took effect.

At the Apex Park and Recreation District in Jefferson County, Colo., planners applied ADA guidelines to all recreation areas long before they were mandated simply to meet demand and fulfill the district's mission, said Mike Miles, Apex's executive director. "For the most part, we meet the new standards already. We're on top of the game and good to go."

Apex has incorporated universal design principles into its facilities whenever possible, Miles said, and ensured everything from fitness areas to its ice arenas were accessible from the time its 168,500-square-foot Apex Center opened in 2000, including a lap pool with a ramp.

Accessibility Plus

What's more, with a little thought and creativity, planners can provide access to all kinds of facilities, Miles added, not just playgrounds, pools and playing fields, when considering the 2010 standards.

At Apex Center, even the climbing wall accommodates disabled users, said Terry Goldwater, the center's manager. At the request of a special recreation group, Apex found special climbing harnesses to accommodate severely disabled users. While wheelchair-bound patrons couldn't necessarily use the wall like other patrons, they got to experience the thrill of ascent as belayers guided them to the top of the wall.

Similarly, Apex hosted the USA Cup Sled Hockey in 2005. While the event took place long before the 2010 guidelines, districts can still learn Apex's experience, Goldwater said. (In sled hockey, disabled players who might normally use wheelchairs use specially designed sleds to play competitive ice hockey.)

"The ice rinks were already pretty accessible, but we did have to adapt the player boxes and penalty boxes, which normally had a step," Goldwater said. "The tournament was an outstanding success, with players coming all the way from Europe, and it really showed how it pays off to accommodate disabled user's needs."

Since then, the center even has hosted disabled groups who take their wheelchairs out on the ice with aides, she added.

Apex also met accessibility standards for its fitness rooms and equipment well before the new rules took effect. Miles reassured recreation professionals that meeting the new standards for fitness equipment constitutes one of the easiest areas to comply without spending any money. Facilities now need to allow a 30-by-48-inch turning space for fitness machines. Typically, this can be accomplished by ensuring one treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical at the end of a row of machines provides enough space, he said. Similarly, one set of weight benches and racks needs additional space.

Field Accessibility

While fitness centers are a relatively easy fix, meeting the 2010 standards for the flat surfaces of another busy area—playing fields—can prove more challenging. Making playing fields accessible for spectators gets tricky when it comes to traversing long distances between parking lots and the events.

A handicapped parking space doesn't help visitors if they can't get from that lot to the field, noted Indiana's York. Again, thinking beyond wheelchairs can help facility managers appreciate the importance of access, she added. Without an accessible route, grandparents may not be able to attend a child's soccer game, or an injured player cannot get to the bench of his team's football game.

Addressing this problem doesn't have to mean paving over large chunks of playing field to create access paths. On game days in Wheaton's large parks, roving golf carts take spectators with mobility problems to and from playing fields.

The new standards also address seating in arenas, stadiums and other facilities more specifically than in the past. While the number of seats required has been reduced, spectator seating cannot isolate disabled patrons from the rest of their group. Disabled access seats must provide a space for family and friends to sit as well.

"We all have social groups we want to enjoy—friends, family, fellow fans. We wouldn't want to be isolated from them and neither do disabled people," York said. "You have to remember that disabled people have discretionary income, and they're going to spend it elsewhere if your facilities aren't up to par."

Access to More Information
The complete standards, including technical and architectural specifications, are available at the U.S. Access Board's Web site.
The Access to Recreation Initiative, begun in 2006, provides plenty of examples on accessible design and success stories to provide ideas for rec facilities seeking to improve accessibility.
This federal agency oversees accessibility guidelines.
The National Center On Accessibility, part of Indiana University's Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies, promotes accessibility in rec and leisure facilities.
The Center for Universal Design provides information on universal design, which the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Making Cost-Effective Changes

With an economy wracked by recession, paying for the required changes remains a top concern of recreation professionals, but accessibility experts suggest looking at upgrades as a long-term investment to attract more patrons. As a civil rights law, ADA does not come with funds for implementation, said York, but she suggested facilities seek community foundations among other sources of grant money.

Wheaton's Benard suggested that smaller districts develop partnerships to pool their resources to seek grants, even sharing the cost of a grant writer to "bird dog" possibilities. Consultants' fees can more than pay for themselves through money-saving accessibility ideas, he added, noting Wheaton's success with McGovern's firm. Community groups also can help with fundraising and improvements. Wheaton's first fully accessible playground, completed at Northside Park in 1984, was sponsored by the Rotary Club.

Another silver lining: The historic recession and resulting nosedive of the construction industry means facilities will see aggressively low bidding on renovations and accessibility upgrades. But managers need to act quickly, said Wheaton's Sperl "This is 13 months from now," he warned. "Very few agencies can figure out a program and execute in that time."

Juggling the books can also make room in tight budgets. Shifting the renovations from the capital improvements to the operations column can help free money, Caden suggested, and the $4,000 to $10,000 spent on pool lifts, for example, can be recouped quickly through greater customer traffic.

"You get people complaining that they have to conform to the new standards because they never get any disabled people coming into their facility, but they haven't considered why they don't get that population," he said.

By marketing their facilities as user-friendly, facility managers can build traffic to not only cover costs but expand their client base. "You don't need to call it handicapped-accessible," he added. " 'User friendly' means you can accommodate a wide spectrum of customers." An additional 100 customers spending $40 will pay for a basic lift.

