ADA Approved and Other Accessible Product Myths: Choosing Products to Improve Access at Your Parks & Facilities

Choosing products for use in a park or recreation facility can sometimes be challenging and overwhelming with the overload of information from manufacturers and accessibility guidelines to consider.   This monograph introduces the major considerations for purchasing products to improve access for people with disabilities in recreation environments including:

  • Assessing the needs of your facility;
  • Identifying specifications;
  • Comparison shopping;
  • Getting feedback from other customers; and
  • Leveraging your purchasing power.
Before selecting a specific product, facility managers, program coordinators, maintenance staff, essentially all site personnel, should have a thorough understanding of the two types of access: physical access to the environment and program access benefitting the individual.
Physical access at a site means that the site is constructed or altered in compliance with federal accessibility standards. Examples of physical access include accessible parking; accessible routes to and through buildings; clear floor space at fixtures such as drinking fountains; reach ranges for operating mechanisms such as light switches; audible and visual alarms. Some state and local authorities may also impose accessibility requirements through state building codes and local ordinances.   It should be noted that both the federal guidelines and local codes are the MINIMUM specifications for providing access to buildings and facilities for people with disabilities. 
The ADA-ABA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities harmonize the requirements of the Architectural Barriers Act (buildings or facilities built, renovated or leased with Federal funds) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (state and local facilities, public accommodations and commercial buildings).
Program access means that each service, program, or activity, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. An individual with a disability should not be excluded from participation or denied the benefits of participation because the facility is inaccessible or unusable by people with disabilities. A program may be thought of as any activity available for public participation. A program does NOT necessarily need to be structured or staffed. Activities that could be considered as programs include visiting a park or recreation facility; hiking a trail; swimming at a public beach; attending a town meeting; getting a driver’s license; using public transportation; visiting a library; or receiving a museum brochure. A program can be almost anything you can think of.

The First Step: Do Your Homework

The first step to purchasing accessible products that are effective and cost efficient is to “do your homework.” A smart consumer begins the purchasing process by doing research. Purchasing products to enhance access at your facility can sometimes be challenging. However, if you do your homework first, you can ensure the newly purchased product will improve access and at the same time be cost effective.

What should I ask when purchasing a product to improve access?

Buyers have the responsibility of determining what product will work best for their situation and should ask several questions before purchasing. When choosing a product and/or service, buyers should ask:

  • What product or service will create an accessible environment?

  • Does the product or service meet all applicable accessibility guidelines and/or standards?

  • Does the product facilitate dignified and independent use?

  • Does the marketing literature use “People First” language?

  • What are other consumers saying about this product?

  • Can the sales rep provide a list of nearby installations to visit?

  • Can a sample or demo product be installed for user testing before committing to purchase?

  • What are the installation and maintenance requirements?

  • What does the warranty and service agreement cover?

  • If the product doesn’t quite meet your needs, is the manufacturer willing to make modifications?

 

Assess Your Facility Needs

To improve access within your park or facility, consider starting the process by conducting an accessibility assessment. This assessment should identify all of the barriers to your programs, activities, goods and services along with potential solutions to improve access. Once you have identified all of the barriers, you can begin a prioritization process for barrier removal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Department of Justice recommends barrier removal priorities as:

