The ADA at 30: Things That Didn’t Happen to Parks & Recreation

swimming pool

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, it caused a lot of concern and consternation in the field of Parks and Recreation.  Honestly, people freaked out a little bit, worse than Leslie Knope on a waffle binge.  There were a lot of arguments about how NOT to make programs, services and activities accessible to people with disabilities.  As we count down to the 25th anniversary of the ADA this month, we thought we would take a look back and have a little chuckle over the false arguments and things that just didn’t happen.

5.  Pool owners were NOT fined nor were there a slew of lawsuits for lack of swimming pool lifts.  An epidemic of fear-mongering ads warned public pool operators of non-compliance, fines and lawsuits if they didn’t install a pool lift by the March 15, 2012 effective date of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.   The newly released standards called for the use of pool lifts or sloped entries as a means of access in new construction and alterations.  On the heels of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act (P&SS Act), pool lift manufacturers looked to the release of the 2010 ADA Standards as another compliance sales opportunity.  Just months earlier, the federal P&SS Act required public pool operators to upgrade pool drain covers to prevent drownings. Apparently the emotional sales pitch worked as some manufacturers reported a 2-3 month back order on pool lift equipment.  Yet the advertisements were one of the single-most grossly misstated interpretations of the ADA requirements to date.  While this one tends to evoke more sneers than chuckles, it should be a wake up call to disability advocates that the days of “ADA-Approved” advertising need to be put to a halt.

4.  Miniature horses did NOT stampede into planes, pools and businesses.  So the U.S. Department of Justice clarified the definition of a service animal in its revision of the ADA regulations in 2010.  A service animal, according to DOJ, “means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”  Oh…yeah and miniature horses…..they are service animals too.  Why?  Because apparently they live longer than dogs, can perform the same tasks and a group that had trained about 50 for use around the U.S. lobbied DOJ for their inclusion in the regulations.  As a disability advocate of more than 20 years, this part of the revised regulations was a little challenging to explain when a pool manager is convinced the health department will shut down his aquatic facility if the horse relieves itself on the pool deck.  In 5 years since the release of the revised regulations, we haven’t heard any uptick in the instances of people seeking admittance with their miniature horses.  Moreover, we haven’t actually been able to track down the original organization to find out the current number of miniature horses being used as service animals.  (Hint. Hint. Miniature horse service animal users.  We’d love to hear from you.)

3.  Park and Recreation agencies did NOT stop building playgrounds.  The development of accessibility standards for playgrounds generated some of the most heated public comments during the rulemaking process in the late 1990’s.  Playground equipment manufacturers became famous for arguing in opposition to the standards claiming the cost of accessible playgrounds would cause park agencies to choose to stop building new playgrounds.  Quite the opposite occurred.  Industry insiders say the equipment manufacturers that retooled and re-engineered their designs to meet the accessibility standards quickly became the most successful.  As for the number of new playgrounds built each year, insiders say the industry growth is quite healthy.

2.  Casey Martin did NOT get an unfair advantage by using a golf car on the PGA tour.  The PGA tried all sorts of arguments to prohibit Casey Martin from using a golf car, like it wasn’t covered by the ADA, it wasn’t an employer, and then it wasn’t a public accommodation.  Ultimately they defeated their own arguments on “fundamental alteration” by allowing golfers in the Senior Tour to use carts.  And….SURPRISE….even by using a cart, Casey Martin did not outplay his competitors.  He had an admirable career and probably brought more attention to the ADA than any other individuals since Justin Dart and George H. Bush were pictured on the White House lawn during the historic signing ceremony.  But hey, if you are looking for entertainment at your next cocktail party, we dare you to ask the question while standing between a golfer and a disability advocate.  FORE!

1.  The Wilderness did NOT get paved!  This is our absolutely favorite argument against the rulemaking for accessibility standards in outdoor recreation areas and trails.  Could you imagine paving the Appalachian Trial with miles of asphalt and concrete?  Neither can we! Design and construction materials should never compromise the natural area and the fundamental experience of being in the woods or forest, hiking along a ravine or taking in the serene setting along the lake shore. Yet ADA-opponents lamented that the application of accessibility standards to outdoor recreation environments would mean everything has to be paved for wheelchair users.  Fortunately, accessibility coordinators and land management agencies across the country are proving there is a balance to strike and many creative ways to provide access for everyone to enjoy the great outdoors.

So what is the lesson to be learned from the build up of these scary monsters in opposition to the application of the ADA in parks and recreation?  Park spaces and recreational activities provide the most natural and conducive environments to promote social justice and equity for people with disabilities.  Parks and recreation is much less structured and less threatening than other communities like school and work.  Here people with disabilities can learn new skills, challenge their perceptions of their own abilities and functional limitations, take risks without gianormous consequences of failure, make friends and seek an improved quality of life…..all the same benefits that people without disabilities seek from leisure pursuits.  After 30 years, lots of time, energy, resources and gobs of money have been spent fighting the ADA and arguing it as an unfunded mandate when the benefits far outweigh the means. There are hundreds of successful programs and practitioners that have shown ADA compliance and inclusion of people with disabilities is not only possible, it is practical and good for community wellness.  As a result, thousands of children and adults have benefited from accessible and inclusive park and recreation opportunities.  Children with disabilities that were welcomed in summer camp made friends and gained social acceptance to make it easier to attend their neighborhood schools. Adults with disabilities have been able to participate in weekend activities like hiking trails, fishing, golfing and venturing to the water park with family and friends, thus contributing to their own good health.    The Park and Recreation Profession has the unique opportunity in the next 30 years to lead other industries from tech to health care, higher education to transportation, by defining itself as a leader above and beyond simple ADA compliance, but as an innovator in the practice of inclusion and universal design to benefit EVERYONE. Why? Not because it’s the law. Because it’s the right thing to do.

About the Author
Jennifer Skulski is a thought leader in ADA compliance and accessibility management with more than 30 years experience serving federal, state, local and private entities.