Program Access: Beyond Bricks and Mortar

January 13, 2006

Jennifer Skulski and Gary Robb
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington

Keys to Program Access

Generally, there are two types of access: physical access and program access.  Physical access, also referred to as architectural access, encompasses access to buildings, structures, and the environment.  Program access, or programmatic access, addresses access to goods, services, activities, really any offering of federal, state and local government or business.  Program access is somewhat of an abstract concept while physical access is a little more concrete.  In this monograph we will discuss program access, key considerations for effective communication, auxiliary aids, services, alternate formats, and apply program access to recreation.

Defining Program Access

Both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act have program access requirements for federal, state and local government.  Since Title II is modeled after Section 504, the Title II regulation is a little more explicatory.  Drawing from the U.S. Department of Justice regulations for Title II, “A public entity shall operate each service, program, or activity so that the service, program, or activity, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”  This is known as the program access standard. 

Title III does not have as specific a program access standard for public accommodations.  Instead it specifies that goods and services provided by public accommodations must be readily accessible and usable to people with disabilities.

Typically, recreation providers think of programs as structured and with staff.  In this context of program access, a generalization is made to the offerings of a public entity or private business.  Programs can include a public meeting, visiting a park or museum, walking on a nature trail, swimming at a public pool or beach, checking a book out from the library, obtaining a driver’s license, receiving a guidebook or brochure, registering for camp in person or online, and so forth.  Thus, the programs do not need to be structured and they do not necessarily require staff in order for the public to participate. 

Equal opportunity and benefit

When defining program access, special emphasis should be placed on one particular construct that can be found in both Section 504 and the ADA, the phrase regarding “the equal opportunity to participate and benefit from the good, service or activity.”  This construct lays the foundation for civil rights enforcement of Section 504 and Title II.  Why do people participate in recreation programs?  What is the benefit they are trying to gain from participation?  What does the visitor value in participation?  Between the recreation programmer and the individual participant, the answers to these questions may be very different.  A tennis instructor may offer beginner lessons with the intent of introducing the game and basic skills to participants with the goal of mastery to the next level of play.  While these are the intended goals and the benefits of physical activity and improving skills are implied, the individual participant may have different ideas.  He may sign up for the lessons with the intended goal of meeting new people.  He may participate in six weeks of lessons and make some new acquaintances however, he may never master the basic skills in order to move to the next level.  But he did gain the benefit of socialization by interacting with other students in the lesson program.  Benefit from participant to participant varies as well.  For another participant in the same program, she may master the basic skills and move up in her level of play for the next set of lessons or leagues.    For people with disabilities, the equal opportunity to participate is necessary and should be comparable to people without disabilities.  However, the actual benefit from program participation may be different from program to program, person to person, with or without disability, and vary even from one person with a disability to another with a disability.  A high school student may take a beginner photography class with the purpose of developing his skills as an amateur photographer.  His father with a visual impairment decides to take the class with his son.  Due to his visual impairment, he may have difficulty with some of the requisite photography skills but he is still able to benefit from participation in the program by learning basic photography principles, terms, and techniques, all while he is able to spend quality time with his son engaged in a new hobby.

The benefit of program participation is directly related to the experience of the program itself.  A museum curator and exhibit designer might consider that they have made a new exhibit accessible to people with visual impairments by providing the text of the exhibit labels in audio format. The visitor with a visual impairment might have received information about the exhibit through the audio format and benefited from the information provided.  But did he actually gain benefit from the experience of the exhibit?  Probably not.  In reality, the visitor could listen to the audio information at home.  What makes the visit to the museum a unique experience in and of itself?  How can the exhibit experience be provided to a visitor with a visual impairment so that it is meaningful just as it is for a visitor without a visual impairment?

A civil war buff, who happens to be blind, has read numerous books on the events and characters in the civil war.  The quality of his visit to a museum with a new exhibit on the civil war will largely depend on how accessible the exhibit is.  If the exhibit is simply photos and labels mounted throughout the gallery, then he will have to depend on others to read the labels to him and interpret the photos and other artifacts.  An exhibit designed with program access in mind might include replicas that the visitor can touch such as clothing, bayonets, rifles, ammunition, cannons, and utensils with detailed audio description of each artifact or replica.  If the exhibit has been designed with audio description to compliment the narrative labels, multi-media displays and other tactile exhibits, the civil war buff is able to immerse himself in the experience and gain more insight into the events surrounding that era of U.S. history.

