Four Things You Can Do in 2010 to Improve Access for Visitors with Disabilities

by Jennifer Skulski

“Doing more with less” seems to be the decades old mantra for many park and recreation agencies. These lean economic times aren’t any different. Simply, the frequency by which the old saying is used has increased and practitioners are pushed once again to find creative new approaches to meet bigger challenges. However, even when budgets are tight, recreation providers cannot afford to ignore ADA and Section 504 compliance. Here are four no-cost or low cost things you can do in 2010 to keep your accessibility management program on track and continue planning for improved access for your participants and visitors with disabilities.

1. Update your ADA Transition Plan. Title II entities covered under the ADA and federal agencies covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act were required to identify physical and communication barriers to participation by people with disabilities and develop a transition plan for the removal of such barriers. Formal complaints and litigation trends over the last 10 years point dramatically to the lack of transition plans on the part of the park and recreation agency. Dig the plan out, dust it off and update it. Document the accessibility improvements that have been made. Review those projects that still need to be completed and reprioritize if needed. If physical improvements have not been made, document the steps that have been taken in lieu of barrier removal so as to ensure access is provided for visitors with disabilities.

2. Celebrate your accessibility improvements and update the accessibility information for your programs and facilities in brochures and on your web site. Give specifics on what makes the program, park, nature preserve, trail, swimming pool or other facility accessible. As opposed to saying “West Pool is accessible,” give more specifics. For example, a better description would be “West Pool has a pool lift for use in the recreation pool and a zero depth entry for the wading pool, two aquatic wheelchairs are available at the lifeguard station.” Or “Hoosier Trail has an average 5 percent slope from the quarter –mile to half-mile markers.” By publicizing information on accessibility improvements, you are both facilitating the visitor’s trip planning process and marketing your agency’s good faith effort in ADA and Section 504 compliance.

3. Review your policy, practices and procedures. Do your standard operating procedures prohibit, restrict or screen out participation by people with disabilities? Both Title II and Section 504 require self evaluations and modifications to such policies, practices and procedures to ensure equal opportunity to participate and benefit from the program by people with disabilities. The ADA Title II Action Guide for State and Local Governments & Supplement on Employment (Adaptive Environments, 1996) and The ADA Self-Evaluation: A handbook for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by parks and recreation agencies (McGovern, 1992) have sample questions and worksheets that can be used or adapted to conduct a self evaluation of your own agency.

4. Get your team together and think Big Picture. Some would argue this should be your very first step, and it might very well be. The important point here is to get everyone together to make sure you are all on the same page and thinking about the accessibility big picture in relation to your agency’s mission, master plan and long-term goals. Looking for costs savings in energy efficiency and sustainable design will continue to be an uptrend in 2010. Universal design and sustainable design can be complementary of one another. Some of the best new examples of “green design” also incorporate many of the principles of universal design. If you are planning new projects with sustainable design or even “net zero design” (where the facility generates more energy than it uses over the course of a year) in mind, consider how the much-needed accessibility improvements might also be addressed in the project. For example, installation of water efficient lavatory faucets should have operating mechanisms that are accessible and usable with a closed fist. Energy efficient hand dryers should be installed within the accessible reach range and conveniently next to the lavatory.

Don’t get caught pushing accessibility compliance to the back burner. Even in lean economic times, there is still an expectation by enforcement agencies, the courts and, most importantly, visitors with disabilities that your programs, activities and services will be accessible. There are a number of resources available to assist in your accessibility management program. The National Center on Accessibility provides technical assistance to practitioners in the field, advocates and individuals with disabilities. Feel free to call NCA and talk to any of our professional staff on ways to improve access and incorporate universal design.