Recreation and the Americans with Disabilities Act

August 1, 2016, Feature, by Mark Trieglaff and Larry Labiak

The Chicago Park District has substantially increased accessibility to and usability of its facilities and lakefront areas for patrons with disabilities.In 2015, the United States celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law, the civil rights act for people with disabilities, expanded rights to participate in programs, activities and services offered by state and local governmental entities (Title II) and nonprofit/for-profit entities (Title III). The country has come a long way, but to better understand the significance of the ADA, it is necessary to take a quick look back through history at the laws implemented as its precursors.

History of the ADA

The federal government started recognizing the needs of people with disabilities when veterans returned from World War I with significant injuries and disabilities. To better care for soldiers’ needs, the Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act of 1918 provided vocational assistance to those who had been disabled during the war, offering compensation, insurance and vocational rehabilitation programs to soldiers with disabilities. During this time, the Veterans Bureau was formed and elevated to a federal-level department. In 1930, the Veterans Administration (VA) was established to consolidate and coordinate services for war veterans, and the VA hospital system was developed shortly thereafter. On the civilian side, laws such as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 were established, and during the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, Social Security benefits included assistance to families that cared for a person with a disability. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill of Rights) assisted reintegrating veterans by establishing hospitals, providing low-interest mortgages, and covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools.

With benefits extended to veterans with disabilities along with the expansion of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to confront the resultant 500,000 cases of disabling paralysis from the polio epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s, the need for accessibility standards was recognized and a concerted effort to address access to buildings and grounds ensued. Studies conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1946 to 1986 were the basis for The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accessibility standards titled “American Standards Specifications for Making Buildings Accessible to, and Usable by the Physically Handicapped” of 1961 and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 required the development of accessible housing. 

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was the basis for expansion of rights not only for African-Americans, but also for people with disabilities. The movement toward more program access, not just physical access, along with the philosophical idea of mainstreaming into the community, started to formulate. The momentum of the 1960s produced significant accomplishments in the 1970s.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited any agency receiving federal funding from discriminating against a person with a disability. That same year, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (now known as the U.S. Access Board) was formed. The mid- and late-1970s produced the ratification of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the amending of the Rehabilitation Act to include funding for independent living centers and the formation of the National Council on Disability under the U.S. Department of Education. 

It took almost a decade to formulate, but in 1988, the initial draft of the ADA was introduced. Intended to provide comprehensive civil rights legislation for people with disabilities, the ADA would go beyond federally funded programs to cover state and local governments and organizations, as well as businesses that accommodate the public. On July 26, 1990, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, signed by then-President George H.W. Bush, became law. At the signing ceremony, President Bush described the ADA in this way: “This historic act is the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities — the first.”

The ADA gave a legal mandate for park and recreation departments/districts to serve people with a disability. The law required program access (e.g., adapted sports) through inclusive policies and procedures (e.g., provision of one-to-one aides), and through physical access to parks and facilities (i.e., elimination of architectural barriers). Agencies had to make reasonable accommodations, including alterations to regular policies, procedures and practices, and provide auxiliary aids or relocate programs to an accessible site to allow a person to participate. Today, this has become common practice for park and recreation departments.

What might not be as widely known are the revised regulations of 2010 that specifically address areas that affect parks and recreation. Chapter 10 of the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) includes nine recreation areas: amusement rides, boating facilities, exercise equipment, fishing piers, golf and mini-golf facilities, play areas, swimming pools, spas and shooting facilities. New policies are required as well, in particular, a Service Animal Policy and Other Power-Driven Mobility Devices (OPDMD) Policy, which relates to the use of devices other than motorized wheelchairs and electronic convenience vehicles (scooters) for mobility in public areas. 

From barrier removal to development of parks and facilities, the inclusion of people with disabilities is paramount in all agency planning. Besides public meetings and the use of surveys, the implementation of an advisory group of stakeholders (representatives of people with various disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, professionals in the field of advocacy) is strongly encouraged as it becomes a valuable resource for parks and recreation ADA compliance. 

ADA Transition Plan

As the standards for access to recreational facilities increase, the desire to offer more recreational experiences increases. Published in the Federal Register in September 2013 for federal parks is the “Outdoor Developed Areas Guidelines,” which cover picnic areas, camping, viewing, trails and beach access.

