Effective Communication in Parks and Recreation

July 1, 2002

National Center on Accessibility
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington

A woman walks to the front of the room and begins to communicate in American Sign Language. The hearing participants look at each other in confusion. Worry is displayed on each person’s face as they wonder how will they understand the information presented in the class. For many people with visual, auditory, or cognitive impairments, this scenario can be a daily event. Effective communication is essential for an individual to be able to participate and benefit in programs and activities.

What is Effective Communication?

Effective communication requires a public accommodation to ensure equal access to programs by including various types of auxiliary aids and services. Equal access for participants with visual, hearing or cognitive disabilities is often achieved by offering the same information in various formats in order for everyone to have similar understanding of programs, services or activities. A public accommodation can utilize a variety of auxiliary aids and services such as the provision of a sign language interpreter for a person who is deaf during a museum tour or a large print park map for a visitor who is visually impaired.

Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (28 C.F.R. §36.303), “public accommodations shall take those steps that may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that taking those steps would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered or would result in an undue burden, i.e., significant difficulty or expense.” In addition, the ADA requires “a public accommodation shall furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.”

Auxiliary Aids and Services

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides examples of auxiliary aids and services in order to provide effective communication:

Qualified interpreterNote takersComputer-aided transcription servicesWritten materialsTelephone handset amplifiersAssistive listening systemsTelephones compatible with hearing aidsClosed caption decodersOpen and closed captioningTelecommunications devices for deaf persons (TDD)Video text displaysWritten notesQualified readersTaped textsAudio recordingsBrailled materialsLarge print materials

Planning Programs and Activities

For recreation program coordinators, a critical component in program planning is determining how the program information will be conveyed and methods to provide effective communication for visitors with disabilities. For example, in many museums historical items are kept behind a glass case for preservation. What alternatives could be offered to a person who is blind so that they may benefit from the display of the artifacts? Providing audio description of the artifacts could give the visitor with the visual impairment a better idea of the size, shape, texture and use for the object. In addition, it would benefit all museum visitors by allowing more information to be included in the exhibit.

When determining an effective auxiliary aid or service, take into account

  • Type of communication
  • Length of communication
  • Complexity of communication

Consider a person who is deaf would like to take golf lessons. When the person initially registers for the golf lessons, the length of communication will most likely be short; perhaps all that is needed is for the person to complete registration forms. In this case, the complexity may only require writing short notes from staff to participant to ask and answer questions. However, during the golf lesson itself, the type of communication primarily exchanged with the beginner golfer will most likely include verbal description from the instructor to improve the golfer’s technique. For the actual lessons, a qualified sign language interpreter will most likely will be needed due to the length and complexity of the lesson and information conveyed.

Appropriateness of the auxiliary aid is another key consideration. For instance, a written script is not beneficial in a movie theater. It is very difficult for a person to both follow along with the actions on the movie screen and read a written narration in the dark theater. A qualified sign language interpreter may also divert attention away from the movie. Captioning would be a better solution. Rear Window® captioning is a system that provides closed captioning to individuals at their seat as opposed to placing the caption on the movie screen itself. Reverse captions are displayed on an LED mounted in the back of the theater. Portable reflective panels attach to any theater seat allowing the patron to sit anywhere in the theater and adjust the reflector to their personal comfort.

Providing An Interpreter

Many situations do require an interpreter. There are differences between a “qualified” interpreter and a “certified” interpreter. The ADA requires that in the event an interpreter is needed, a qualified interpreter be provided. A “qualified” interpreter should meet the prerequisite skills and be able to successfully communicate with the individual with a disability requiring the interpreter. Today, many states now require that interpreters be certified, this can include extensive training and some type of examination to meet state requirements for certification.

When a request for an interpreter comes into a program, it is important that the program coordinator talk with the participant on his or her specific needs for communication during the program. What type of interpreter is needed? During the initial contact with the participant who is deaf, the program coordinator may learn that the individual does not know American Sign Language; instead he signs exact English. This is important new information that will help identify a qualified interpreter that specializes in signed exact English.

Many recreation providers are concerned with finding a sign language interpreter at late notice. Consider implementing a policy for advance notification or request for services. Promote the notification policy in marketing materials like program brochures, fliers, web sites. For example, to schedule a tour with a sign language interpreter, indicate in the program brochure for the participant to notify the organization 48-72 hours prior to their visit. This advance notice also allows for information gathering on exactly what the person’s needs are and time to make arrangements for the interpreter.