Tax credits of up to $5,000 also are available for small businesses such as motels, Caden added, as long as they employ less than 30 full-time staff and post sales of less than $1 million. Cash-strapped recreation facilities also can look into obtaining equipment like pool lifts under a lease program.

York also reminded recreation professionals that the law doesn't require every Title II entity to be accessible to achieve program success. Priority is given to access for facilities that support programs and activities that promote the most integrated setting for people with disabilities. In Wheaton, its Rathje Park preschool, housed in an old brick foursquare home, is not handicapped accessible, but does not have to be renovated because the district offers an identical program at its fully accessible Community Center building. Historic buildings also fall outside the new requirements.

Accessibility Outside

The new requirements also pay more attention to outdoor areas, most significantly in marine areas. Docks and boat ramps must now be accessible, with attention given to sight lines. A dock with a heavy railing that blocks a wheelchair-bound patron's view does not comply. The Access Board and Department of Justice sites both show common-sense designs to accommodate physically disabled users.

Boat docks serving everything from humble kayaks to luxury ocean yachts must meet the new standards. Again, many facilities planned in the past few years used the new guidelines before they became law. The Chicago Park District's new 31st Street Harbor, which began construction last year, featured a fishing pier and boat slips along Lake Michigan in its earliest designs. Similarly, Wheaton planners incorporated the new rules when they began renovating their Northside Park lagoon in 2009, so that five of the 10 canoe docks are accessible, and fishing areas have gaps and lower rails for disabled users.

Play areas must become more accessible under the new rules as well. Play areas at parks, schools, child care facilities and shopping centers must offer accessible ground and elevated play components, accessible routes, ramps and transfer systems, and accessible ground surfaces.

The recreation community may see continuing debate on ground surfaces, which were not specified by the new regulations—only "regular maintenance" is mandated. While there is clearly significant cost difference between engineered wood fiber (EWF) and unitary surfaces, said Wheaton's Benard, his district is turning to unitary surfaces to ensure they comply with ADA. What's more, they can avoid the maintenance and refilling that EWF requires, reducing overall costs.

"You may pay less but you're more likely to run afoul of ADA rules," he said. Many districts find it hard to keep up with the constant fill required under swings and slides, and the regular fill addition needed to counteract compression. He also recommended the use of grants to offset the higher installation costs of unitary surfaces.

One outdoor area was left out of the new regulations, however: trails and outdoor developed areas. Those guidelines are still in draft form, said Indiana's York, and are not enforceable standards. Instead, they're considered "best practice," she said, and ultimately will be adopted for inclusion in ADA standards as an addition to its Chapter 10 on Recreational Facilities.

Buyer Beware?

When purchasing anything from accessible docks to picnic tables to exercise equipment, York offered a caveat: When seeking accessible equipment, buyers need to beware that products labeled accessible may not necessarily fit the bill. "Saying something is accessible doesn't necessarily make it so," she said. What's more, buyers should think twice about buying two separate versions of the same product—accessible and non-accessible—and instead consider using just one product that incorporates universal design, to streamline purchasing and replacement.

Recreation professionals also should consider using their purchasing clout to spur manufacturers to create products that are more accessible, York suggested. "Buyers can influence the market and shouldn't be afraid to ask for products that address accessibility," she said. At a recent trade show, one manufacturer produced fitness equipment for outdoors that didn't meet accessibility standards, while its competitors' products did. Guess whose products sold more?

Finally, she cautioned that meeting the 2010 accessibility standards means more than just buying the right equipment. Planners need to consider layout and access points, she added, noting countless examples of benches that block pathways or exits from restrooms that leave no room to maneuver once a person exits the space.

While the new standards are bound to set countless rounds of planning, renovation, debate, haggling and litigation, they will ultimately expand access to recreational facilities. And since every facility, be it private, public or commercial, shares the same goal—to attract more users—the new rules will benefit operators in the long run.

To put the costs and efforts behind meeting the new regulations in perspective, several professionals suggested comparing it with the money invested in "greening" recreation facilities through sustainable design.

"There's not a single recreation district in this country that is going to be sued because they're not 'green' enough," said McGovern.

Grumbling foot-draggers should also note the new standards are a rarity in the federal government, a popular bipartisan effort. The changes began in George W. Bush's administration and were finalized under Barack Obama's.

Finally, York put the changes in historical perspective: "With the first set of standards in 1991, ultimately barrier removal was accomplished without a whole lot of fuss and expense. You look at thresholds that might keep people out—those are the easiest kinds of barriers to remove."

What's more, the general population came to appreciate the changes: When curb cuts came to city sidewalks, York related, the population group that celebrated them most was delivery people.

Ultimately, able-bodied people will celebrate the new changes just as well.

Questions Every Facility Must Ask

Are you ready? Recreation facility managers and planners might think they're complying with the new standards, but they might be missing key parts of the plan—and not even asking the right questions. Recreation Accessibility Consultants suggests the following checklist:

  • Does your staff know what questions to ask someone who enters a building or a park riding a Segway or similar device?
  • Does your staff know what questions are prohibited from asking that same person?
  • Does your staff know what questions to ask someone who enters a park or facility with a service animal?
  • Does your staff know what to look for in regard to the work of the service animal, and how to evaluate whether the service animal poses a threat or hygiene risk?
  • Do you have an automated phone answering system and is it ready to comply with the new Title II for callers who are deaf or hard of hearing?
  • Does your staff at performance or art venues know the new ticketing requirements in Title II?

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