This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.
Pioneers in quest of accessible public facilities in the 1970s may have put public restrooms or sport concession buildings at the top of their list, but thanks to those important efforts, accessibility today is designed into those facilities.
Seasoned parks and rec professionals may recall that the first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) draft was presented to Congress in 1988 and was passed in July 1990. Prior to that, there weren’t any design, construction, or operational standards that applied to the use of public facilities by handicapped people.
“ADA accessibility is coming up on the 25th anniversary next year, so it is timely to discuss maintenance and design issues,” suggests Jennifer Skulski, who has more than 20 years of experience in delivering service in consonance with ADA guidelines. Her first job was accessibility coordinator at the Rockford, Ill. Park District, and she later spent 17 years at the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University, Great Lakes ADA Center. She recently formed her own company, Skulski Consulting, which specializes in accessibility as it applies to parks and recreation facilities and operations.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. The program is administered at the federal level by the Department of Labor. The Office of Disability Employment Policy (www.dol.gov/odep) provides publications and other technical assistance on the basic requirements of the ADA. It does not enforce any part of the law.
As the mandates of the ADA roll along the line of responsibility, they eventually stop at the local level. According to Skulski, it behooves local departments to be familiar with the ADA and know where to research answers.
“Maybe a parks restroom had been vandalized and the toilet-paper dispenser was torn off the wall,” she says as an example. “You need to look at the standards to see where the new dispenser should be located. When it was originally placed there, it may or may not have been in the proper location that makes it accessible under the ADA. Twenty-five years ago it wasn’t that specific, but it is now.”
Cost Is No Excuse
Whether or not ADA requirements apply to a maintenance project can depend on a number of different factors. For example, if the interior walls of a restroom are being repainted, there’s no impact; but if new carpet is being put into a parks and rec restroom/concession building, the accessible route is now being altered so the correct type of carpet or flooring product must be selected to be compliant.
According to an article online by John P. S. Salmen, President of Universal Designers & Consultants, Inc., who specializes in barrier-free and universal design, lawsuits stemming from accusations that ADA standards have not been followed are proliferating. Building owners and architects want to comply with ADA regulations but may find some of them vague and inconsistent. Interpretations vary from state to state and case to case.
Parks and rec facilities maintenance-staff members are often directly impacted by the requirements of the ADA because so many high-use public facilities fall under their cognizance. This is especially true of the multitude of stand-alone restrooms in passive and active parks, as well as combined restroom/concession buildings in most sports parks.
It pays to have a structured plan in place to ensure compliance with the ADA intent, which is to enable access for all citizens, to all facilities, regardless of disability. In fact, according to Skulski, all public entities are required to have completed a self-evaluation and have a transition plan in place.
“Transition plans were supposed to have been in place by 1992,” Skulski asserts. The plan should document all facilities and identify where structural changes had to take place to make them compliant.
Skulski suggests that many agencies either flat out ignored the mandate or did a cursory plan and put it on a shelf to collect dust. “Exceptional agencies did it, assigned a coordinator and staff, and it is a dynamic document enabling them to remove barriers and make facilities more accessible,” she says. “If someone files a complaint against a parks and rec agency, the first thing that will be asked by the Department of Justice is ‘where is the transition plan.’ It is just like a safety audit; it has to be maintained.”
Keeping Up With Standards
Since ADA was codified and amplified over the years, now virtually any time a department looks at renovating, remodeling, or tearing down and rebuilding facilities, such as a stand-alone restroom or restroom/concession, ensuring access to all primary functions of the facility is critical.
Oftentimes, parks and rec maintenance professionals must rely on the knowledge and experience of architects and contractors to guide them through the labyrinth of regulations, guidelines, and policies.
It should be second nature now for architects and contractors to have accessibility high on their checklist. However, keeping up with the standards is a challenging, time-consuming, and ever-evolving task. Some firms have an in-house staff expert who advises them on all the projects. Many firms don’t have that luxury, so they call on expert consultants, such as Skulski, to keep them honest.
Skulski states that the self-evaluation is a critical first step. “The self-evaluation is a review of facilities, policies and procedures, and your operational rules as they apply to ensuring access for people of all abilities,” she notes. She shares her experience that she’s seen agencies argue it is too costly to comply with ADA. “People have tried to make that argument for 25 years,” she says. “It doesn’t hold water, and it’s not something you want to stick your head in the sand about. It will cost more in litigation than having and implementing a good plan.”
The ADA website (http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/disability/ada.htm) notes that the Department of Justice enforces regulations governing public accommodations and state and local government services. This is where most issues related to parks and rec facilities are handled.
Normally, local departments have a city or county attorney to advise them on legal ramifications of accessibility issues. But it is far better to stay ahead of that curve than to fall behind it.
“The DOJ uses the term ‘good faith’ when they are looking at these cases,” advises Skulski. When cases arise, she says, departments that have developed a plan and are attempting to implement it will receive more leniency.
She notes that a key factor in developing a good accessibility-management plan is obtaining input from citizens with disabilities. “Priorities will shift when you get citizen involvement,” asserts Skulski, who is working with the Minneapolis Parks and Rec board, in conjunction with John McGovern of Recreation Access Consultants. Together, they are helping the board develop an ADA transition plan for more than 240 parks and rec facilities.
For Best Results
Another key aspect of a successful transition plan, says Skulski, is to make it a part of the comprehensive maintenance plan, or even wrap it into the department’s master plan. “It is important that the plan has support from the top and that funds are dedicated every year to meet the goals,” she points out. “You need a plan coordinator who knows the regulations and policies, the go-to person, and a team of people who are all vested in the process, including someone from purchasing and finance.”
Skulski also suggests that representatives from the maintenance department should be on that team. “The maintenance guy is going to make you or break you,” she asserts. “You need to ensure that maintenance staffs are trained and know what the standards are because once you start implementing the projects, he’s going to ensure it gets done right.”
The ADA National Network online has a variety of online training, webinars, and general information. The network also sponsors the National ADA Symposium, which was held in June last year. This four-day event is composed of a pre-conference, keynote, break-out sessions, advanced discussion groups, exhibits, and hands-on learning activities. The 2015 symposium will be held in Atlanta from May 10-13. Go to www.adasymposium.org for full details.
Skulski cites statistics that one in five Americans have a disability, and that two of seven families that use parks are affected. As parks and rec pros know, there’s nothing that elicits complaints faster than a park with a malfunctioning restroom. For a disabled person, it’s even worse when there’s a restroom that is inaccessible or minimally accessible.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email email@example.com.