Integrated setting

For the program to be considered accessible, it needs to be offered in the most integrated setting that is appropriate and that will facilitate interaction between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.  Simply stated, a recreation provider may offer programs such as “special recreation” that are geared towards people with disabilities.  However, a person with a disability has the right to choose among programs and is not required to take the “special recreation” program if a “regular recreation” program is offered for the general public.  The “regular recreation” program requires pre-program planning to ensure that people with disabilities will be able to participate and reap benefits from their participation.

Accessible programs and inaccessible buildings

One of the major misconceptions about the ADA is that it requires all buildings constructed before 1990 to be made accessible.  The fact is that the buildings constructed before 1990 do not need to be made accessible, however, the programs, services and activities conducted within the buildings do need to be accessible.  There are many ways to make these programs, services and activities accessible.  Naturally, the most obvious approach is to retrofit the building that the program is located within by providing accessible parking and accessible routes to the entrances and throughout the building, along with accessible rooms, spaces, restrooms and features such as drinking fountains, telephones, alarms and signage.  Alternately, if these fixes are not readily achievable a program, service or activity could be moved to an accessible location.  If a pottery class for the community college is located on the second floor of a building without elevator or lift access and a person who uses a wheelchair registers, the class could be relocated to an accessible classroom on the first floor.  Or perhaps an individual of short stature is looking to check out a book from the library located on the top shelf in one of the stacks.  The ADA doesn’t require that all of the shelves in the library be lowered to accessible reach ranges.  Instead it requires that the program or service of checking out the book be accessible.  Thus the library staff could provide assistance in retrieving the book in order to make the program of checking the book out accessible.  In some instances, making programs accessible could involve modifying policies and procedures or providing effective communication in the form of auxiliary aids, services or alternate formats.

Accessible programs and open spaces

As stated earlier, a program can be just about any offering of a federal, state and local entity or private business.  Thus, programs can become such an abstract concept that responsible staff is left in doubt as to whether they have a program or just a hole in the ground.  Such is the case with the Grand Canyon.  One could try to argue that it is just that, a hole in the ground, where no actual program exists.  However, the National Park Service protects, maintains and interprets the Grand Canyon because it believes that the general population can get a benefit from visiting it.  Whether it is the mule ride to the bottom of the canyon or a scenic overlook with an interpretive wayside panel, the offerings are required to be accessible under the program access standard.

In a park, several opportunities for fishing, swimming or picnicking may exist.  All of these opportunities are considered programs, even in the absence of specified areas marked with signage or managed with staff.  As such, accessible features for each will need to be planned under the program access standard as well.

Policy and Procedure

There are several methods to provide and facilitate program access.  Sometimes program access requires that existing policies and procedures are modified in order for people with disabilities to fully participate and enjoy the benefits the program has to offer.  A museum may restrict patrons from bringing in food and beverages.  The museum might consider modifying this policy for people with disabilities, perhaps in the instance of a patron with diabetes to bring in crackers, juice or water in the event her insulin begins to drop and she needs a little food to help level it off.  A zoo might have a policy of prohibiting visitors from bringing their pets into the venue.   In order to ensure access for visitors who use service animals, the zoo management might modify this policy to permit the entrance of visitors with service animals.

The ADA calls for a reasonable modification of policy and procedure.  But “reasonable” is a legal term of art.  It is difficult to define and varies from application to application.  What is reasonable for one entity may not be reasonable for another if it can demonstrate that the modification of policy would cause either a direct threat, fundamental alteration to the nature of the program, or undue hardship as discussed in the previous chapter.  The provision of a one-to-one inclusion support staff to facilitate participation amongst and individual with a disability may be very appropriate for a program conducted by a city park and recreation department.  But for another program provided by an organizations with much more limited resources, the addition of this type of staff may result in an undue burden.  The modification of the policy or procedure and relation to the entity must be considered on a case by case basis.

