Milestones such as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1978, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) have raised expectations across two or three generations of consumers with disabilities seeking opportunities to improve healthy living through leisure pursuits. New generations of people with disabilities are holistically experiencing the impacts of the federal mandates at the community level. Today, there are higher expectations for access to public services (i.e., park and recreation programs, services, activities, and facilities). To the contrary, when public services are inaccessible and fail to meet citizen expectations, the results often lead to increased visibility of complaints and litigation. For example, when park visitors and program participants encounter physical and programmatic barriers, it is often associated with allegations of discrimination based on disability.
Disability watchdog groups are sending a clear message in the new millennium--comply with federal disability rights legislation or risk being sued. Fred Shotz is a disability advocate, wheelchair user, and, some would call a "professional" plaintiff in ADA-related litigation spawning dozens of lawsuits. Shotz argues that businesses will not spend money to make accessibility improvements unless they are forced to do so. Shotz (2004) contends, "By suing, we are in the driver's seat. We can be nice and cooperative if the defendant is cooperative. We can litigate the defendant into a corner if the defendant is uncooperative. What the litigation costs is up to the defendant, and is determined by how much the defendant wants to cooperate or how much the defendant wants to fight."
For most park and recreation professionals, inclusion of people with disabilities is viewed as more than a federal mandate. Instead, inclusion of all citizens--of all backgrounds and all abilities--is considered a founding principle for building healthy communities. The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) issued an inclusion policy statement in 1999 "to encourage all providers of park, recreation, and leisure services to provide opportunities in settings where people of all abilities can recreate and interact together" (NRPA, 1999).
The U.S. Census Bureau (2002-2006) estimates the number of people with disabilities at about 52 million. One in five Americans have some sort of physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. It is critical that park and recreation managers and administrators understand the characteristics, needs, and legislative mandates necessary to successfully include and accommodate 20% of their park visitors and program participants, not to mention their family members and friends, many of whom they participate with in recreation activities.
Many park and recreation agencies have made incredible strides over the last decade to remove barriers and create greater access for people with disabilities. NRPA recognizes these accomplishments annually with the presentation of the Gold Medal Award in Special Recreation, the equivalent of an "Oscar" for parks and recreation. State and local disability advocacy organizations highlight community efforts and federal agencies such as the National Park Service present annual exemplars in accessibility. However, even with the wealth of positive strides made to improve access in parks and recreation, more notable are the instances when public agencies have not planned and implemented comprehensive accessibility management programs. Agencies faced with complaints alleging lack of access to parks, programs, or facilities are often backlogged with more than 15 years of needed accessibility improvements mandated for ADA compliance, usually due to management's inability to address accessibility as a top priority. Nonetheless, it puts the agency in the middle of a public relations crisis.
In 2005, the California Department of Parks and Recreation settled two class-action lawsuits, agreeing to make more than $10 million in accessibility improvements over the next 11 years. Still, today, there are disability advocacy organizations that claim the settlement does not go far enough to improve access. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2006), over the last 5 years, the federal enforcement agency has entered into more than 90 settlement agreements with local governments concerning improved access to park and recreation facilities. The Waukegan (Illinois) Park District was one such entity about which the Justice Department received an ADA-related complaint, investigated, and entered into a settlement agreement under its Project Civic Access Program. The settlement (DOJ, 2004) calls for the park district to make accessibility improvements at its large regional parks, nature preserve, golf course, administration building, child care center, museum, and other facilities. In addition, the terms of the settlement agreement require the park district to hire or appoint a specific staff person with ADA oversight responsibilities "to coordinate the Waukegan Park District effort to comply with and carry out its responsibilities under the ADA." These examples could represent any park and recreation agency, state or municipal, anywhere in the United States. The lessons to be learned from these or any of the other DOJ settlements is that the provision and maintenance of programs, activities, services, and facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities is an ongoing responsibility and one that is only effective through the administration of a comprehensive accessibility management program.