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.

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."

Avoiding Trouble

"I think the most common mistakes folks make," said Bleckner, of the NRPA, "is not overcoming the idea that something that always has been done one way, needs to be done another way. Or looking at an inclusion program and not seeing how an individual with physical disabilities can participate because that would affect the experience of others. Generally speaking, that is very seldom actually true."

There are other mistakes: If you don't do your inventory correctly, you subject yourself to lawsuits; and if you don't make adaptations when you are asked you are subjecting yourself, your department and community to lawsuits. It's just not acceptable to make ADA mistakes today.

If you want to avoid ADA regulation errors, make sure your planners, designers, contractors and even maintenance staff thoroughly understand the accessibility standards or the rationale as to why the standard exists.

For example, Skulski said, "We have conducted accessibility assessments of entire park districts where the grab bars in each accessible toilet stall were mounted an inch too high. The contractor or maintenance staff had mounted the centerline of the hardware at 36 inches above the floor. The accessibility standard actually requires the top of the gripping surface is no higher than 36 inches. Thus, what was well intended on the part of the installer rendered all of the toilet stalls noncompliant with the accessibility standards."

McGovern offered a laundry list of things to watch for. They include a quick glance at that big green space called a park. "Are you putting something in it, like a sports field, gazebo, war memorial or fishing area?" he asked. There must be an accessible route from parking or sidewalk to the new amenity. Grass is not, and never has been, an accessible surface.

Don't follow IBC, McGovern advised, "unless it is IBC 2012. The 2010 Standards for Accessible Design are not superseded by International Building Code (IBC) but instead these two should be harmonized."

Assume that recreation programs will be of interest to people with disabilities. That means creating an inclusion process, where people with disabilities are invited to register and participate alongside people without disabilities, and where the parks and recreation agency staffs up to provide qualified supports.

Locker rooms must have four things: 5 percent of lockers must be designated as accessible; locker "innards," such as shelves and hooks, cannot be higher than 48 inches above the floor; locker hardware must not require tight pinching, twisting or grasping; and accessible lockers must be served by an accessible bench that is 17 to 19 inches off, minimum 42 inches long, between 20 and 24 inches deep, and affixed to a wall or have a back.

"There is not yet a requirement to have accessible fitness equipment designed so people with impaired vision or mobility issues can use the equipment," McGovern said. "But, why wait? When buying or leasing, make at least 10 percent of the pieces have swivel seats, removable seats, large display LED panels and other features. Every manufacturer has these. It is up to you to ask for it."

McGovern asked that park and recreation officials also think about this: Assume that people with disabilities want to go everywhere that people without disabilities go.

There is not yet a final federal design standard for picnic tables. But, for two decades at least, there have been several designs that allow a person in a wheelchair to join his or her friends at a picnic table. So, why wait? Making your own? Buying tables? Make 20 percent be of an accessible design. This is better service to your community.

Your pool probably fails at least one of the new 2010 Standards requirements. If so, unless you are willing to tear up the pool floor, go buy a swimming pool lift. The water access requirements of the 2010 Standards (see sections 242 and 1009) are effective today for new pools, and become effective Jan. 31, 2013, for existing pools.

Parks Are for Everyone

In the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, "we teach staff members that including people with disabilities is not separate from improving program quality," said ADA program coordinator Lucas Tobin.

Inclusion is a key variable in most programs for people with disabilities. Most of the time, he said, "programs that are well-planned and include a wider range of instruction styles, visual communication strategies and positive discipline techniques seamlessly include people with disabilities and provide a better experience for all participants. We also point out that no one is exempt from having a disability, including themselves or their family members, to help them empathize with people with disabilities."

Your public park space should be inclusive of everyone in the community. People with disabilities, of course. But also every resident, no matter what their social status.

It is important that we are considering everyone as inclusively as possible, and certainly without being prescriptive in design. The last thing anyone wants is to say, "here is the trail for blind people, here is the trail for disabled vets, here is the trail for poor, and on and on .... "

We want to be able to recreate with our family and friends, so we need to design for everyone to get the most enjoyment out of the environment together, without separating, without stigmatizing.

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