What to Know Before You Go: The Big Questions to Ask Before Arriving at Your "Accessible" Recreation Destination

Every day millions of people participate in recreational activities. Recreation activities offer avenues for people with disabilities to improve their health, their relationships, and their enjoyment of life. In fact, recreational pursuits centered on physical activity and social engagement can help to prevent secondary health problems such as obesity and depression. Physical activity during recreation promotes weight-loss, strength, flexibility, motor skills and self-confidence. Socializing during recreation enables people to create new relational bonds and strengthen old ones, leaving the individual with an enhanced self-image and expanded social skills.

For people with disabilities, participating in recreation can have lasting impact that significantly improves their quality of life. However, the accessibility of a recreation program or facility can affect the individual's experience and overall satisfaction with the experience. One of the most frequently asked questions to NCPAD and NCA is, "where can I find accessible recreation opportunities?" This article will guide visitors in their search for accessible recreation facilities and programs. We will explore some areas where you can conduct initial searches for programs, who to contact and what questions to ask before arriving at your recreation destination.

Background on Access to Recreation Facilities & Programs

Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) require facilities to be accessible to people with disabilities. For example, all newly constructed parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, museums, theaters, federal buildings, government facilities, and places of public accommodation are required to comply with federal accessibility design guidelines.

In addition, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the ADA require programs and services to be made accessible to people with disabilities. Programs and services provided by the federal government, units of state and local government, along with private businesses, are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities. For example, a person who is blind or visually impaired must receive the same opportunities and benefits from a program as a person who is sighted. To achieve this, the site will need to use effective communication to convey interpretive, safety and site design information. (For more information, see Recreation Access Rights under the ADA by John N. McGovern, JD)

To assist in understanding the physical accessibility of a site; visitors with disabilities should become familiar with the accessibility guidelines developed by the U.S. Access Board. These guidelines are available online at www.access-board.gov and cover physical access to buildings as well as recreation environments. For assistance applying these guidelines to a recreational activity or facility, contact the National Center on Accessibility (www.ncaonline.org).

Where to look

A number of organizations collect and promote accessible recreation, sports, travel, and tourism opportunities. However, a comprehensive clearinghouse of information on the vast subject of leisure or physical activity does not exist. Thus, people interested in pursuing recreational opportunities or new areas of interest may need to search more specifically to that area of interest. There are some "starting points" in every community to link you to new areas of leisure interests.


The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability has developed a database of programs related to physical activity and disability. The database is available online and searchable by state. An individual with a disability, family member or caregiver can search for program opportunities in their local community.www.ncpad.org

Community guides

 Many local park and recreation departments publish a listing of their program offerings and area attractions in annual or quarterly community guides. The guides are sometimes distributed by mail, inserted in the Sunday section of the local newspaper or available at news stands in neighborhood grocery stores. Check with your local park and recreation department for a print copy. Some park and recreation departments also make the listing available on their web site.

Travel guides

Whether by plane, train or automobile, people with disabilities travel the nation and the globe in search of the perfect destination. It is valuable then, that some advocacy organizations and magazines have included travel tips and destination reviews on their web sites and as regularly featured articles in their publications.

Many large cities like San Diego, Atlanta and New Orleans have great recreational opportunities such as museums, theaters, sports venues, shopping and dining. A number of large cities now have accessibility guide booklets informing potential visitors as to the accessibility of various attractions in the area.

    AAA Travel Guide

    The renowned AAA Motor Club has published travel guides for many years. AAA now features a series of travel guides to large cities highlighting accessible destinations in each of the cities. Check your local AAA Motor Club or bookstore for the travel guides.

Convention & visitors bureaus

Many cities have convention and visitors bureaus created with the distinctive purpose of promoting activities and attractions in the surrounding area. While they are mostly used by visitors to the city, they are underutilized by local citizens. Area convention and visitors bureaus can serve as a valuable resource and help to answer that age old question, "What is there to do around here?"

National and state parks, forests and wildlife refuges

From Arcadia National Park and the Appalachian Mountains to Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities in your own background or any place you would like to travel to in the country. Several federal, state and local land management agencies print park and facility guides which specifically detail the accessible features at each attraction.

