By Amber Eisenschenk
Red Wing residents Audra Quandt and Heather Marx each have a child with cerebral palsy and, like most kids, they like to play on the playground. One day, while the two women were playing with their children at a Red Wing park, they had an idea—to build a playground in Red Wing that would meet the needs of disabled children as well as adults.
In 2009, Quandt and Marx’s vision became a reality—but it wasn’t easy. Once they got the support from the City Council, the Red Wing School District, other parents, and local physical therapists, they formed the Universal Playground Committee. _____________________________________
Left: Children enjoy playing on Red Wing's fully accessible Universal Playground. _____________________________________
The two women, along with the committee, worked tirelessly for nearly two years to raise enough money to get the fully accessible Universal Playground built.
Shortly after that, the city developed Discovery Garden, where individuals of all abilities are encouraged to smell and touch the plants in the wheelchair-accessible raised bed gardens.
Red Wing’s playground and garden are in line with the intent of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is, according to the ADA website, to ensure “that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services.” That last part is where cities come in.
Under Title II of the ADA—which outlines regulations for state and local governments—cities must take steps to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to city services and facilities. Although the law has been in effect for more than 20 years, some cities are still not in compliance.
Is your city among those out of compliance? Don’t wait for a lawsuit to take action—at that point, the city could lose control over its compliance plans. But if your city starts planning to make changes over time, this will show a good-faith attempt at making the city’s facilities and programs accessible.
Keep in mind that the ADA standards are pretty reasonable. You might be surprised about how you can improve accessibility to programs and facilities without breaking the budget.
One thing cities are commonly confused about is the difference between facility accessibility and program accessibility. Facility accessibility refers to the city buildings, parking lots, and parks, including individual components such as doors, elevators, signs, and other auxiliary aids that help a person operate in the facility.
Program accessibility is about city offerings such as swimming classes, soccer programs, and theater groups. Parks and recreation departments are usually affected by this requirement.
Access to city facilities
City facilities and buildings must be accessible to people with disabilities. In most circumstances, the ADA does not require the city to make structural changes to facilities that existed before its adoption as long as the city is using other methods to achieve access. Cities should review their offices, meeting rooms, event spaces, parking lots, and parks to ensure they are accessible.
This may mean the city needs to pave a trail out to the new soccer fields or designate additional handicap parking spaces for a parking lot that has been expanded. When building new structures, it is also important to check in with an engineer or architect to ensure meeting all ADA standards in the design.
In 1992, cities with 50 or more employees were required to create a transition plan to show how their facilities will be changed to comply with ADA facility standards. Transition plans can also be a good tool to ensure continued compliance.
If you have facilities with physical barriers, you should revisit your transition plan or make a new one that outlines a modification schedule. That will be helpful if anyone complains or files a lawsuit because your facility is inaccessible. Absent any plan, the city would likely be forced to make changes quickly, which can be financially challenging for any budget. _________________________
Right: Red Wing's Universal Playground opened in 2009. Some of the features making it accessible include a rubber ground surface and ramps on some of the play structures.
Access to city programs
Accessibility to a city’s programs is also an essential part of being ADA compliant. Your city’s goal is to make sure all its programs are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
Consider all city programs in their entirety when thinking about ADA compliance. For example, if someone with disabilities wants to participate in the city’s swimming program, the city should make sure the person has access to at least one swimming pool and locker room in the city. As you can see, program accessibility is often intertwined with facility accessibility.
Cities should make every reasonable effort to accommodate an individual with a disability. To do this, you might need to bend some rules. For example, if a deaf child wants to take a swimming class, the city may want to allow a sign language interpreter to accompany the child into the pool at no charge. Then the program— not just the pool—is accessible.
The city should also make sure programs are as integrated as possible. In other words, individuals with disabilities should be able to participate in programs alongside their peers without disabilities.
Reasonable modifications should be made to allow for this unless the city can show that the modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the program or activity, pose a direct safety threat, or create an unusually high financial or administrative burden for the city.
When integration is not possible, cities should consider offering recreational programs specifically for people with disabilities. For example, you might offer a basketball program for people in wheelchairs. Cities cannot assess the cost of modifications to the individuals with disabilities making the request nor can the city charge an individual with disabilities more for the program or activity.