Sign language interpreters can be contacted through an agency such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or a local Center for Independent Living. Many agencies have interpreters on call 24 hours a day, however, fees may be higher on short notice. In preparation for the possibility of providing an interpreter, agencies should be contacted to establish a procedure for scheduling an interpreter. Important information to inquire about may include:

  • Types of interpreters, i.e. American Sign Language, Exact English
  • Levels of interpreters, i.e. Certifications
  • Any fees associated with providing the interpreter

The National Suburban Special Recreation Association in Northbrook, Illinois maintains a core list of interpreters they call when notified of the need for an interpreter. According to Dawn Schaefer, Manager of Inclusion Services, the NSSRA attempts to provide one consistent interpreter for each participant throughout an entire season when possible. Often an interpreter can be provided on a days notice. However, in case of an emergency, NSSRA relies on the Chicago Hearing Society, which has a larger pool of interpreters to access at a higher cost.

Manager at Rockford Park District in Rockford, Illinois states a similar approach; sign language interpreters are on staff seasonally. In addition, many staff currently attending the interpreter program are hired as inclusion program leaders or communicators. They are paid a lower hourly rate and work with participants who may not require as intensive communication as provided through a certified interpreter. Unlike interpreters whose primary role is to translate between participants and staff, the communicators and inclusion program leaders in the recreation programs at the Rockford Park District are encouraged to participate in the activities with the individuals with disabilities, lead activities and facilitate friendships between participants with disabilities and participants without disabilities. In addition, the Rockford Park District has established a relationship with the Regional Access Mobilization Project (RAMP), the local center for independent living. RAMP provides back up interpreters in an emergency.

Fees Associated with Auxiliary Aids and Services

Often recreation providers are concerned with covering the cost for the auxiliary aids and services. The ADA specifically states a public accommodation may not impose a surcharge on a particular individual with a disability or any group of individuals with disabilities to cover the cost of measures, such as the provision of auxiliary aids, barrier removal…and reasonable modifications…that are required to provide that individual or group with the nondiscriminatory treatment required by the Act or this part (28 C.R.F. § 36.301). One creative method to cover the costs of auxiliary aids and services is to raise the admission price a small amount, perhaps $1, for everyone and allocating the increase to a fund to specifically cover any expenses incurred from providing auxiliary aids and services.

Planning Alternatives for Written Material

Brochures and maps are helpful tools to convey information about parks and other recreation programs. Alternative formats such as Braille, large print and perhaps even guides should be considered for people who are blind or visually impaired. People with disabilities access information differently. While one format may be effective for one user, it may be ineffective for another. For instance, many people who are blind do not necessarily read Braille, an audio recording would be one such method to supplement the information.

Tapping into Community Resources

It is essential in program planning to understand your customer base. Surveys are an excellent tool to generate feedback. Tap into local centers for independent living for resources involving the local community, wants and needs for programming. Perhaps there is a population not being reached due to inaccessibility of a program. Advocates from local centers for independent living can provide valuable information on how to remove barriers to programs and increase participation by people with disabilities.


Braille Translation

Access USA
(800) 263-2750

American Printing House for the Blind
(800) 223-1839

National Braille Press
(617) 266-6106

Sign Language Interpreters

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
(301) 608-0050 Voice/TTY


The Captioning Group Inc
(800) 717-9707

Captioned Media Program – – National Association of the Deaf
(800) 237 6213 Voice
(800) 237-6819 TTY

National Center for Accessible Media
Rear Window Captioning System
DVS Theatrical Services
(617) 300-3400 Voice/TTY

Caption Colorado
(800) 775-7838

Audio Description

American Council of the Blind
(202) 467-5081
(800) 424-8666

Reading and Radio Resource
(214) 871-7668

General Resources

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section
P.O. Box 66738
Washington, DC 20035-6738
(800) 514-0301 Voice
(800) 514-0383 TTY 

ADA National Network
(800) 949-4232

National Center on Accessibility
(812) 856-4422 Voice
(812) 856-4421 TTY

*The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, University of Illinois at Chicago, the National Center on Accessibility, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago do not formally recommend or endorse the equipment listed. Individuals should investigate and determine on their own which equipment best fits their needs.

About this Article

This article was edited for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, a collaborative project of the National Center on Accessibility, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. NCPAD is headquartered at the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago,1640 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL 60608-6904. NCPAD is funded by the Secondary Conditions Prevention Branch, Office on Disability and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.www.ncpad.org

The citation for this article is:

National Center on Accessibility. (July 2002, revised October 2012.)  Effective communication in parks and recreation. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington. Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org