Effective communication

Another method for achieving program access is to provide effective communication.  When it comes to communicating with people with disabilities through programs, activities and services, Title II of the ADA requires that “a public entity take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.”  This means that if a public entity communicates with people without disabilities, whether it be in person, over the phone, at a customer service desk, in print, on video, via the web and so forth, that communication needs to be as effective for a person with a disability as it is for people without disabilities.  Thus, the public entity will need to consider a variety of auxiliary aids, services and alternative formats in order to ensure effective communication with its constituents with disabilities.  The type of auxiliary aid or service will be dependent upon the nature of the communication to be exchanged, the time, the duration and the complexity of the topic.  For instance, a person who is deaf goes to the golf course pro shop to register for group golf lessons.  The interaction is not expected to be that complex and the exchange is anticipated to be short where the person is only filling out the registration form and paying the program fee.  The staff working at the customer service desk and the person who is deaf may be able to simply write notes back and forth to effectively communicate with one another in order to complete the registration process.  However, the actual participation in the group golf lessons for the person who is deaf may require a sign language interpreter.  During the golf lessons, the golf pro works one on one with each student to give instruction on stance, position, swing and follow through.  For this information to be effectively communicated and understood by the student who is deaf so that he may fully participate and benefit from the golf pro’s instruction, the sign language interpreter is needed to convey information that is more complex and longer in duration.

DOJ and Walt Disney World

The provision of effective communication has been one of the most heavily pursued enforcement issues by the U.S. Department of Justice under the ADA.  Through the enforcement of the ADA, it has been common for the Department of Justice to pursue complaints and litigation where the greatest national impact can be made.  Such is the situation when a private lawsuit over effective communication was pending against the Walt Disney Company.  Early in the 1990’s a family was preparing to visit Walt Disney World as part of their vacation.  In preparation, the mother called the major amusement park in advance to find out what types of services would be available for her child who is deaf.  The amusement park staff responded by sending the parent a number of narrated scripts for some of the rides like the Pirates of the Caribbean.   There was only one problem.  Her child was only five years old and had not yet learned how to read.  Thus, the scripts could not be considered effective communication for this young child.  Not to mention, even if the child could read, it is difficult to read a script in a dark and fast moving amusement ride with myriad scenes acted out around every corner.  A private right of action was filed under the ADA and the Department of Justice intervened in hopes of reaching an amicable settlement agreement between both sides and setting an example for like public accommodations.  The DOJ settlement agreement with the Walt Disney Company is one of the most far reaching exemplars of the provision of effective communication and what the federal enforcement agency expects when it comes to meeting the requirements of the ADA.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the Walt Disney Company agreed to schedule oral and sign language interpreters at its major theme parks including the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and MGM Studios for shows, performances and some moving attractions.  Captioning would be furnished in theaters along with assistive listening systems and transcripts.  Disney also agreed to administer ongoing staff training on the use of the auxiliary aids and procedures for serving guests with disabilities.  The company would also advertise the availability of services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (DOJ, 1997). 

DOJ and the International Spy Museum

In 2008, DOJ intervened in a complaint brought against the accessibility of exhibits for people who were visually impaired visiting the International Spy Museum.  The resulting settlement agreement was the first of its kind specifically addressing the information conveyed through museum artifacts and exhibits.  Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the Spy Museum was required to provide tactile maps, sample models, qualified readers and live audio description on demand.

Methods to facilitate effective communication

Auxiliary aids and services are used to achieve effective communication while fulfilling the program access standard.  Auxiliary aids and services can range from the use of interpreters, notetakers, readers, assistive listening systems, captioning, and TTYs.  With the advancement of new technologies, this list continues to grow.  The provision of alternate formats such as Braille, ASCII text, large print, recorded audio and electronic formats like CDs and DVDs can also fulfill the program access standard.  Program planners are urged to consult with participants and visitors with disabilities to determine the most appropriate aid, service or format conducive and effective for participation in the program.  Whether it be through the provision of auxiliary aids, services or alternate formats, primary consideration must be given to the individual with a disability.  According to DOJ (1993), “primary consideration” means that the public entity must honor the choice, unless it can demonstrate that another equally effective means of communication is available, or that use of the means chosen would result in a fundamental alteration in the service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.  An employee makes a request for a training course manual to be provided in Braille during the next all-staff safety training.  The employee also uses a computer and a voice synthesizer.  After discussion between the training course organizer and the employee, they agree that providing the manual in an electronic format rather than Braille will be more manageable for the employee to use as a reference after the course is completed.

