Planning for Accessibility in Parks

Planning for accessibility in parks

Accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities must be addressed by parks and recreation departments. Because of the lack of ability to participate, disabled persons have not always had the opportunity to be fully engaged in parks. When this happens, the disabled communities are marginalized as well as family and friends. Most often disabled persons and their families have a resilience for withstanding and recovering from difficulties. In spite of this, park professionals must advocate to disarm any sense of invisibility and loss of participation for persons with disabilities.


Framing the work of providing parks and programs under diversity, equity and inclusion will help ensure that everyone can participate. Inclusion broadens the opportunity to focus on providing equal opportunities for everyone in various ways. Making parks and programs accessible to all helps everyone to enjoy parks and recreation opportunities. As parks and recreation professionals, we have a responsibility to include everyone, to recognize when and where accommodations are needed, and to address these needs.


Let’s step back to 1968. The first federal legislation, the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) required that all buildings designed, constructed or altered with federal funds, must be accessible. This Act became the cornerstone of accessible public access to include recreation areas, parks and public lands. Then in 1990 the American Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. This law was perhaps the most important civil rights law since the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. A landmark court case involving Casey Martin and the Professional Golf Association (PGA) furthered the ADA by enforcing accommodations for a professional athlete. Citing the ADA as the qualifying legislation, it provided Casey Martin the right to ride a golf cart in the tour. Additional accessibility milestones continued with a 2010 update of the ADA to include recreational facilities and events. Shortly thereafter, the Architectural Barriers Act was updated to be in alignment with the ADA.


Just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected people by race, the ADA protects people with disabilities. Unlike the Civil Rights Act, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations and public agencies to provide accessibility.  The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Today, an estimated 1.3 billion people experience significant disability. This represents 16% of the world’s population, or 1 in 6 of us. (Disability (


Parks professionals work in the parks and in park facilities to accomplish these requirements. Addressing accessibility for all is a two-pronged effort for parks departments. First, park programs and events should be open to all.  To make this more comfortable and in some cases feasible, park improvements and construction should be addressed. This approach must sink deep into your organization. Mat McCollough, Director of the Washington, DC Office of Disability Rights, recommends, “People need to be able to plan before they travel to these outdoor spaces. But those with vision or learning disabilities who utilize text-to-speech technology to help them read websites often find that park websites aren't laid out in a way that the technology can decipher.”  Basically, the journey for accommodation begins in planning and publicizing programs. A key is letting users know the conditions they will encounter and offering information so that everyone may make the decision they need to make before venturing into the park or going on a trail.


Public space should be optimized for maximum accessibility — tactile strips at crosswalks; accessible restrooms and parking spaces; color contrast applications to poles, bollards, steps, and alternatives to mobility barriers throughout. Meeting needs often extends beyond simply meeting requirements set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Providing an equitable platform that includes facilities to meet everyone’s needs and inclusive programs for all populations may look different in each situation.


It is not a surprise that the federal land management agencies welcoming citizens to public lands across the United States take the lead in providing accessibility guidance. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service both provide design and construction guidance for enhancing accessibility (see the list below).  In general, accessibility standards apply to all new or altered trails and facilities. Generally, the goal is to maximize accessibility in parks without changing the character or experience of the natural areas or trails. Park signage, websites and informational brochures should also be evaluated and changed if they do not meet accessibility guidelines. It is important when assessing park accessibility to clarify the difference between natural and constructed park facilities. Natural recreation areas within parks should be accessible as much as feasible and possible without harming the resource. Constructed facilities within parks should be fully accessible.


Whether you are in park maintenance and construction or provide public programs and events in parks, it is important to examine and become aware of biases and assumptions that impede equitable treatment of persons with disabilities. Be committed to growing parks in a way that is better for everyone. Speak up for accessibility to improve parks!






o   US Forest Service

o   Microsoft Word - FSORAG.doc (


o   National Park Service


   National Environmental Education Foundation 


o   Increasing Accessibility Makes the Outdoors Open for a All, July 6, 2021 by Sarah Hubbart

Standards for construction

   ABA -

   ADA standards -


Popular posts from this blog

Becoming a Park Planner

Is a zoo a park?