Blog: October 25, 2010

All-Access Pass

By Mary Helen Sprecher

A public sporting arena that isn't accessible to people in wheelchairs? Unthinkable by today's standards. But there's a difference between a facility that's accessible, and one that is welcoming--not just to athletes with mobility limitations, but to spectators as well.

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It's easy to shrug off the issue if you haven't been faced with it. But there's no ignoring the growth of programs for athletes with disabilities. Adapted sports programs are on the rise and are expected to explode in popularity as more and more legislation is passed to allow access to sports and facilities that didn't previously accommodate all students.

In its most recent High School Athletics Participation Survey, the NFHS found that adapted sports currently being offered to students with physical challenges included basketball, bowling, floor hockey, soccer, softball and track. The American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, which works in partnership with educational agencies across the U.S. to establish programs, policies, rules, regulations, and more for students with physical disabilities, has also compiled its own list of sports, which include many of the above, as well as wheelchair handball, wheelchair football and beep baseball (played on a flat grassy surface by students with visual impairments).

Move up to the ranks of elite athletes and you'll find the Paralympic Games, where a wide range of sports (summer and winter, indoors and outdoors) are contested. But all those athletes had to start somewhere, and it's a sure bet that they started in public playgrounds, parks, and municipal facilities. Then they moved on to high schools and colleges. And guess who's watching them perform: not just their families, but other individuals who look at them as role models: kids who have their own mobility impairments and physical limitations.

"Five years ago, bleachers were sold with no regard to handicap accessibility," notes Eddie Spears of Outdoor Aluminum, Inc. in Geneva, Ala. "Now, there's a demand for it."

Indoors or outdoors, athletic facilities need to have accommodations for athletes with special needs, as well as their counterparts in the stands. As a result, you'll want to make sure your seating is sufficient to give someone in a wheelchair good sightlines--and plenty of room around them to fit their friends, either able-bodied or not. No spectator wants to sit in an area that is isolated from the rest of the crowd.

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An indoor facility can be welcoming for players and spectators in wheelchairs (or otherwise mobility-impaired), given a few simple amenities. A good smooth surface, doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, and other adaptive devices should be the first things that come to mind. However, adequate space for all types of seating (and not having handicap-accessible seating removed from the main crowd) is essential to creating the right atmosphere.
Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen Co., LLC, Albuquerque, NM

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"All handicap seating should be spaced out equally throughout the bleachers," says Eddie Spears. "This is done so as to not draw attention to people in wheelchairs or with other challenges. Companion seating is important, too."

It goes without saying that any facility open to the public should be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Make sure that specific requirements for all aspects of facilities, including widths of walkways, doors, parking spaces, etc. has been followed. A design professional can help identify the rules as they apply to your venue. For example, something that facility users will notice immediately is the actual pathway to get to the facility.

"We focus on the pathway requirements," says Tony Wood of the Beals Alliance in Folsom, Calif. "As designers, we try to appease the masses by keeping 'ramps' to a minimum.  They cost a lot of money and serve a very small part of the community. We would rather use 20:1 sloped walkways. The cost of 50 feet worth of 20:1 walk is much cheaper that 30 feet of 12:1 ramp with the additional cost of rails and retaining walls."

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This field house shows excellent amenities that appeal to athletes both with and without disabilities. In many such facilities, removable bleachers can be brought in for spectator events.
Photo courtesy of Kiefer Specialty Flooring, Inc., Lindenhurst, IL

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The U.S. Tennis Association, which sponsors wheelchair tennis events, has the ongoing need to pick out tournament facilities that are attractive to everyone. According to Jeremiah Yolkut, who works with the USTA, the organization looks for certain amenities. Facilities with elevators, without steep ramps, and with seating that allows spectators who are wheelchair-bound (or otherwise mobility-impaired) to move around easily all make for a good experience.

Of course, says Yolkut, making it easy for the athlete gives him or her a better experience on the court. That translates into happier spectators as well. If a player appears to be having a difficult time getting around, a spectator will pick up on that immediately, particularly if he or she also has mobility limitations. "You don't want people leaving the sport and thinking, 'They don't seem to want to make this easy for me, so why should I bother to come?'" Yolkut says.

Spears says that allowing plenty of space for individuals to pass one another in order to get to seating is essential. "Wheelchairs are required to have at least 33 inches of width clearance," he notes.

Wood notes that often, what a spectator wants, and what can legally be built, are at odds. "If it is regarding bleacher 'comfort,' then it is strictly a matter of code," he says. "We would all love to say we need 30 inches of butt space and less aisle space, but code dictates those dimensions and variance from those dimensions puts the designer at risk."

There are also aspects of wheelchair competition (and consequently, having wheelchair-bound spectators) that many people don't even know about, according to Matt Hale of Halecon in Bridgewater, NJ. These issues may be more of a factor outdoors, but should be observed in any setting. Synthetic turf can hold heat, so keep a careful eye on the surface temperature, and make sure players, administrators, parents, coaches and officials, as well as spectators, are taking all necessary safety precautions.

"Something that I believe is critical, yet often missed is adequate shade for temperature control," Hale notes. "Many individuals with spinal cord or brain injuries are extremely sensitive to temperature, particularly to heat. Some can have life-threatening heat reactions that occur with little warning. Plan as much shade as possible. I would also stress that surfaces that throw off heat should be avoided. The more shade, the better."

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Amenities such as service counters should be built low enough to allow easy access to athletes and spectators in wheelchairs. Note the multipurpose surface and the large amount of clear floor space that will enable all in attendance to maneuver back and forth easily in this photo.
Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen Co., LLC, Albuquerque, NM

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Plan for athletes' and spectators' needs, Hale adds. Having water sources at or near the facility is a must, but so are some other things. "If possible, a cool-down area would be helpful, possibly an enclosed space attached to a bathroom facility, air-conditioned, with electric outlets and water. This space could not only provide emergency cooling, but also a private area for suctioning. Many people with high spinal cord injuries have difficulty breathing, and often use ventilators for assistance. At times, the airway can get blocked with secretions, thus creating an urgent need for suction. Proper suction would require a source for water and electric."

Legal Issues
The ADA was an enormous help to individuals with physical limitations, but it's far from the end of the road. Students with physical challenges want their kids to be able to participate in sports (either by being on the team or by cheering in the stands), and athletic associations are working to develop programs to accommodate their needs.

In addition, new laws are being enacted all the time. One that has the potential to impact athletic programs in schools across the state of Maryland, for example, will take full effect in 2011: the Fitness and Athletic Equity Law for Students with Disabilities. In short, it ensures that students with disabilities are provided equal opportunities to participate in physical education programs and athletic activities in Maryland schools. Other states may soon follow with their own versions.

Look around your facility and see if your spectators are going to be happy with the accommodations. Is there adequate parking for all (including individuals with handicap parking passes)? Are there curb cuts, automatic doors, wide enough entrances throughout the building, and ways for people to get from room to room and floor to floor without having to ask for help? Remember that last part: if a person has to come and ask you for assistance, you haven't covered all the bases.



Mary Helen Sprecher is Technical Writer for the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a national non-profit group helping designers, builders, owners, operators, and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books, and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA's Membership Directory. For more information, call 866-501-ASBA (2722) or go to: www.sportsbuilders.org.