  1. Parking and entry
  2. Places where goods and services are made available to the public
  3. Restrooms
  4. Other amenities such as drinking fountains, telephones, etc.
Customer/visitor input is critical during the prioritization process, especially if you have several priorities and limited funding. Many recreation agencies and facilities include local citizens, customers, and visitors as part of advisory committees that provide input for park improvements and master planning. Inclusion of park visitors with and without disabilities in the planning and prioritization process can show a good faith effort on the part of the park or facility staff to seek input from stakeholders.
For example, during your accessibility assessment, you may identify the need for 50 accessible picnic tables dispersed throughout the park. However, due to budget limitations this year, you may only have funding to purchase 25 accessible picnic tables this summer. Participation of citizens/visitors with and without disabilities in the planning process, such as a park advisory committee, can assist with prioritization as to which locations throughout the park visitors recommend should receive the first set of accessible picnic tables.
An accessibility improvement advisory committee can also assist with prioritizing overall accessibility improvements to the park as part of your working transition plans that are required under Section 504 and Title II.
Assessing the needs of your facility also becomes important as you may identify some barriers that require temporary solutions in order to achieve immediate access, however permanent solutions may be part of the long-range planning and provide more optimal access. For example, the building where the visitor center is located has one 6-inch step into the front entrance while the side entrance is accessible. The temporary solution may be to install signage on the route to the main front entrance to indicate to visitors with disabilities the route to the accessible side entrance. As the building is very old, the long-range plan may be to renovate the entire building using the principles of universal design to create a new accessible entrance that is inclusive of all visitors.
Assessing the needs of your facility will also help you to see “the Big Picture” in terms of planning and implementing accessibility improvements. For example, through your assessment, you may identify 20 drinking fountains located throughout the park that are not accessible. When it comes time to replace 1-2 drinking fountains due to wear and tear, you may find the vendor provides a better unit price for purchasing several units in one order. Thus, through your assessment, you will already have the information as to how many drinking fountains need to be replaced by accessible drinking fountains and can thereby plan for their purchase at a lower cost.

Specifications

Before purchasing a product, you should know the specifications required by the accessibility standards and guidelines to ensure the product you are purchasing is in compliance with those guidelines. Ask the vendor for a “spec sheet” so that you can compare the product specs with the accessibility guidelines.

For example, if you are about to purchase new picnic tables, ask the vendor for a “spec sheet” identifying all of the dimensions for the picnic table. Then compare the dimensions with the proposed technical provisions for accessible picnic tables in the Draft Final Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas (2009). Does the table have a clear width to accommodate a person seated in a wheelchair? Depending on the size of the table, are the required number of wheelchair accessible seating locations provided? Is there knee clearance and toe clearance under the table?

“ADA Approved”

Do not rely solely on manufacturer or vendor claims that their product meets or complies with the ADA. Ultimately, the owner of the facility is responsible for the accessibility of the facility and its programs, not the vendors who sell the products.

Many advertisements claim products to be “ADA Approved” or call the product itself “ADA Table” or “ADA Surface.” There is no organization or governmental body that reviews products for compliance with the ADA or that has the authority to give “ADA Approval” for any product. This wording is misleading and may cause you to end up with products that do not provide optimum access. Be sure to compare products with accessibility guidelines and standards before you make a purchase.

Installation

In many instances, installation of the product will ultimately determine if the product is accessible. When purchased, a product may meet all of the accessibility guidelines, however if it is not properly installed it will be rendered inaccessible.

For example, a drinking fountain may meet the technical provisions under ADA-ABA 602 for spout height and knee clearance. However, if installed in an awkward location, the drinking fountain could become a protruding object into the path of travel where a person with a visual impairment may accidentally walk into it if it is not cane detectable.

Maintenance

After installation, maintenance is the method through which you ensure your products remain accessible. Maintenance of accessible features is required under the ADA, the ADA-ABA Accessibility Guidelines and the International Building Code (IBC):

ADA Sec. 36.211 Maintenance of accessible features.
(a) A public accommodation shall maintain in operable working condition those features of facilities and equipment that are required to be readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities by the Act or this part. (b) This section does not prohibit isolated or temporary interruptions in service or access due to maintenance or repairs.
ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines 202.3.1
Prohibited Reduction in Access. An alteration that decreases or has the effect of decreasing the accessibility of a building or facility below the requirements for new construction at the time of the alteration is prohibited.
IBC 3409.2
Maintenance of facilities. A building, facility or element that is constructed or altered to be accessible shall be maintained accessible during occupancy.
If a wheelchair lift is installed in an existing facility to provide vertical access between floors, it must be maintained in operable working condition. Maintenance is essential. For example, when trash receptacles are emptied, they should be resituated within the reach range on the accessible route. In the restroom, the trash receptacle should be placed so not to obstruct the accessible route or accessible features on the accessible route such as the door or paper towel dispenser. Some products may require certain temperatures to operate or protection from the elements. Be sure that those types of products are maintained in temperature and weather conditions recommended by the manufacturer. Failure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for installation and maintenance may void any product warranty.

