Removing Barriers to Play: Accessible Playground Standards under the ADA

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This is a special guest posting by Emily Harvey, an attorney with my office: The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People

Jane sits alone on the sidewalk while her two best friends giggle with excitement as they take turns flying down the new slide on the school playground. Jane looks longingly at the slide, but remains on the sidewalk. It’s too difficult for her to push her wheelchair through the deep gravel that covers the entire ground under the new playground equipment. Over the summer, Jane’s school tore out the old playground and completely rebuilt this new playground. Unfortunately, Jane’s school did not research their legal obligations prior to this undertaking. Jane is now unable to access the new playground and the school has violated her civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Play is so important to the development of children that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized it as a right of every child. As any pre-school or elementary school teacher will tell you, much of the socialization that occurs during the school day takes place on the playground during recess. When children are unable to access the playground, they lose the opportunity to engage in play and physical activity with their peers.

Places of public accommodation are subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Elementary schools are specifically listed within the definition of public accommodations. To address playground accessibility, the Department of Justice added specific design standards for play areas to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (the ADAAG) in 2000. These guidelines were incorporated into the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (2010 ADA Standards). However, the 2010 ADA Standards apply only to new or altered playgrounds. Normal maintenance of a playground does not constitute an alteration that would require a school to come into compliance with these standards.

The design standards require schools to ensure that new or altered playgrounds meet certain requirements related to accessible routes, transfer systems, play components, and ground surfaces as set out in the 2010 ADA Standards. For example, a school is obligated to provide a specific number of accessible play components determined based on the total number of ground-level and elevated play components on the particular playground.

Additionally, the ADA requires that all entry and exit points of accessible play components are on an accessible route, meaning a pathway specifically designed to provide access for individuals who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. The entry and exit points of at least 50% of elevated play components must be accessible and must therefore be connected by elevated accessible routes. Elevated play components are the part of a play structure that are approached above or below grade level, such as a slide. Ramps and transfer systems are the two most common ways to provide access to elevated components. If a playground consists of 20 or more total elevated play components, at least 25% of those must have ramps – transfer systems, such as a transfer platform with transfer steps and supports, do not suffice for full compliance. A transfer platform is a landing that allows a child to lift onto the play structure and leave her wheelchair or mobility device behind at ground-level. Transfer platforms and steps must have transfer supports, such as handrails, handgrips, or handholds, at each level where transferring is the intended method of access. When transfer systems such as platforms and steps are used to provide access, the 2010 ADA Standards also provide specific size, height, turning space, and other technical requirements.

It should also be noted that there are specific technical requirements for handrails, rise angles, and the width of accessible routes included in the 2010 ADA Standards. Ground surfaces on accessible routes and in use zones must comply with requirements that are defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials and incorporated by reference into the 2010 ADA Standards. One example of a ground surface that would meet these standards is pour-in-place rubber mats. Ground surfaces must be inspected and regularly maintained to ensure compliance.

Even though Jane may not get to play on the new slide today, she does at least have a legal right to an accessible playground as defined under the ADA. Prior to the ADA and the revisions to the ADA Standards in 2010, Jane may not have been successful if she asked the school to change the ground surface of her new playground so she could play. She likely would have been cast off to the edge of the playground for years to come and missed out on the very important aspects of play and socialization with her peers. Even though the accessibility standards in place today don’t make every aspect of every playground accessible to every child, we have at least taken a step in the right direction.

Please note that the requirements of the ADA are very technical in nature and the above information is intended only as a brief overview of a school’s possible legal obligations and does not constitute legal advice. If you are in Colorado and have questions about whether a specific playground is compliant, please contact The Legal Center. If you live in a state other than Colorado, you might contact an attorney in your home state.