Park and recreation departments

The National Recreation and Park Association is the national membership organization of more than 2,100 community park and recreation providers in the United States. Check the yellow pages of your phone book under "recreation" for your local park and recreation department. Or search NRPA's directory for park and recreation agencies in your state.

Schools, local colleges

Colleges and universities throughout the nation provide fee-based recreation activities, including fitness and wellness programs. These activities are available to the public as well as to students, faculty, and staff of the college. Colleges also have opportunities for the sports enthusiast to catch exciting intercollegiate contests in their area of interest including football, basketball, and track and field. For those interested in the cultural arts, many college campuses also include museums of art or natural history, musical arts centers, auditoriums, and theaters.

Community centers and Y's

Community centers provide physical space where community members can participate in social and recreational programs, and hold neighborhood and political meetings. Different cultural, religious, or civic groups may own the centers. Check your local yellow pages listings for "Community Centers" or "Community Organizations." City park and recreation departments also manage community centers; contact your local recreation department for more information.

    With over 2,500 locations throughout the United States, the YMCA is the largest non-profit community association in America. Each YMCA offers a unique blend of programs and services, from childcare to art and fitness classes. YMCA's can be found under "Exercise and Physical Fitness Programs" in your yellow pages. Or, use the following link to find a location near you: www.ymca.net

    Similar to the YMCA, the YWCA offers wellness and recreational programs geared more specifically towards women and children. Find a YWCA in your area by checking the yellow page listings in your local phone directory or search the YWCA web site. http://www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=djISI6PIKpG&b=284783

    Boys & Girls Clubs
    The Boys and Girls Club of America youth organization provides children with structured programs in arts, education, the environment, recreation, leadership, and health. With 3,400 locations, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Boys and Girls Club of America has served more than 4 million boys and girls. Check the yellow pages under "Youth Organizations and Centers" or go online to search for the nearest club. www.bgca.org/clubs

Special interest groups and private clubs

Perhaps you already have an interest in taking up a particular recreational activity like water skiing, mountain biking or scrap booking. Many activities such as these have local community groups and private clubs center on bringing together people with similar interest. The easiest place to start your search is in the Yellow Pages under your topic of interest like kayaking, running or skiing. Two other places to make inquiries: your local park and recreation department and local sporting goods store. Many local park and recreation departments have working relationships with special interests groups especially if the group uses a facility of the parks department. Your local park and recreation department can get you the contact information for groups like the local figure skaters club and men's garden club. If your area of interest uses sports equipment, networking with the local sporting goods stores is also a good start. Sporting goods store staff working in the bike department may be able to tell you where some of the best bike trails are in the surrounding community, while other staff in the running apparel department can tell you about the local running clubs, fun runs and mini-marathons coming up on the calendar.

Who to contact

Before venturing out on an excursion or getting started in any recreational activity, most park visitors with disabilities and their companions want to know the accessibility of a recreation facility or program before they arrive. This will require the visitors to identify their recreation interests and then contact the recreation provider directly to ask about accessibility, via telephone/TTY or e-mail.

When calling the recreation provider, the visitors should ask to speak with the person responsible for the accessibility or inclusion of the program or facility, and indicate that they, or their companion, have a disability. The person responsible for the accessibility program should know accessibility features of the facility and programs and be eager to answer questions. The accessibility coordinator can also work with the visitor and program staff to ensure any necessary program modifications or accommodations occur before the visitor's arrival.

Often, it is not as simple as calling the facility or program and asking the first person one speaks with "Is the swimming pool and swim lesson program accessible?" because that person may not be knowledgeable about accessibility. The person who answers the phone may respond, "yes, it is accessible" to all questions regarding accessibility, but they may not be trained to identify accessibility features according to federal guidelines. The process of getting the right person on the phone may take longer than anticipated, but it is well worth the effort.

Questions to ask

Once contact is made with appropriate facility or program staff, the next step is to ask questions specific to the individual's needs. These questions should focus on elements the visitor feels will enable participation and enjoyable use of the facility or program. While people with similar impairments (physical, sensory, cognitive) may have similar concerns and questions, this is not always the case. The needs of each individual are unique and may require a different level of access. To illustrate this point, consider an interpreter-led nature walk. A person with a hearing impairment may ask if an assistive listening system is available, while another may ask if the interpreter's discussion points are available in text. A visitor who is deaf may ask if a sign language interpreter is available. Additionally, a person with a visual impairment may inquire if there are touchable elements on the tour, while another may ask for audio description. These are but a few elements that may be necessary for an individual to enjoy this particular program.

