Best Practices of Accessibility in Parks and Recreation: A Delphi Survey of National Experts in Accessibility

Findings from a new NCA research study.  The investigation is a query of experts in our field and a concensus on what they believe are the best practices for accessibility in parks and recreation.  The Executive Summary follows below.  A complimentary free copy of the Final Report (PDF) is available online through the Indiana University Scholar Works Repository.

Executive Summary 

National Center on Accessibility 
May 2008 
Alison Voight, Gary Robb, Jennifer Skulski, Deborah Getz, Debbie Scharven

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has led to greater access to employment, transportation, public services and public accommodations for people with disabilities, some of the esoteric regulations related to program access have been more challenging to apply to public park and recreation settings. For the practitioner, it has not been easy to translate the abstract concept of “program access” into practice. Federal accessibility standards for buildings and facilities exist and continue to evolve with very specific scoping and technical provisions. These standards can be applied to the design and construction of recreation facilities, visitor centers and even outdoor areas for recreation. However, the requirements for “program access” under Title II of the ADA are not as specific. This often leaves park and recreation professionals to their own accord to make programmatic and administrative decisions based on what information is readily available to them at the time. While federal technical assistance materials provide some examples of program access for guidance, the concept of program access is still quite abstract. Moreover, what constitutes accessible “programs” or the “best practice” to ensure persons with disabilities will have equal access to recreation and leisure programs, has become increasingly more complex and difficult to ascertain, as the demand for inclusive recreation programs continues to grow.

The National Center on Accessibility (NCA) was established at Indiana University in 1992 with the directive to provide training, technical assistance and research on the inclusion of people with disabilities in parks, recreation and tourism. Thousands of professionals throughout the United States and abroad have utilized NCA for assistance with program access issues that arise at their programs and facilities. Over the last five to 10 years, the NCA professional staff has witnessed a dramatic shift in attitudes toward the implementation of the ADA regulations. After the ADA was passed, there was a degree of negative perception amongst practitioners where the regulations were viewed as an unfunded mandate with unrealistic timelines and compliance procedures. Most resistance was embedded in fear and lack of understanding on what accessibility meant (NCA, 2007). According to NCA training course instructors and accessibility specialists, a significant shift in attitudes has emerged where the negative perception is no longer as prevalent and practitioners are more likely to seek best practices not solely because compliance is the law, but because full inclusion of people with disabilities is the right thing to do to promote health and wellness and build strong communities (NCA). More and more, recreation professionals contact NCA already armed with information on the minimum compliance requirements, but are now seeking information on best practices that exceed the minimum requirements, and are therefore more likely to achieve full inclusion. The need for specific information regarding the best method or that which exceeds the minimum standard has warranted this research study. Currently, no formal document with best practices information exists for practitioners seeking to exceed the minimum compliance requirements set forth under the ADA and other disability-related legislation. As a result of frequent inquiries regarding best practices from practitioners, NCA initiated this research study in order to ascertain which practices in the field of parks and recreation accessibility management exceed the minimum standards set forth by the ADA and other disability-related legislation. The final purpose of the research was to create a document that details “best practices” in the delivery of recreation and leisure service in a variety of settings. The study was coordinated by NCA with support from faculty and staff from the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies and the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Best practices in accessibility, as defined for the purposes of this study, are: those common, identifiable procedures, attitudes and behaviors, which exceed the minimum standard represented in the practice and delivery of accessible recreation programs and facilities. In order to glean information that would reflect those practices in accessibility management that exceed the minimum standard, a national panel of experts was assembled. The experts were selected according to their national profile as professionals in the fields of accessibility, disability, and/or recreation services. A total N of 26 experts was originally selected to participate in a modified Delphi survey consisting of four rounds of query. Of those that were able to participate in the study, 15 had more than 20 years experience, two had 11-15 years experience, and only one participant had less than 10 years experience. The panel’s expertise ranged from community recreation and therapeutic recreation to legal compliance. Their major job responsibilities included administrator/director (4), educator/instructor/trainer (4), accessibility/ADA/504 coordinator (3), program manager (3), consultant (2), technical assistance director (1), and engineer (1). The panel also represented various organizations including federal agencies (8), state government (1), local/municipal government (1), not-for-profits (3), private business (1), and university/colleges (4). The panel consisted of individuals from ADA resource centers, enforcement and rulemaking entities, land management bureaus, recreation providers, and disability and/or therapeutic recreation scholars. A modified Delphi process was selected as the best means of soliciting and analyzing data from the panel of experts. The expert panel reached 80% consensus and believed the following 13 items to be among the best practices in the field of accessibility in parks and recreation.

  1. A best practice in accessibility includes the provision of accessible information to patrons, in alternative formats, recognizing persons with visual, hearing, or cognitive impairments.

  2. A best practice in accessibility includes practices that exceed the minimum standards/guidelines for accessibility established by the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

  3. A best practice in accessibility includes an established set of policies which facilitate and promote inclusive and accessible programs, and facilities, in the delivery of recreation and leisure services.

  4. A best practice in accessibility includes the establishment of an ongoing, periodic training program for agency personnel and volunteers regarding accessible and inclusive concepts and practices for people with disabilities.

  5. A best practice in accessibility includes the establishment of an Accessibility Advisory Board (or similar group) which includes persons with disabilities.

  6. A best practice in accessibility includes demonstrated support by administrators regarding accessible recreation programs.

  7. A best practice in accessibility promotes the delivery of integrated recreation programs and activities for persons with and without disabilities if applicable, feasible, or desirable.

  8. A best practice in accessibility includes marketing materials and program brochures that are accessibility-oriented for the promotion of inclusion of persons with disabilities.

  9. A best practice in accessibility includes recruiting staff and volunteers with disabilities to develop and deliver public programs.

  10. A best practice in accessibility fosters an organizational culture and attitude where recreation staff recognizes and promotes the rights of all persons to access fulfilling and enjoyable recreation activities, regardless of ability or disability.

  11. A best practice in accessibility includes expenditures related to the purchase of adapted equipment, services, and/or accessibility improvement projects in the financial planning and budgeting process. 

  12. A best practice in accessibility includes public programming that reflects the diversity of communities to include people with disabilities.

  13. A best practice in accessibility includes a policy to exceed minimum scope of requirements.

This study should be considered the first of many that could explore the concepts and guiding principles for further defining best practices of accessibility in parks and recreation. As practitioners, consumers and researchers review the 13 best practices presented here, it is likely that they will find many that could be considered common practice and intuitive to establishing a successful accessibility management program. It is also important to note that the broad language used to describe the 13 best practices could enable these to be applied to industries outside the fields of recreation, park and tourism administration. Future research is needed to investigate the broad application of the best practices, or narrow benchmarks that could measure outcomes as a result of implementation of one, or several, best practices.

The full report is available through the National Center on Accessibility.