Assistive listening systems

Assistive listening systems provide amplified sound for people who are hard of hearing and are ideal for improving sound quality to users in special rooms and spaces such as assembly areas, theaters, court rooms, entertainment venues and spaces where a large number of people may gather for a performance, event, or presentation.  Generally, assistive listening systems can be hard-wired into the existing public address system or wireless to compliment the PA system.  Wireless systems can include an induction loop that amplifies the sound within the perimeter of the “loop,” infrared which detects the infrared signal from a transmitter, and FM radio transmission.  Each system has distinct features and disadvantages that should be considered in conjunction with the space for its intended use.  The following chart gives a comparison of the various types of assistive listening systems.  Many venues are using assistive listening systems to accommodate not only visitors with hearing impairments but also those who are non-English speaking.  At the National Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater, an assistive listening system is used to amplify the sound for the movie, while additional channels have been added to broadcast the soundtrack in Spanish and several other languages.  A channel is even dedicated to audio description, another technique for communicating information to people with visual impairments.


Captioning is a method of transcribing audio information to text usually presented at the bottom of the screen for a movie, video or television program.  Captioning is most beneficial to people who are hard of hearing or deaf, although, it is growing in popularity among the general population.  In crowded public areas where televisions are tuned in to news and sports channels as a service to patrons, captioning is allowing for the information to be communicated over the murmur of the crowd such as in airports, restaurants and bars.  As a convenience, many sports arenas have televisions with captioning mounted above the concession stands so that fans can get a hot dog and soda without missing a play.  Parents are turning the caption feature of their television on to help their children improve their reading skills.  For those who are non-English speaking and are learning English as a second language, captioning is being used to improve comprehension and fluency (FCC, 2003).

There are two methods for captioning movies or video presentations, either open or closed captioning.  Closed captioning is mostly associated with video and television programming.  Through closed captioning, the audio text is transcribed to an electronic signal that is merged as a second band with the video signal.  To view the captioning, the television or other receiving device must be equipped with a closed caption decoder to read the electronic caption signal and display it on the screen.  The decoder must be turned “on” to view the captioning.  As of 1993, all television sets over 13 inches sold in the United States are required to have built-in decoder circuitry.  Conversely in open captioning, the captioning is always on the screen and accompanying the video presentation.  Usually through this technique the captions are either burned or superimposed onto the video and rendered so that the captions and video becomes one unit.  The advantage to this technique is that the open caption is always “on” and available for viewers.  In a park setting like an information, welcome or visitors center where video programs on the park features are shown, the use of open captioning is appealing since the captioning is always available and visitors do not have to bring attention to themselves by requesting that the “captioning be turned on.”

Methods to deliver effective communication have made significant advancements through the development of new technologies.  Real-time captioning is a captioning technique used for live events, presentations, performances and even web conferencing.  This technique has also been referred to as Computer Aided Real-Time Reporting (CART).  The development and use of real-time captioning has allowed for the communication of information to unique events and programs that previously have not been as practical. Real-time captioning uses a stenographer to transcribe the live audio of an event to various output devices.  In a large ballroom where a video-tron projects the featured speaker onto a screen, the captioning might also be displayed under the image of the speaker.  In a smaller theater or gathering area, an LED display can be used to scroll the captions on an electronic board.  For larger assembly areas, like an IMAX theater where the seating line has a more pronounced incline than a traditional theater, the Rear Window system uses a combination of LED display and rear projection to allow the theater patron to see the captioning from any seat in the house.  Upon entering a theater with the Rear Window system, the patron receives a small plastic screen on a flexible metal rod.  The rod can be inserted into the armrest of the patron’s theater seat or placed on a freestand.  An LED is mounted at the rear of the theater and projects the captioning in reverse, similar to how you would read text in the reflection of a mirror.  The patron can adjust the “rear window” to angle the captioning and view both the performance and captioned text at the same time.  This system was first developed at the National Center for Accessible Media, a program of the PBS station WGBH in Boston.  Since its introduction, it has been widely installed at IMAX and other theaters where unique performances are held.  Use of real-time captioning has also become more frequently used through the internet for programs from web conferencing and streaming videos to classroom lectures.  Real-time captioning through the web has proved to be especially efficient for large corporations and even universities.  Say, for example a university receives multiple requests for real-time captioning of classes that are held in lecture halls across campus.  A good portion of time for the stenographer or real-time reporter is spent traveling between classrooms and setting up equipment.  The use of the web has helped to reduce the time and need to travel between classrooms.  Instead, the stenographer or real-time reporter can call into the classroom via a phone or audio conference, listen to the presentation and transcribe the captioning to a secured internet location where students can log into and read the captioning on a centralized computer screen or even a laptop at their seat in the lecture hall.