Preparing a set of questions about recreational accessibility may appear time-consuming and challenging to some. To jump-start the process, the following is a short list of disability-specific questions from which recreation-seekers can formulate more individualized questions. Remember: these sample questions are not all-inclusive; each individual will have specific needs and interests.

General Questions

People with mobility impairments

Of concern to many people using mobility devices (such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and crutches) and people with unsteady gaits is the physical access to the facility and program. Elements that affect physical accessibility include parking, routes to and through the facility, entrances, bathrooms, seating, counter and table heights, and more.


  • Is accessible parking available? If so, how many spaces are available and are any van accessible?


  • Is the entrance to the facility accessible? What surface material is used for the route to and through the site? Is it grass, pea gravel, sand or wood chips? If so, this area may not be accessible for people using mobility devices.

Participation Fees:

  • Is a fee required to visit the site or participate in the program? If so, is a personal assistant also required to pay the fee?

Site Amenities and Information:

  • What are the amenities of the site?
  • Are there accessible bathrooms, drinking fountains, concessions? 
  • Is a brochure available indicating the accessible features of the site and program? "
  • What is the policy towards service animals?
  • Is there a relief area for my service animal?

For people with sensory impairments

  • What are the amenities of the site? Are there bathrooms, drinking fountains, concessions?
  • Is program information provided in alternative formats?
  • Have programs been modified to accommodate visitors with sensory or cognitive impairments? Please describe what modifications have been made?
  • Does the site provide a public use TTY? Where is it located?
  • What are the site policies for guide animals?
  • Is Braille provided on informational and directional signage?

Facility-specific questions

Campsite Type:

  • Do you have accessible campsites? How many accessible campsites are available?Is there a reservation system or is it available on a first-come first-serve basis?Is the RV camping space a minimum of 20 feet wide for RV parking and proper lift operation? " Is the tent camping on a tent pad or platform?Is clear space around the tent pad or platform wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair?

Campsite Amenities:

  • What accessible site amenities are available? (grills, fire rings, picnic tables, comfort stations/bathrooms)


  • Is there a 48 inch by 48 inch firm and stable surface immediately adjacent to the grill?
  • Is the height of the cooking surface between 15 inches and 34 inches so as to be reached by a person seated in a wheelchair?
  • Are operable parts easily used without tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist, and do they require less than five pounds of force to operate?

Fire Rings:

  • Is there a 48 inch by 48 inch firm and stable surface immediately adjacent to the fire ring?
  • Is the fire building surface nine inches or more above the ground surface?
  • Is there a raised edge around the fire ring; if so, is the combined distance over the edge or curb down to the fire building surface 24 inches or less?

 Picnic Tables:

  • Are accessible picnic tables available in favorite picnicking spots; both sun and shade, and with views comparable to inaccessible tables?
  • Are picnic tables provided at each campsite or only in common areas?
  • Are the picnic tables fixed to the ground or moveable?
  • Are the accessible picnic tables located on a firm and stable surface and accessible route?
  • Is the wheelchair accessible seating space in the middle of the table, on the end of the table or on the side?
  • Do the accessible picnic tables have a wheelchair seating space that is at least 27 inches high, 30 inches wide, and 19 inches deep with a 9-inch high toe clearance at least 24 inches deep?

Comfort Stations and Pit Toilets:

  • What type of restroom and bathing facilities are provided?
  • Is there an accessible route from the accessible camping to the accessible comfort station or pit toilet? What is the surface material of this route? Does the route maintain a running slope of 1:20 or less, or are there areas where it is steeper?
  • Is there an accessible stall with a minimum depth of 56-59 inches and width of 60 inches? Are grab bars provided?
  • Does the pit toilet have a minimum clear space of 60 inches by 60 inches with a maximum slope of 1:50 adjacent to the toilet? " Is the surface firm and stable?
  • Does the pit toilet have walls? If so, are grab bars provided?