The current requirements of the ADA and the 2010 ADAAG, and the likelihood of the proposed “Outdoor Developed Areas Guidelines” soon becoming law have put an increased burden on park and recreation departments for barrier recognition and removal. One requirement of the ADA that some have yet to accomplish is the development of an ADA Transition Plan. The Transition Plan focuses on the removal of structural barriers to provide access to programs and services offered to the public. 

Since 1993, the ADA has required an accessibility audit of all public facilities. The audit mandates identifying the accessibility barrier, a means to remove the barrier and an estimated date for removal. A Transition Plan provides park and recreation providers not only with a detailed list of accessibility barriers, but also with a tool for budgeting, planning and accountability. Intended as a public document, the Transition Plan shows that an entity is making a “good faith” effort toward ADA compliance. Many resources to aid in barrier recognition and removal, including checklists, videos and guides, are available online.

For some park and recreation entities, the challenges lie in the implementation of a Transition Plan they may have developed 20 or more years ago. A case in point is the Chicago Park District, which has the challenge of prioritizing and implementing barrier removal and the ongoing assessment of almost 600 parks within the city of Chicago. Post-audit challenges include the sheer volume of data collected and tracking the barrier removal process, maintaining geographic equity, developing priorities and, of course, budgeting for barrier removal.

Chicago Park District: A Case Study

The Chicago Park District (CPD), widely considered the largest municipal park and recreation provider in the country, has 591 parks covering more than 8,300 acres. Within the parks are 239 field houses (recreation buildings), 144 gymnasiums, 71 fitness centers, 10 ice rinks, 77 swimming pools, 64 nature areas, 17 historic lagoons and six golf courses. Of the 591 parks, 519 have a playground. CPD’s properties also include Chicago’s beautiful lakefront that offers 26 public beaches and 10 harbors. Of the 26 miles of lakefront, 18 miles are paved trails. 

To CPD’s credit, it developed its initial ADA Transition Plan in 1992 following an extensive effort to engage the local disability community and other public and private stakeholders in the planning and development process. However, after a modest expenditure of several million dollars over the next few years resulted in extensive barrier removal at a number of parks across the district, ADA capital improvements funding dwindled as the new millennium approached.

In 2003, CPD renewed its commitment to increasing accessibility at its facilities. A consultant architecture firm with extensive ADA-design experience was hired to assist CPD in developing a practical approach to barrier removal that would provide a roadmap for prioritization of additional ADA projects. It was a daunting task considering that of the more than 230 field houses across CPD, 80 percent pre-dated World War II, prior to which little thought was afforded to the access needs of people with disabilities.

An Access Audit

In spite of the inherent challenges, a prioritization methodology was developed that considered volume of use within various parks across the Park District. It focused on counting the number of existing element types (e.g., playing fields, assembly areas, playgrounds) within a group of 180 high-use parks to ascertain a target number of those elements that needed to be accessible to establish a reasonable level of access-based geographic equity. As an example, among CPD’s 519 playgrounds, the goal was to determine a target percentage of them that if/when made accessible would provide any park patron an accessible playground option within reasonable proximity to home.

The next planned step was to conduct ADA access audits (site surveys) of high-use parks. However, without a complete audit of all parks and facilities, the Disability Policy Office (DPO), which is charged with oversight of CPD accessibility compliance issues, would continue to lack “level of accessibility” data on too many field houses, information vital to most park patrons with a mobility-

related or sensory disability. So, instead, the DPO undertook conducting a complete access audit of all facilities, using college interns with architecture/urban planning backgrounds to minimize the cost. Although the full audit took five summers to complete, the estimated cost savings over using an outside consultant was $750,000-$1 million. CPD did bring in the aforementioned ADA consultant firm to audit a final group of 35 destination parks and facilities (e.g. Grant Park, Lincoln Park, harbors, golf courses, nature conservatories) to ensure the highest degree of efficiency and accuracy at these high-profile properties. ADA barrier removal projects were ongoing over the entire period, but in a less systemized way than desired for the long term.