Arranging for a sign language interpreter may be another means of facilitating effective communication and achieving program access.  Planning for the use of a sign language interpreter should occur early in the program planning stages as there are many issues to consider like the time, length and complexity of the information to be exchanged.  The ADA regulations call for the use of a “qualified” interpreter to effectively communicate the information accurately and impartially.  It is not appropriate to request that a friend or relative of the person who is deaf to interpret as the qualified interpreter should be independent and impartial to the information that is to be exchanged.  Some states actually require that interpreters are certified, that is that they have taken the required number of courses and have passed a statewide test of proficiency.  Generally, people who use sign language will either prefer American Sign Language (ASL) or signed English.  On occasion you may receive a request for an Oral Interpreter who signs and silently mouths the communication.  As such it will be important that you discuss the needs with your program participants in advance and that your interpreters can accommodate either request in the instance of a general program like a public meeting where you may not receive advance notice or request for an interpreter.  Requesting and scheduling interpreters can be tricky if the process is not clearly detailed to the public and staff well in advance of the program.  Usually recreation programmers will make use of registration forms with space for program participants to requests accommodations or services such as a sign language interpreter.  Where registration is not required, marketing materials for the program, public meeting or event should include information on who to contact to request an aid or service such as an interpreter.  Should the length of the program last an hour or more, it is customary that two interpreters are scheduled.  Interpreting can be physically and mentally exhausting, the provision of an additional interpreter will allow for breaks to refresh. 

Audio description

Audio Description is a method of taking what is visual and making it available to consumers who are blind or have low vision (ADI, 2005).  According to Audio Description International (2005), it is the insertion of audio explanations and descriptions of the settings, characters, and action taking place in a variety of media, when such information about these visual elements is not offered in the regular audio presentation.  Audio description should be conducted by a trained audio describer.

New meaning can be given to museum exhibits, theatrical performances and other visual presentations that are audio described.  Audio description can even create vivid images of floats and marching bands for one of the most spectacular parades in the world, the Tournament of Roses Parade.   Volunteers, parade coordinators and staff liaisons from the City of Pasadena work together to provide unique viewing opportunities along the parade route for parade enthusiasts of all ages and abilities.  Three viewing sections at street level are specifically designated for people with disabilities, one section includes a sign language interpreter while another is designated for audio description.   Months before the parade, writers are given artists’ renderings for each float in order to develop a script and audio description that will be printed in the program guide.  Weeks in advance, professionals trained as audio describers visit the floats under construction to match the float and finalize the description.  The day of the parade, audio describers are located in a booth at the start of the parade route and at the audio description viewing area about a mile down the parade route.  At each location, the audio describer is paired with another individual that gives the commentary on the float.  The description at the booth on the start of the parade route is used for the live broadcast that is transmitted to the SAP channel through the local television station.  Incidentally, the program guide is also printed in Braille and large print.  Most notable, the parade coordinators recognize the Tournament of Roses Parade as a family event and allow up to five guests in these designated sections as opposed to the customary one or two companion seats permitted at other venues or special events.