  • Is there an accessible room? Does it have the amenities you desire?
  • Does the bed frame create a solid box underneath the bed thereby hindering the use of transfer lifts which must slide under the bed?
  • Are communications like fire alarms, alarm clocks and message waiting indicators audible and visual, and usable by people with hearing impairments or visual impairments?
  • Are TTY's available?
  • If you are deaf or hard of hearing, how will you know when someone (say room service) is at your door?
  • Is there a pool? If so, does the pool have a sloped entry or pool lift?
  • Is there an exercise room? If so, are there accessible routes to the equipment? Can the equipment be used while seated in a wheelchair?

Museums and exhibits:

  • Are exhibits in the museum visible to a person in a seated position?
  • Are brochures, playbills/programs, exhibit text and interpretive handouts available in Braille, large print, audio or computer disk? How far in advance must these be requested?
  • Is a sign anguage interpreter available? How much advance notice is required?
  • Are tactile maps, models and objects included in exhibits? Theater and sport venues
  • Does the site provide accessible seating areas?
  • What is the nature of the accessible seating? Are there stadium seats that can be folded away and removed to provide a wheelchair seating space, or will a person with a disability need to transfer from his wheelchair?
  • If transfers are required, where will the wheelchair be stored? Is the storage next to the patron or in a place that will require an attendant to retrieve the device upon request?
  • Is accessible seating available at all price levels? Are comparable lines of sight provided in these price levels?
  • How many companion seats are available per accessible seat? Is the companion seating next to, in front of, or behind the accessible seating?
  • When are the accessible seats opened for purchase by people without disabilities? (After the rest of the price level is sold out, after the entire venue is sold out, 1 hour prior to the show, etc.)
  • Is there a 36-inch wide area of the counter that is 36 inches or less above the floor at the ticketing, merchandise, and other retail counters?
  • What is the venue's policy on service animals?
  • Is an assistive listening device available? If so, what type?
  • Is real-time captioning available for performances?
  • Are sign language interpreters available for performances?

The questions provided in this article are by no means an all-inclusive or mandatory list. These questions also do not ensure finding an accessible recreation facility. In fact, many of the questions will not apply to everyone and will not cover all potential aspects of accessibility at the site. However, asking questions specific to your needs will increase the likelihood of an enjoyable experience.

Remember the visitor is the best person to decide if a recreation venue suits his/her specific needs. Do not hesitate to ask questions which you feel are important. While venues may advertise accessibility for people with disabilities, a little time spent investigating the site may avoid unpleasant surprises in the long run. Asking the recreation site staff pertinent questions will increase your chances of having an accessible and successful visit.

After your visit….

So you decided to spend a hot summer day with family at the local swimming pool. You called the pool in advance to find out if a swimming pool lift was available for your wife who uses a wheelchair. The pool staff affirmed they did have a lift and it was set up for use. However, after getting to the pool, you and your wife discover the lift is not operational since it has not been used very often or checked during routine maintenance inspections. When you reported the problems with the lift to the pool staff during your visit, the pool staff called for maintenance on the lift. In a matter of 15-20 minutes, the lift was again operational and you and your wife were able to enjoy the hot summer day in the pool.

It is especially important for people with disabilities to give continuous feedback to event staff, program coordinators and facility managers on the effectiveness of accessibility features within specific programs, services and facilities. Operational dollars have been designated to make accessibility improvements. However, if the accessibility improvements are not functional or effective, they have not served their purpose of creating an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the program or activity for people with disabilities. Thus, continuous feedback from consumers with disabilities can help park and recreation professionals to improve their facilities and services to best meet the needs of all of their visitors and participants. Let the park staff know when an accessible element is not working or effective and let them know how they can improve it for future visitors. Further recognize that one of the most commonly heard complaints from park and recreation professionals is that they have spent money to make accessibility improvements, but still the park, facility, program or accessible element goes unused by people with disabilities. When you have an enjoyable experience at a park, recreation program or facility, also be sure to let the staff know that as well. The program staff and facility managers especially want to know that they are serving their customers well. They will appreciate your compliment and most likely continue to work diligently to provide programs and facilities that are accessible and usable to visitors of all abilities.

About this Monograph

These materials were developed by the National Center on Accessibility for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability under sponsorship of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


The citation for this article is: 

Ostby, S. and Skulski, J. (2004, revised 2009). What to know before you go: the big questions to ask before arriving at your "accessible" recreation destination.  Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington. Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org.