Apply the concept to more than playgrounds

By Geoff Ames

It goes without saying that professionals involved with parks and recreation—perhaps with the exception of Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson—want everyone to enjoy the activities and experiences offered in public parks. Aside from the obvious reason that high public utilization of parks can ensure continued increases in a department’s budget, most professionals just love to see people at parks. It’s fun and fulfilling to know parks are valued spaces in the community.

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / halfpoint

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / halfpoint

Who Can Enjoy Recreation Programs?
Recreation opportunities and activities make a significant contribution to quality of life. Time spent outdoors connecting with nature is valuable time that helps us to refresh and recharge. This seems to be true for all people regardless of age, gender, socio-economic class, disability, or other demographic distinctions. The range of possible recreational activities from picnicking to fishing, swimming to mountain biking, or just sitting on a park bench watching a beautiful sunset, is as diverse as the people who can enjoy them.

To make recreation accessible to people with disabilities, minimum accessibility standards exist for a wide variety of recreational elements, ranging from golf courses and swimming pools to fishing piers and shooting facilities with firing positions. But what about other recreational features, amenities, and programs found in local, regional, and state parks? For example, there are no Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards that specifically address picnic tables , community gardens, or horseshoe pits. Each of these features, found in many parks, represents a program or activity available to the public. Yet when there are no accessible design standards, what can be done to ensure that such programs and activities include people of all abilities? Can a wheelchair user enjoy a picnic or toss some horseshoes in your park? Can a blind individual learn about the plants in your arboretum? Are the shared-use paths accessible to people of all abilities?

Compliance Matters
The title II regulations of the ADA prohibit exclusion from or denial of the benefits of public services, programs, and activities because of disability. But this does not necessarily require public entities to make every facility accessible. What is not so clear, or perhaps what suggests some reading between the lines of those regulations, is that built elements and features for which there are no scoping or technical provisions in the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design must, nevertheless, allow programmatic access.

Implicit in the title II regulations is the obligation of public entities to consider all methods and means—i.e., to identify best practices—to ensure their programs are inclusive of people with disabilities. Guidance materials and standards for federal facilities, such as the scoping and technical provisions for Outdoor Developed Areas (found in sections F201.4, F216.3, F244 to F248, and 1011 to 1019 Architectural Barriers Act Standards) and the supplement for shared-use paths , appended to the U.S. Access Board’s Proposed Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way, can be applied as best practices for picnic areas, natural trails, camp sites, and fire rings. Most technical provisions can be met with minimal costs, and scoping provisions make it clear that not every picnic table or camp facility must be accessible.

With regard to scoping—that is, where, when, and how many of a given feature or element must be accessible—it is important to remember two significant concepts of ADA regulations and standards. The ADA is a civil-rights law that requires programs to be administered in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities. The regulations and standards apply this concept with affirmative requirements for dispersion of accessible features. For example, we see this concept expressed in the following scoping requirement for ground-level play components:

Where two or more required ground-level play components are provided, they shall be dispersed throughout the play area and integrated with other play components.

Apply this concept in a park by looking at the available features or elements that present opportunities to participate in programs or activities. Suppose that picnic tables are located in three areas of a park—by a pond, next to a playground, and in a pavilion by the bandstand; at least one table in each area should be on an accessible route with a compliant wheelchair space provided at the end of the table. The ADA scoping, requiring at least 5 percent of the seating spaces and standing spaces at dining surfaces to be accessible, should be met when considering how many picnic tables in a given location must be accessible.

The minimum requirement in parks is to provide accessible routes from the arrival points , including accessible parking, public sidewalks at the park perimeter, and transit stops at the site, to park entry points. In addition, within the park , at least one accessible route must connect accessible buildings, accessible facilities, accessible elements, and accessible spaces that are on the same site. However, ADA standards do not require an accessible route between these buildings, facilities, elements, and spaces when the only means of access between them is a vehicular way that does not provide pedestrian access.

The ADA standards also require an accessible route to lawn seating areas and exterior overflow-seating areas, where fixed seats are not provided. Other spaces, elements, and features of parks that should be on accessible routes include, but are not limited to, benches, sidelines and bleachers at sports fields, and performance areas such as amphitheaters, exercise equipment, restrooms, and splash pads.

Bailey Gonzalez, Meeting the Challenge

Bailey Gonzalez, Meeting the Challenge

Finding Resources
Recreation facilities, including parks, must be included in ADA-transition plans required of entities covered by title II. In ensuring that public programs are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, facilities that are intrinsic to the provision of programs—the amenities and features found in public parks—must be given a high priority and sufficient budgets to ensure barriers to program access are removed.

Simply providing accessible sidewalks that connect to a minimum number of features and amenities in parks can make their benefits inclusive to people with disabilities and older adults. Often, grants that are available for recreation projects have criteria that favor proposals with inclusive designs. While not required, universal designs—those that make all areas of facilities accessible to people of all abilities—may appeal to non-profit organizations looking for special projects that align with their missions.

Geoff Ames is the Executive Consultant for Meeting the Challenge, Inc., a CP&Y Company. He is a Registered Accessibility Specialist in Texas and is a noted expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Architectural Barriers Act, the Fair Housing Act, and other disability laws. He specializes in helping state and local governments with implementing the regulatory requirements for self-evaluations and transition plans.