Alternate formats

Sometimes alternate formats for certain types of information are required to fully communicate the message to people with sensory impairments such as low vision or blindness.  Alternate formats can include the translation of information to Braille, ASCII text, large print or recorded audio.  More frequent use and mass availability of technology has promoted the use of alternate formats using computer disk, compact disks or CD’s and DVD’s.  The original vehicle for communication, the purpose of the material/publication, and the type of information to be relayed should be considered during the initial planning stages and while adapting to alternate formats.  Publications readily available to the public like park brochures and program guides should be adapted to various alternate formats and readily available just as the central publication.  For example, in addition to the park brochure, the visitor center should have alternate formats available in large print and Braille for quick and easy use when a visitor walks in and makes the request.  Other considerations should be given to more complex publications like a staff phone directory or training manual.  Adapting a phone directory to Braille may not make for quick and easy use as intended.  In this instance, the phone directory may be more usable for a person with low vision or blindness in electronic format where they can easily search for the last name of the person or the department they are looking for.

Large print

Some people with low vision may be able to read large print if the text size is printed at a large enough scale.  Some documents can easily be converted to large text through either word processing software or photocopying to display a text that is 16-18 point or larger.  There should be at least a very high contrast between the background and text.  Printing on a dull cream or yellow paper may actually help reduce the glare on the page.  Printing black and white with such a high contrast can sometimes cause the letters to look like they are running together.  Use of simple san-serif font that sits on a left margin with a ragged right edge as opposed to justified will help the reader follow the text from line to line. 


Braille is an alternative to printed text consisting of a series of raised dots on a page that are read with the fingertips.  Providing Braille as an alternate format for printed publications requires advance planning.  Most centers for independent living and resource centers for people with visual impairments can be contracted to translate publications into Braille.  However some time is involved with the process.  Some vendors can translate the information directly from computer disk, others may need to do it manually.  The cost and turnaround time for the completed publication can also vary from vendor to vendor.  Therefore it is a good idea to have a service agreement set up in advance rather than racing around at the last minute to find a vendor.


Today, recorded audio can be presented in various media formats to enable greater more effective communication with park visitors.  Many parks, museums and other places of tourism are providing recorded audio messages either at queing stations located throughout the venue or by tape cassette, CD, and even mp3.  These types of formats can be produced at little to no cost in house by having a script read aloud and transferred to the selected media output device or they can be a high end production created in a studio with professional talent for the voice over message.  With the advancement of technology, the end product no longer restricted by the budget but more so a result of the creativity of the program staff.  To compliment the wayside exhibits along an interpretive trail, many parks have created audio recordings on CD that park visitors can check out at the visitor center upon arrival at the park.  Then they can play the CD in a portable CD player and select the track corresponding with the wayside exhibit.

Electronic formats

With the evolution and fast-paced growth of technology, information has become more readily accessible than ever before.  Traditionally, requests for electronic formats have come from people who can not read standard print but who use computers with adaptive technology such as screen magnifiers and screen readers utilizing synthesized voice to read the displayed text.  In early development, many forms of adaptive technology were not compatible with Windows Operating Systems.  Thus, the most common request for electronic formats early leading up to and after the passage of the ADA was that in the form of ASCII text.  An acronym for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, ASCII can be read in word processing programs and text editors, both with Windows and non-Windows platforms.  Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act has required software developers to introduce products that are more compatible with adaptive technology.  Now, computer users with disabilities and who use adaptive technology can more easily use standard documents from word processing programs such as Microsoft Word.  The efficiency and ease of transferring information to save on a CD or send by e-mail makes electronic formats a great choice for materials such as reports, training manuals, conference proceedings, regardless of the length of the document.

Application of Program Access Standard to Recreation Programs

Up to this point we have discussed a number of aids and auxiliary services to facilitate the inclusion of people with disabilities in various programs.  However, based on the nature of certain recreation programs that are staff or instructor-led and structured in their program delivery, one-to-one support may be needed for the participant to gain the greatest benefit from the program.

Inclusion support

Often referred to as Inclusion Support, public recreation program providers over the last 15 years have taken to the processes led by the therapeutic recreation specialist to provide one-to-one support to an individual with a disability to ensure his or her full participation and benefit in the recreation program.  Usually the participant has a physical, developmental, learning or behavioral disability that necessitates the addition of one-to-one staff support in order to stay on task and keep pace in the program.  This one-to-one assistance can vary from help holding a paint brush in an arts and crafts class to over the shoulder directions on the soccer field.  The goal of the inclusion support staff is to provide the direct guidance to the participant as needed and as a compliment to the existing program staff.  The inclusion support staff should blend into the program as opposed to being an obstruction to the participant interacting with other participants and getting the most out of the program.  There are many model inclusion programs throughout the United States and annually recognized by the National Recreation and Park Association.  One such example is the city of Reno, Nevada.

