Center at IU helps nation’s rec areas become inclusive: Venues of all types, sizes learn methods to make attractions more accessible to visitors with disabilities

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Since its inception, the center’s staff has worked with venues ranging from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to local parks in the Indianapolis area.

Besides facilities, it also comes to the aid of individuals.

Recently, the center helped a bride who wanted to get married on the beach at sunset. A family member uses an electric wheelchair, so the center offered advice to her Florida hotel on how to construct a portable wheelchair path to the ceremony that the hotel could easily take down and store for future requests.

Locally, the center made Bradford Woods in Martinsville a worldwide example of accessibility. And it’s the technical adviser for a $1.5 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation to fund state-of-the-art, inclusive playgrounds in six Indiana communities.

One of those parks is in Shelbyville, which plans to open an 8,500-square-foot playground this month that offers recreation to all children, including those in wheelchairs, blind or hearing-disabled.

Park planners came up with a design for the playground with help from the National Center on Accessibility.

“It was such a great learning process,” said Karen Martin, Shelbyville’s parks director. “They really helped us think about the whole picture.”

Center employees usually work on a fee-for-service model that’s flexible depending on the organization’s ability to pay.

Jennifer Skulski, the center’s director of marketing and special projects, talked with IBJ about advances in the field and how attitudes about accessibility have changed.

IBJ: How is the park and recreation industry nationwide doing in terms of being accessible?

SKULSKI: Next week, the Americans with Disabilities Act will celebrate its 18th birthday. Generally, when the center was founded in 1992, the attitude towards the [Americans with Disabilities Act] was that it was an unfunded mandate. Regulations revolved around making facilities accessible and people didn’t understand what that entailed.

We would have training programs and you would go into a room full of people with their arms crossed and with very resistant attitudes.

But the attitudes have really changed. We’re getting inquiries from people for technical assistance and training not because it’s the law but because it’s the right thing to do. It makes good business sense to design activities that enable a wider group of people to participate.

IBJ: Why have attitudes changed?

SKULSKI: Part of it is the aging of the baby boomer population. When ADA was passed, a lot of people saw those with disabilities as a small segment of the population, maybe 20 to 25 percent.

But as the baby boomers age, we start to understand what that means in terms of acquiring disabilities later in life. If a project is universally designed, that will automatically plan for participation by an aging population.

Another thing that is happening is, we now have the first generation coming out of high school and getting ready to go to college that has grown up since ADA became law. Their expectations and their families’ expectations are much higher.

People who are in their 40s and 50s were around before there was an ADA and they’re used to not getting into places. But this younger generation’s expectation is that they should be able to fully participate.

IBJ: What is universal design?

SKULSKI: Universal design is a term that evolved about the mid-to-late 1990s and is being taught now in schools of architecture and other design schools. There are seven principles that are guidelines to help design facilities for the widest spectrum of use.

IBJ: How is the broader tourism field doing on accessibility?

SKULSKI: We see a real difference between the industry that is run by the public sector and the industry that’s run by the private sector.

In the public sector, [ADA] required facilities to have a transition plan in place by the early 1990s and a time line for removing barriers.

Private businesses weren’t required to have that type of plan, so, unfortunately, the driving factor in a lot of the tourism industry has been litigation.

For example, cruise lines said for years that they were not covered by the ADA because many sail under foreign flags. They had argued for years that they didn’t have to make their ships accessible, and there were a couple of instances where they refused service to blind and visually impaired consumers.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if those cruise lines dock in U.S. ports, they are covered by the ADA. A lot of the changes in the private sector have been driven by litigation or through the threat of litigation.

IBJ: The center has done many surveys of people with disabilities. What are they looking for when they travel?

SKULSKI: For people with disabilities who are planning a trip, it requires a whole set of questions. It’s not just calling the hotel to say, “Do you have an accessible hotel room?” but asking, “How wide is the door? Does the room have a roll-in shower? If it has a bathtub, does it have a transfer seat and an adjustable shower head that can be used as a hand-held unit?”

If the venue has a swimming pool, they ask, “Does the swimming pool have a pool lift? Do I have to call ahead of time to request that the lift be installed?”

If they’re buying tickets to the theater, they ask, “Do you audio-describe performances, have captioning or a sign language interpreter?”

They have to ask ahead of time about the details to make sure that when they get there, they’re going to have a great experience.

So for venue owners, the easiest change is to add a page to their Web site explaining not just that the venue is accessible but how. That really can be used as a marketing tool. It doesn’t just tell the person with a disability that he’s welcome, but it tells the family members or friends, too.

IBJ: What’s the first step for a venue manager interested in improving accessibility?

The very first thing is to do an accessibility assessment of your facility and of your goods and services. That will tell you what physical or communication barriers stand in the way of people fully participating in your venue.

Then, they really need to start planning for barrier removal. If they have a 6-inch step into the building, replacing it with a ramp needs to be built into the capital improvement plan.

Venues can contact their local center for independent living, which will oftentimes provide assessments without charge. The Indianapolis Resource Center for Independent Living covers central Indiana. They can also contact the National Center on Accessibility about technical questions.

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