Periodic Testing

Many products, specifically mechanical and electronic devices, will require regular testing by staff to ensure the device operates as intended, especially before visitor use. Power sources for outdoor products are some of the elements that will require testing. Moisture and debris may penetrate the power source housing causing the power source to fail. For example, a lift installed for outdoor use should be tested weekly to ensure it is good operation. Another example may include periodic testing to ensure batteries are charged for use in devices like assistive listening systems.

Staff Training

Staff training is essential to ensure products are accessible and usable by visitors. Staff should know how to operate mechanical and electronic devices so they can provide accurate demonstrations for visitors. For example, staff should know the correct use of assistive listening devices including battery size and installation, microphone use, volume adjustment and how to turn the device on and off.

Independent Use

Products to enhance accessibility should also facilitate independent use for people with disabilities. Products should be usable by people with disabilities in the most integrated and dignified design possible. If people without disabilities can move through the facility and use facility amenities independently, so too should people with disabilities. People with disabilities should NOT be required to depend on others or ask others for help when accessing recreational facilities.   For example, if people without disabilities can move independently from one portion of a building to another by stairs, and the only accessible route for a person using a mobility device is by lift, use of the lift should facilitate independent operation. The person who uses a mobility device should not have to ask for a key or staff person to turn the lift on or operate it for them. In addition to dignified and age-appropriate designs, designs should foster inclusion and not unintentionally segregate families. Consider that a parent with a disability may bring his children to your facility. The parent will want to participate in activities with his children as well as be able to access a child in case of an injury or other emergency situation.

Materials

The product materials should fit into the design scheme and setting appropriate to your site. The materials should resist vandalism and be able to stand up to weather conditions. If your site has a high volume of visitors, the materials should be durable enough to withstand heavy use. Make sure the products are intended for commercial use and not residential use as products made for commercial use are meant to withstand a higher frequency of use than those made for residential settings. In most instances, accessibility guidelines establish the criteria for the products or environments but do not require the use of specific materials. The guidelines leave the material choice open to designers to fit into design schemes, etc. For example, the proposed guidelines for outdoor developed areas require a “firm and stable” surface for outdoor paths, but leave the method of achieving this to the designer; thereby refraining from identifying one or a list of specific surface materials to use. This allows the designer maximum flexibility in choosing the most appropriate product. Products used outdoors should resist weathering while reducing glare. If the product is tactile (meant to be touched), the material should be able to withstand the heat of the sun and the cold of winter. Some outdoor models and exhibits may become very hot or cold due to exposure to different weather conditions and climates. To avoid safety risks to visitors that may touch the tactile exhibits, the material should not conduct extreme temperatures that may result in burns or other injury.

Temporary vs. Permanent Installation

Some products like swimming pool lifts and portable ramps are available for temporary as opposed to permanent installation. When products are not installed permanently additional staff time and labor is required to install and remove the product when necessary. Products that are installed on a temporary basis may also require advanced planning to ensure staff is available to install the product upon request. Often the burden is placed on visitors with disabilities to know that they “should call ahead” to have the product installed or have to wait for its installation while on site. This should be avoided whenever possible. For example, many pool lifts are not permanently installed, often they are removed by pool staff to avoid weathering and rust. While this may enhance the life of the product, it is prudent that the lift be available as installed during pool hours of operation. This will avoid causing the patron to wait while the lift is being installed and then checked for proper operation. When the lift’s daily installation is added as part of the standard operating procedure, it removes the chance that enough staff may not be available to install it if it is only installed upon request. As this example shows, temporary products can have higher maintenance, staffing and customer satisfaction consequences than permanent fixtures.

Use of the International Symbol of Accessibility

Oftentimes the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) is overused. This symbol of access should only be used to lead a person with a disability to an accessible facility that may not be obvious. Under the ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines, the ISA is only required at:

  • Parking spaces designated as reserved for individuals with disabilities.
  • Accessible passenger loading zones.
  • Accessible entrances when not all are accessible.
  • Accessible elevators when not all are accessible.
  • Accessible toilet and bathing facilities when not all are accessible.
  • Accessible check out aisles when not all are accessible.
Take care not to overuse the International Symbol of Accessibility. Overuse can draw unwarranted attention and stigmatization to the user rather than highlighting the availability of the accessible feature.

