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Volume 12, No. 2, Spring 2004

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Let’s Play! Playground Accessibility and the ADA

Diana S. Erickson, Esq., Staff Attorney Disabilities Law Program(1)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (2) (ADA) is a broad, remedial statute designed to eliminate discrimination against persons with a disability in all facets of society, including recreational areas such as playgrounds. The ADA mandates that playgrounds be accessible to children with disabilities, who numbered roughly 5.1 million in 1994 (3).

The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board) has the responsibility (4) of creating accessibility guidelines under the ADA for new construction and alterations of certain facilities. These rules are created to guide construction and alteration in facilities ranging from government buildings to private facilities to public accommodations, and are known as the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) (5). The specifics in this article have been culled from the ADAAG. To view these guidelines, please visit http:// www.access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm. For the ADAAG Guidelines concerning recreational facilities, please visit http://www.access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm and scroll down to Recreation Facilities.

In November 2000, the Access Board published in the Federal Register a final rule (its final guidelines) pertaining to play areas. This final rule contains many subsections detailing specifics of playgrounds ranging from play components to accessible routes to ramps to ground surfaces. The rule is designed to set a bare minimum for what playgrounds need in order to provide appropriate access for children with disabilities to the socialization and education, and just plain fun, of swings and slides and other playground equipment.

The specifics of the final rule

The Access Board's final rule on play areas contains many technical specifications; this article will provide only a general overview. A copy of the complete rule may be found on the Web at http://www.access-board.gov/play/finalrule.htm or may be obtained by calling the Access Board's publication order telephone line at (202) 272-5434. The Access Board's guidelines, although very technical and specific, also leave room for innovation, and accordingly ADAAG 2.2 provides that "[d]epartures from particular technical and scoping requirements of this guideline by the use of other designs and technologies are permitted where the alternative designs and technologies used will provide substantially equivalent or greater access to and usability of the facility."

The final play area rule applies to newly designed or constructed play areas (in a variety of settings such as parks, schools, shopping centers, but not playgrounds in religious settings or in family child care facilities at which the proprietor also resides) and also to certain renovations or alterations of existing play areas that affect, or could affect, the usability of the play area. If, for example, a play component is replaced by a new spring rocker, the play area rules apply, but the rules would not apply to routine maintenance changes, like replacing worn ropes (6).

Definitions

Some of the important terms defined in the rule include:

Components of accessible routes

A first, general requirement for the accessibility of ground level play components is that one type (e.g., swinging, sliding, or rocking) of each ground level play component in the playground must be on an accessible route. Additionally, in any play area where elevated play components are provided, a second, more complicated rule applies to ground level play components. Specifically, the minimum

number of ground level play components that must, according to the rule, be on an accessible route also depends on how many elevated play components are in the play area and how those elevated play components are reached. A chart with specifics is provided in the rule.

For elevated play components, 50 percent of the components must be located on an accessible route. Generally, ramps are preferred as an access route because some children cannot or will not want to move out of their wheelchair or mobility device. Transfer systems, whereby a child transfers out of a mobility device to a platform or steps with the use of handrails to get to a play component, are also allowed under an exception. For example, transfer systems (that comply with specifications in the ADAAG) are permitted to connect elevated play components, except where 20 or more elevated play components are provided in a play area, no more than 25 percent of those elevated play components may be connected by transfer systems.

The specifications for determining what components are needed on accessible routes under the final rule can seem complex, so the Access Board has created a step-by-step guide to provide assistance (7).

Accessible routes and other specifications

Technical requirements for accessible routes under the final rule include specifications for width, slope, surface, clear space for maneuvering in front of a play component, and for protrusions into the routes. Accessible routes must connect entry and exit points, and must connect play areas to parking lots and elsewhere. Ground surface coverings of routes also have specific requirements, which are designed to provide safety for impact (soften falls) and yet also be firm enough to promote maneuverability of mobility devices on the routes. The Access Board has determined that certain materials, particularly rubber or certain types of wood-based products, are appropriate as a surface covering. Other guidelines within the final rule also include specifications relating to play tables and soft contained play structures (a fully enclosed play environment that utilizes pliable materials).

Conclusion

The goals of the final ADAAG rule on play areas are to provide playground integration for children with disabilities with their non-disabled peers and to provide for a variety of social, educational, and play experiences for children with disabilities. The ADAAG's technical specifications all essentially seek, ultimately, to provide room for wheelchairs and other mobility devices at, over, around, and exiting play equipment; and to ensure that accessible play areas are various, integrated, and wide enough to allow wheelchairs to pass and turn around. The effect of the implementation of this rule, however, is not just to make playgrounds more accessible and usable for children with disabilities, but to make playgrounds more easily accessible and usable for everyone else as well, such as parents with strollers or caregivers (such as grandparents) who have mobility impairments, who want to play with their children on the playground regardless of anyone's disability.

More information on the play area guidelines may be found on the Access Board's Website, www.access-board.gov; the U.S. Department of Justice, www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada; or the National Center on Accessibility, www.ncaonline.org. The Disabilities Law Program may be contacted at (800) 292-7980.


(1) Many thanks to MaryBeth Musumeci, Esq., for her assistance with this article. Any and all errors are mine. Back to article

(2) Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. Section 12101 et seq. Back to article

(3) Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities; Play Areas Final Rule, http://www.access-board.gov/play/finalrule.htm, citing federal census data on children with disabilities ages 3-14. Back to article

(4) 36 C.F.R. Section 1191.1. Back to article

(5) 36 C.F.R. Part 1191, Appendix Back to article

(6) See U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, A Guide to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas, May 2001, www.access-board.gov/play/guide/intro.htm and nested links (A Guide to the ADAAG for Play Areas). Back to article

(7) A Guide to the ADAAG for Play Areas, (www.access-board.gov/play/guide/part3.htm) Back to article

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