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Universal and Accessible Design Symposium Review
Universal and Accessible Design Symposium Review

by Don Rogers, M.S., CTRS

During the recent ACCT 8th International Challenge Course Symposium and Conference, a one-day symposium was convened focusing on universal and accessible design. This article initiates a commitment expressed during the symposium to share with ACCT members ongoing reports regarding developments in the area of universal and accessible challenge course design and the activities of the newly formed ACCT Universal and Accessible Design Committee.

The format of the symposium was a half day of presentations followed by large and small group discussions and brainstorming in the afternoon. The presenters offered descriptions of their programs, equipment they use to include people with disabilities in challenge course activities, and issues around accessibility standards. Mark Havens, author of Bridges to Accessibility, provided the keynote presentation. Mark's comments brought to light how slow the challenge course industry has been to respond to the needs of people with disabilities. Of those in attendance, about 20% indicated that they have incorporated accessible features in their courses. Given that this group was invited based on their activities in this area, it was probably not representative of the larger industry which may be including accessible design at a significantly lower percentage. Mark shared data about the value of diverse groups and how universal courses are necessary to facilitate their experiences. He also challenged ACCT to make universal design one of our core values, part of our vision and then act to make it a reality in the courses we all build. In short, he said its time to "walk the talk".

Other presenters, Pam McPhee, University of New Hampshire, Browne Center; Kirk Evans, Stephen F. Austin State University; and myself, shared materials from programs that serve a variety of people with disabilities. As Director of the Browne Center, Pam has worked with Project Adventure in the development of accessible challenge course designs, using her site as a proving ground. Kirk has been active in residential camping, serving children with disabilities in the great state of Texas. Kirk was able to share some interesting equipment designs that readily adapt cable systems for access. I shared with attendees slides and pictures of a variety of accessible and universal course elements that I have designed over the past 10 years. Though as an industry we are far from having a broad-base selection of accessible and universal challenge course elements, what we observed at this conference suggests that designs are available to address the issue of including people with disabilities in challenge course programs. It does appear, however, that the method of choice for adaptation and inclusion has been at the program level, which includes equipment, rather than at the physical challenge course element level. When it comes to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this approach is only a short term solution. Gary Robb, Director of Bradford Woods and the National Center on Accessibility spoke with the group about the ADA and the current and future activities of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) of which he and his staff have been frequent consultants for research and comment in areas of outdoor recreation and sport accessibility. The Access Board determines accessibility standards for facilities while the Justice Department addresses program access. On the topic of program versus facility access, Gary said the Access Board uses the allegory of turning the world upside down and whatever does not fall off is facility and everything else is program. Assuming that challenge course elements should stay put if the world was inverted, particularly if built to ACCT standards, then the Access Board becomes our regulatory and enforcement body for accessibility standards.

Gary commented on two topics extremely relevant to our industry. One is that challenge courses are covered by the ADA. Like trails, playgrounds and swimming pools, even though there are not current standards, that does not exclude us from compliance. The fact is, our customers are providing services to the public with these courses; services which legally must be accessible to all comers. Yes, there are some stipulations in the law for 'undue hardship', 'readily achievable' and 'does not alter the essential nature of the service'. In numerous court cases the interpretation of these criteria have generally been quite strict. Case law has been siding with the ADA. There are similar questions regarding churches, private clubs and the programs that they offer. These too are being held to specific and narrow interpretations. I imagine there are some who will try to jump through what they perceive to be loop-holes in the ADA, but they should take a lesson from the recent embarrassment of the PGA in its attempts to exclude an otherwise qualified golfer with a disability. Discrimination of any kind is a lose-lose policy. Fortunately, ACCT is not headed down that road. During this entire conference there was across the board support and interest in finding solutions to difficult accessibility questions. One look at this industry and it is clear that ACCT is taking a leadership role and attempting to be proactive. This brings us to Gary Robb's second comment.

In his many dealings with the Access Board, Gary has identified for them the need to review the area of challenge courses. He has worked in camp settings with children and adults with disabilities for many years and done his share of adapting challenge events, thus his interest in this area. Though the Access Board is currently embroiled in debate about trails and playgrounds, they will ultimately turn their attention to our industry. When they begin to consider accessibility standards for challenge courses we want to be ready with our interpretations of what that should entail. Given ACCT's role in the industry as the only internal standard setting body for challenge courses, it is fair to consider that our suggestions will carry a great deal of influence. The concern here is that if we dally, there may be another external credentialing body, similar to the influence of OSHA or ANSI, dictating in some fashion how we design our courses. Fortunately, setting standards for accessibility is not an immediate mandate for ACCT. We do, however, want to begin the process of analyzing the problem and moving towards an initial document for review. There will be an opportunity for ACCT to meet with the Access Board at their upcoming meeting in May at Bradford Woods. At this meeting we will primarily be introducing them to our organization, identifying our accessibility issues, outlining the steps we are taking to address these, and get feedback from them on how to proceed regarding standards development. The outcomes of this meeting will be shared in the newsletter.

In a cursory review of potential accessible design standards, there were comments suggesting there do not appear to be many extra considerations required for accessibility beyond current ACCT building standards. My concern is that these comments precede a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Further research is needed to determine what constitutes an accessible or universal challenge course design. This would seem to be one of the first jobs for the new Universal and Accessible Design Committee to tackle.

One of the goals of the symposium was to establish a committee to address accessible and universal design of challenge courses. A number of people expressed interest in contributing to this committee or otherwise being available to assist as needed. For those of you not able to attend the conference who want to be involved and who have an interest and are active in this area, please contact us at the numbers below. Bobby Tod will be the co-chair for this committee along with myself, Don Rogers. Another related goal was to receive feedback from attendees regarding a universal and accessible challenge course design position statement by ACCT. We gathered many ideas and are in the process of generating a first draft that will be available for membership comment in the next newsletter.

The final activities of the day centered around groups brainstorming new ideas for accessible and universal designs. This was a fun and productive activity. In some ways this modeled how building groups could effectively engage in a design process and produce new ideas for accessibility. We had a similar, unscheduled session with builders on Sunday evening. It was also very exciting and produced some entirely new designs that may turn up in the field soon.

Overall it was a very valuable and productive symposium. In addition to the new designs, there appears to be a renewed commitment toward addressing the complex issues around including people with disabilities in challenge course-based programs. As I said in the symposium, a universal challenge course is a more effective tool and should be synonymous with the next generation in challenge course design. Unlike the PGA and those apposed to inclusion because it will "change the game", we are pursuing change because it is the vehicle for improvement and the right thing to do. I want to extend a deep felt thank you to ACCT for supporting and helping to organize this symposium and to all the presenters who committed themselves to making it a success, and to the many people who attended the sessions and contributed throughout the conference.

For more information on activities involving accessible and universal design, please call or e-mail Don Rogers at the following:

(812) 237-3210

This article appeared in Parallel Lines, the Newsletter of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT)
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