Tips From the Pros on Compliance With New ADA Standards

This article was orginally printed in Recreation Management Magazine and written by Margaret Ahrweiler and is being reprinted with permission.

While that adage applies to baseball fields in the middle of Iowa, it now also applies to playing fields—and every other form of recreational facilities across the United States for disabled users.

The 2010 ADA standards—formally known as Revisions to Title II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act—were announced in July 2010 and take effect March 15, 2011, with compliance required by March 15, 2012. They require that recreational facilities, not covered in the original 1991 Americans With Disabilities Act, be accessible to disabled users. All new construction must conform to the standards.


Among the areas they cover:

  • Amusement rides
  • Recreational boating facilities
  • Exercise machines and equipment
  • Fishing piers and platforms
  • Golf facilities
  • Miniature golf facilities
  • Play areas
  • Swimming pools, wading pools and spas
  • Shooting facilities with firing positions
  • Event seating
  • Service animals
  • Means of transportation for disabled people.

What does this mean for your facility? The short answer is that, short of natural areas and trails, every recreational facility must meet the same standards as other public and commercial spaces. The long answer is that the dense guidelines, filled with technical provisions and specifications, still leave room for questions and may have some recreational facilities scrambling to comply.

And while a new set of federal mandates that bring a new round of renovations can leave some site managers grumbling, many recreation professionals are counseling that facilities put a positive spin on the work they must do. Making their facilities accessible will open their businesses to a whole new client base, increasing traffic, exposure and positive word-of-mouth.

Advance planning pays off (as it does for most things) when it comes to the new rules, said John McGovern, president of Recreation Accessibility Consultants, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill. He counseled that, if they haven’t already done so, recreation districts and facilities should take an accessibility inventory and create a response plan.

“Usually, park and rec departments without solid policies in place about accessibility will incur a much bigger hit,” he said, to bring themselves up to the new guidelines.

None of the new standards should come as a surprise, McGovern added, since they adopt, word for word, the recommendations published by the U.S. Access Board in 2004. Districts in a leadership position, along with those active with special recreation programs, have been using those recommendations as guidelines for renovation and new construction work for the last six years, he added.

Recreation facilities need to start planning immediately, agreed Rob Sperl, director of planning for the Wheaton Park District in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb of about 55,000. Wheaton may be in better shape than most districts, he said, because it began preparing for more stringent accessibility standards in 2004, when it took a formal accessibility survey with its special recreation partner, the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, said Sperl. Wheaton also has been working with McGovern on an accessibility inventory and made a priority list, he said.

While many recreation professionals would rather not spend the extra time and money upgrading their accessibility, the process will pay off as facility usage increases, counseled Dr. Sherril York, director of the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. Millions of disabled users have plenty of discretionary income to spend, as long as they can access the places to spend it, she said.

Demographics of the disabled can be startling: 54.4 million Americans reported some level of disability in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with 35 million severely disabled. More specifically:

  • 11 million people over the age of 6 needed personal assistance with everyday activities.
  • 3.3 million age 15 or older used a wheelchair.
  • 10.2 million used a cane, crutches or walker.
  • 7.8 million had trouble seeing words in formats like this magazine, and 1.8 million could not see at all.
  • 7.8 million had difficulty hearing conversations; this did not include people who used hearing aids.

What’s more, these numbers don’t include senior citizens who, despite diminished mobility, refuse to count themselves as disabled—a number sure to rise with the aging baby boomers.

“The disabled constitute a significant portion of our population,” said John Caden, director of pool lifts for an aquatic supply company and an industry expert on accessibility regulations. Caden suggests looking at accessibility laws differently to appreciate what they’re trying to do. “I like to tell people, ‘What if you said that this law—or the barriers unfortunately in place—applies to women?’ You’d never bar someone from using a facility because they’re female,” he noted. “You have to consider disabled people the same way.”

While most recreation professionals think of physical barriers for users in wheelchairs, York reminded that planners need to consider people with other impairments, such as visual.

“We always find it interesting that we can go to places that will have brochures in multiple languages—won’t have Braille and large print but will have something in Portuguese. They’re trying to meet demand, but they’re not meeting their legal requirements,” she said. “Chances are, you’re going to have more disabled users than Portuguese users.”

Pool Accessibility

When it comes to the laundry list of areas covered under the new rules, providing access to pools has topped the list of concerns for many facilities. Pools with more than 300 linear feet of wall must include two means of access, one of which must be a lift or a sloped entry. Pools less than 300 linear feet only need one means of access—but it must be a lift or sloped entry. Practically speaking, this means any commercial pool in the country—270,000 by some estimates, said Caden—needs a lift or a sloped entry.


Fortunately, this area can provide the easiest fix, and, despite grumbling over costs, shouldn’t force closure of even the smallest facilities. Pool lift systems have been available for years. Smaller lifts cost as little as $4,000 to install, Caden said. Ramps, on the other hand, require more space, along with an architect and contractor, and can cost $20,000 to $30,000.

Some confusion still exists about wading pools and zero-depth entry pools with the 2010 guidelines, Caden added. The guidelines require a 1 to 12 ratio slope for graded entries, while many commercial zero-depth pools, including those in Florida, use a 1 to 10 grade. It’s also unclear where and when railings must be installed.

Many districts, including the Wheaton Park District, are avoiding that quandary altogether by installing lifts at the deep end of the zero-depth pools.

Districts with multiple facilities also can apply a program accessibility test to ensure that aquatics programs are accessible, without having to upgrade every facility, said Mike Benard, Wheaton’s executive director. Wheaton Park District operates two aquatic facilities, Rice Pool & Water Park and Northside Family Aquatic Center. Rice, built in 1989, features a zero-depth entry, while Northside, built in 1958 and renovated in 1995, features a more traditional design of an L-shaped pool with lap lanes and a diving well. The district offers lessons and other programming at both sites, but offers full accessibility for that programming only at Rice, Benard said. They chose to make Rice fully accessible because it is larger, with up to 200,000 visitors each summer compared with Northside’s peak of 80,000, he said.

Not every section of an aquatic facility must be accessible, either. Existing waterslides do not have to meet ADA requirements, York noted, but said that new construction should have accessibility built into the design.

Keep reading… Article continues with the issue of Safe Harbor, Segways & Horses, Field Accessibility, Outdoor Areas, and much more!

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