Strategies for compliance
The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) does not receive a large number of claims for noncompliance with the ADA, but the claims that are submitted often require a response that is very time-consuming and expensive for the city.
Reasons for recent claims have included:
Even though claims are not coming in at an alarming rate, LMCIT encourages cities to regularly review their facilities to ensure ADA compliance. You may find you can make some simple changes to bring your city into compliance.
One change that is easy to make is putting up or changing the location of signs. Check the signs at facilities to make sure they meet the standards. Check each parking lot to ensure that there are the required number of handicap-accessible parking spaces and that they are clearly marked. Consider doing an annual review of signs relating to accessibility in city buildings and other public areas.
A common mistake cities make is not providing accessible bathrooms in city parks. This is another problem that is easy to fix! Keep in mind your city is not obligated to provide restrooms in its parks, but if it does provide them, then at least one restroom must be ADA compliant. If the existing facility in your park does not have an accessible restroom, you may add an ADA-compliant portable restroom to achieve compliance.
If you have portable restrooms in a city park, you must also have ADA-compliant portable restrooms. It is also important to carefully consider where ADA-compliant portable restrooms are located. Often portable restrooms are placed in an open area off of a pathway, which may be considered inaccessible by ADA standards. To ensure compliance, follow the ADA technical assistance guidelines (see sidebar at right).
Accessible pools and playgrounds
Reviewing technical standards is also helpful for city pools. As of 2012, all city pools and spas are required to have an accessible means of entry for people with disabilities. This includes pool lifts, stairs, or sloped entries, and either a transfer wall or a transfer system.
Larger pools must have multiple accessible means of entry. If your city has a pool, you need to make sure it is in compliance; the undue hardship exception is rarely justified with the ADA pool standards.
Ensuring playground structures are accessible or inclusive for children with disabilities can be a challenge for cities. Compliance goes beyond a structure that meets ADA standards. It is also important to look at other factors that may affect the use of the structure by people with disabilities.
First, check the trails and pathways to the play structure for ADA compliance. Then consider whether the playground surface materials are accessible because sand, gravel, and wood chips can be difficult to navigate for an individual with a mobility disability.
And finally, it’s important to consider the placement of the play structure in the park in relation to how someone with a disability can access the elevated play components.
While there are many different playground structures that meet the technical specifications of being handicap accessible, some cities have taken extra care to ensure the entire playground is inclusive for children with disabilities. That’s what Red Wing did with its Universal Playground and Discovery Garden in Colvill Park. In this playground, individuals who use wheelchairs may freely use the equipment that is often out of reach for them at other parks. ________________________________
Left: Judy Lovejoy and her granddaughter, Erica Quandt, enjoy playing at the opening of the Universal Playground in Red Wing. Erica’s mother, Audra Quandt, helped start the city’s Universal Playground Committee.
The playground includes a brightly colored rubberized surface that is a key to making it universally accessible. It breaks falls and allows easy access for wheelchairs and walkers. The playground also has play structures with ramps, ground-level play panels, and adaptive swings, sling swings, slides, bridges, and tunnels.
The City of Woodbury offers another example. Its Bielenberg Sports Center will soon host Madison’s Place, a completely handicap accessible, inclusive playground for all children. It will be the first of its kind in the Twin Cities metro area, with a 15,000-square-foot playground structure that will serve individuals of all capacities and is expected to open by the end of this summer.
Handicap accessible playgrounds are certainly more expensive than traditional playgrounds offered in most city parks. They require specialized equipment and expert planning to ensure they are truly accessible. Cities that have had the opportunity to include an accessible playground have often been able to do so because of generous donations from the community or partnerships with nonprofits that advocate for more accessible parks.
Amber Eisenschenk is a research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities.
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No matter what types of parks your city has or the recreation programs it offers, complying with complicated federal rules is challenging. Use these resources for help:
LMC’s Parks and Recreation Loss Control Guide available at www.lmc.org/parkrec.
ADA technical assistance guidelines available at www.ada.gov.
ADA information line: (800) 514-0301.
LMC Research Department: (651) 281-1200, (800) 925-1122, or firstname.lastname@example.org.