Customer References

Always ask the vendor for customer references. Current and previous customers can relate how the product worked for their site, type of environment and additional considerations. The value of contacting these customers lies in the information each may provide regarding costs, hidden costs, installation, accessibility, usability, and maintenance. Because they have the first-hand experience with the product, the customers on the reference list and your colleagues in the field are your best sources of information when it comes to purchasing a product.

Visitor Feedback

In addition to talking to customers that have used the product, gather input from visitors, guests and local citizens with disabilities. Through their participation in recreation activities, local citizens with disabilities may have previous experience with some products and be able to offer some additional feedback prior to purchase.  Gathering visitor feedback should not stop once you have purchased and installed the new accessible product. Consider developing an informal customer survey for visitors that use the new product to continue evaluation of the product’s usability and effectiveness. For example, when a visitor returns an assistive listening device to the information desk, the staff could ask “How did it work?” Maybe there is static in the headset or perhaps the batteries are running low mid-way through the program. Such an inquiry can generate immediate feedback on the product’s operation and enable staff to respond quickly to solving the problem before future use. For assistance in identifying people with disabilities that can provide feedback on usability prior to purchase and during their visit to your park or facility, contact your local center for independent living.

Dollar Power

Your dollar has purchasing power when it comes to the acquisition of products to improve access to your facility. As a customer in a competitive marketplace working directly with the vendor and manufacturer can be of great benefit to ensure the products you are about to purchase will meet the full accessibility and usability needs of your park visitors with and without disabilities.

The manufacturer’s goal is to sell you their product. A successful manufacturer listens to the customer’s needs and reorganizes or even retools as necessary to stay competitive. For example, during the development of the accessibility guidelines for playgrounds, many playground designers, owners and operators complained that the available playground equipment did not meet the clear floor space requirements on elevated platforms and decks. The playground manufacturers listened and quickly retooled coming up with new designs that met the proposed accessibility guidelines and provided greater access for children with disabilities.
A successful vendor also knows that your first purchase can translate to repeat business. For example, some industries have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled the cost of their “accessible” products in comparison to their non-accessible counterparts. Some sales reps attribute this to the cost of “research and development,” some say it is due to the “additional cost of materials.” A few years ago, the accessibility coordinator and purchasing manager for a park and recreation department were alarmed to learn that the cost of an accessible portable restroom was four-times the cost of the standard unit. The department had recently adopted a policy that anywhere portable restrooms would be used, at least one needed to be accessible. In turn, the purchasing team made it known to vendors that they recognized the accessible units may initially cost more in materials, however the cost for each week of rental was exorbitant. The vendors, recognizing the potential for new and repeat business reassessed the rental cost so that it was more in line with the standard unit.
Your feedback as a customer or potential customer can lead the marketplace. For years the design of “accessible” picnic tables has been one in which an end or both ends of the tabletop is extended for wheelchair access. Both through visitor input at the park level and NCA research, we have learned that many people who use wheelchairs prefer to sit in the middle seating section of the table where they feel included as part of the group, rather than the end of the table where they feel somewhat isolated from being so far away. Today, more and more, new picnic table designs that address the need and feel for inclusion are being introduced to the marketplace and becoming more widely available in park settings. The end result…visitors with disabilities along with their families and friends have a more enjoyable, inclusive leisure experience at your park.

Resources

NCA Products Directory - The National Center on Accessibility hosts an online products directory designed to connect consumers, facility managers and purchasing officers to recreation products that could enhance accessibility to programs, services and facilities. The NCA Products Directory is an informational tool to be used as a buyer’s starting point in locating accessible products and services. NCA does not sell, promote, or endorse any product, service, or vendor listed in the Products Directory. Nor does NCA assume any responsibility or liability related to the accessibility, usability, or application of the products, services, and vendors listed.

The NCA Products Directory specializes in products specific to accessing park and recreation facilities. For a wider variety of recreation products, try the NRPA Supply Chain, advertisements with the National Recreation and Park Association. For listings common to the building trades industry, products are also advertised on the Sweets Network.   Products designed for activities for daily living and general assistive technology are listed through the U.S. Department of Education funded ABLEDATA web site.

The citation for this article is:

National Center on Accessibility (August 2010). Choosing Products to Improve Access at Your Parks and Facilities.. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington.  Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org.