Facilitating program access

The easiest and most effective way for a park and recreation agency to facilitate program access is to make its citizens of all ages and abilities feel welcomed and valued as customers at each and every of its parks, facilities and programs.  This can be done with the addition of a welcome statement in marketing publications, through the registration process, the program delivery and follow up evaluation.

Welcoming people

Although a public notice is required under Title II of the ADA, a more welcoming approach toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in park and recreation programs is to include a statement in the general program brochure and other marketing literature.  An example of a welcome statement from a recreation agency: “The City of Delaware Parks and Recreation Department is committed to the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  We will make every effort to ensure that youth, teens and adults of all abilities are fully included in all of our recreation programs, facilities and parks.  For questions about our accessibility program or how we may best meet your needs in any of our programs, please call Joan Smith, ADA Coordinator at (812) 555-5555.”

Marketing this welcome statement to both citizens with disabilities and without is good practice to create greater awareness of an agency’s inclusive programs and services.  In addition including the statement in the general park brochure or program guide, an agency should consider a specific marketing piece, such as a brochure, web page or program guide, dedicated to people with disabilities.  In this communications vehicle, the agency can outline the specific efforts it has taken to make accessibility improvements and meet the mandates of the ADA.  Increased awareness of accessibility improvements within the agency will lead to increased participation among people with disabilities.  Remember the old saying “Build it and they will come.”  Well, they can’t come if they don’t know about it.  So once the accessibility improvements have been put into place, tell people about it!

Registration form

In programs where there is a registration form, there needs to be a process by which the program staff can prepare for the individuals that have signed up for the program.  It is much easier to prepare for the program in advance, rather than having to scurry around for auxiliary aids or services once the program has started.  Under the ADA, it is unlawful to ask if a person has a disability on a registration form.  However, the program planners can ask questions regarding an accommodation that may be needed to successfully participate in the program.  Thus, on a registration form a question could be asked such as “Do you require a special accommodation (i.e. a sign language interpreter, assistive listening system, accessible transportation, alternate format or other aid/service)?  If so, please describe…”  At the point of registration this question can flag program staff to the need for additional communication with the participant prior to the start of the program.

If the program does not require a registration form, the program staff needs to include a very specific statement in the marketing literature as to when and who to contact in the event they need an accommodation. 


Prior to the start of the program, the program staff should contact the individual to assess the disability-related need.  For example, if the individual has indicated that he needs a sign language interpreter, this is the time in which the program staff should ask for more specific information such as does the individual prefer ASL, signed-English or an oral interpreter.  If the individual is requesting large print, what size font does he need?  If the individual needs accessible transportation, can he transfer to a vehicle or does he require a vehicle equipped with a lift?  A free-flowing exchange of information between the individual and program staff should incur.

Implementation and evaluation

The day has come for the program to take place and the auxiliary aid or service to be used.  As with all participants, the participant with a disability should be welcomed and made to feel comfortable with the accommodation that has been put into place.  An evaluative process should be initiated at the time of the program implementation and throughout the program to ensure the accommodation is effective for the participant with a disability. 


As you can see, the concept of program access is quite abstract and continues to evolve over time.  Unfortunately, the standards for program access are more clearly defined through case law than the actual civil rights statutes like Section 504 and the ADA.  As a trend we do see that program access in the courts and through the U.S. Department of Justice is viewed much more stringent for recipients of federal funds covered under Section 504 and units of state and local government covered under Title II of the ADA.  Following the lead of best practices by Section 504 and Title II entities is a safe harbor for Title III private business who provide public recreational opportunities.


Adaptive Environments Center, Inc.  (October 1992).  Fact Sheet 2: Providing Effective Communication.  Washington, DC: National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Adaptive Environments and Barrier Free Environments.

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Americans with Disabilities Act, 28 CFR 35.150 (Revised as of July 1, 2004).

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The citation for this article is:

Skulski, J. and G. Robb. (2006) Chapter 7: Program access. Excerpt from untitled text on inclusive recreation.  2006.