The Challenges

Completion of the access audit bred its own challenges. The most obvious is the sheer volume of accessibility issues that still exist, and how to maximize barrier removal in ways impactful to the most people. On one hand, CPD strives to respect the tradition of serving people in their neighborhood parks. But, with so many field houses spread across the city and continually limited resources for barrier removal, “making a splash” in multiple areas simultaneously is difficult. On the other hand, CPD knows the importance of providing access for people with disabilities at regional parks, destination parks and Chicago’s lakefront beaches.

Since 2006, CPD has installed and maintains 16 solid-surface beach walks interspersed along its public beaches. Some are as short as 15 feet, while others extend up to 500 feet. They greatly improve access to the water for beachgoers with disabilities and all other patrons but are a chore to maintain from season to season. Lake Michigan winds, seasonal storms, Chicago winters and changing lake water levels wreak havoc to the extent that sections of the semipermanent structures have been torn apart or even lost to the lake both in season and over the winter. Another challenge is keeping beach walks clear of sand build-up, a continuous obstacle to access during beach season. This task is shared by summer lifeguard staff and landscape crews. At some beaches, blowing sand is an almost endless challenge.

As mentioned, CPD operates almost 80 indoor and outdoor swimming pools, most of which have a pool lift on-site. One-third of CPD pools also have portable pool stairs as a secondary means of access, and an additional six have ramped access. Pool operators should take caution to check their local and state public health laws prior to purchase and installation of portable stairs to avoid a major cost issue CPD encountered two years ago. During a routine state inspection, CPD was informed that none of its portable pool stairs met the state’s water flow safety standards and was further advised that all such units would have to be removed prior to license renewal. Some of these units had been in use for almost a decade and had never knowingly been at issue. Bottom line, CPD was forced to discard all of its portable stair units ($85,000 original cost) and replace them with the only model at that time approved by the state. The resultant replacement cost was almost $325,000.

One often-overlooked element in Transition Plan implementation is information technology (IT). For example, if website information is not presented in a format that’s accessible to individuals with a vision-related disability who use a screen-reader, they can be excluded from having basic knowledge on program offerings (e.g., registration deadlines, posted photos and videos, special events) so readily available to any sighted person seeking the same information. A good source of information on IT accessibility is the federally funded ADA National Network. Its regional offices across the United States provide information, guidance and training on the ADA to both individuals and business entities at no charge. The ADA National Network is a valuable resource typically underused by park and recreation professionals and other programs/services providers. 

To date, successful ADA Transition Plan implementation within CPD has meant finding ways to strike a balance between neighborhood parks and lakefront barrier removal projects, keeping an ongoing focus on readily achievable access improvements and an ongoing effort to monitor progress across the board. In retrospect, field houses, fitness centers, playgrounds, pools and beaches are substantially more accessible to and usable by people with disabilities than they were 20 years ago, but there is still much work ahead. 

On a personal note, being a wheelchair user and lifelong Chicagoan, today, I can cross many Chicago beaches via a beach walk. As a child and well into adulthood, the only way I could get to the water was if my dad, my older brothers or a couple of friends were around to carry me across hundreds of feet of sand. CPD is making steady progress, and as Disability Policy Officer, I’m proud to be in the midst of it. 

There is no end to the unexpected issues that can arise from implementation of the ADA Transition Plan. Thus, it is prudent to coordinate all aspects of implementation with capital construction and facilities management personnel to ensure that ADA capital improvements are aligned with general capital improvements planning as much as possible. Furthermore, comingling mainstream capital funds with ADA funding allocations whenever appropriate helps to ensure that cost efficiencies are maximized and that Transition Plan implementation keeps making progress toward accessibility goals.

So, what will the world be like when the ADA celebrates its 35th anniversary or its 50th? Technology is rapidly transforming our world: autonomous (driverless) vehicles, 3-D printing and robotics are bringing new opportunities to people with limb loss, mobility limitations and sensory challenges. Biotechnology has fostered some amazing advances for people who have lost their vision or hearing and those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury or stroke. As technological breakthroughs continue to positively impact the quality of life for individuals with varying disabilities, we can also expect their demand for access to recreational and leisure opportunities to increase. Removal of remaining barriers and other obstacles to participation is the smart way to meet this demand, and it is the right thing to do. 


Mark Trieglaff is the President/CEO of ACTServices, Inc. Larry Labiak is the Disability Policy Officer for the Chicago Park District.