Unless you are a trail manager or an ADA-compliance supervisor, you may not know there has been a flurry of activity to address public spaces after the Department of Justice (DOJ) amended several areas of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The amendments apply to Title II, covering programs, activities and services of public entities, and Title III, covering public accommodations, commercial facilities and private entities offering specific examinations and courses.
“The amendment allows virtually any type of vehicle to be used for accessibility. When the new regulations were being vetted, no one seemed to catch on to how far-reaching this would be,” says Stuart MacDonald, National Trails Training Partnership manager for American Trails.
“Most people might have just thought it applied to Segways, and no one quite thought that this rule could mean that ATV and full-sized vehicles could be imposed as accessibility devices.”
The new compliance rules force parks and recreation officials to think about accommodating such devices on trails, which typically ban the use of motorized vehicles.
The largest concern for park and trail managers isn’t the use of wheelchairs on trails, but the category referred to as Other Power Driven Mobility Device (OPDMD), which is defined by the DOJ as “any mobility device powered by batteries, fuel, or other engines — whether or not designed primarily for use by individuals with mobility disabilities — that is used by individuals with mobility disabilities for the purpose of locomotion, including golf cars, electronic personal-assistance mobility devices (EPAMDs), such as the Segway PT, or any mobility device designed to operate in areas without defined pedestrian routes, but that is not a wheelchair.”
During a recent webinar, Janet Zeller, National Accessibility Program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said, “An OPDMD means anything with a motor that does not meet the specifications of a wheelchair.”
OPDMD could literally be any other powered device, from trucks to all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to Segways, and many devices in between. The DOJ doesn’t specify categories for the various OPDMDs.
The new regulations have resulted in many park and trail managers scratching their collective heads on how to assess trails and open areas in accommodating the various categories of OPDMDs. In addition, those who did not have the proper assessments in place by March 15 were forced to be open to all OPDMDs by default. In some cases, park managers are opting to close trails and open spaces until they can properly assess the trails for OPDMD use.
What exactly needs to be considered? For trails and open spaces, the DOJ assessment factors to use OPDMD in specific areas include:
• The type, size, weight, dimensions and speed of the device
• The facility’s volume of pedestrian traffic, which may vary at different times of the day, week, month or year
• The facility’s design and operational characteristics (i.e., whether its service, program or activity is conducted indoors; its square footage; the density and placement of stationary devices; and the availability of storage for the device, if requested by the user)
• The establishment of legitimate safety requirements to permit the safe operation of the OPDMD in the specific facility
•The consideration as to whether the use of the OPDMD creates a substantial risk of serious harm to the immediate environment or natural or cultural resources, or poses a conflict with federal land-management laws and regulations.
“This rule was written in a very broad application, and it is up to the land mangers to determine the many types of vehicles and look at their trails, and specifically determine to allow or prohibit the various OPDMDs,” says MacDonald.
“The DOJ says assessments should include clear, concise statements of specific rules governing the operation of such devices. They don’t tell you what those rules should be, and land managers have to determine the rules, such as hours of operation or setting the speed limit.”
Since the burden is on the trail manager, park officials are scrambling to devise specific assessment protocols. And any risks listed must be actual risk and not speculation on how the OPDMDs will be used.
Officials must also consider that blanket statements, such as “no motorized vehicles allowed,” will no longer suffice. There must be a substantiated reason why OPDMDs are not permitted on open areas or trails.
Reasons might include specific environmental damage, such as to a prairie or wetland or to the trail structure itself because of the weight of the OPDMD.
Zeller asks, “Is there a [documented] sensitive natural resource immediately adjacent to the trail that could be damaged by the passage of a OPDMD, or is the primary activity–for example, wildlife-protection areas or seasonal bird-nesting area–that the size and noise of OPDMD would create a substantiated risk?”
“We have the obligation to make sure we haven’t unnecessarily set up barriers to the public that just wants to enjoy the outdoors like everyone else,” says Ric Edwards, director of Safety and ADA Compliance with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).
“That is our challenge and our opportunity. In some cases, the knee-jerk reaction is that all the trails and pathways through the park are to be leveled and paved. However, that is not the purpose of this ruling.”
IDNR, as well as many other parks and recreation administrators, are developing guidelines to determine the usage of trails.
“The bottom line is people with disabilities are allowed to be as dumb as people that are fully-abled,” says Edwards, who broke his neck when he was 15 years old, and uses both a manual and powered wheelchair. “I’m very grateful to be able to provide both perspectives on accessibility, and prevent discrimination.”
Mike Mrozek, an avid trail user, who utilizes a manual wheelchair for mobility, says, “I’m excited that this is being looked at more specifically; the more things are accessible, the more people benefit.”
“The ADA helps people with disabilities, but the results have benefited other people. For example, people with strollers, older people, people with issues from knees and hip joints also benefit from ramp access.”
Not Set In Stone
Park and trail managers expect the assessment of OPDMD use to be a changing system as new and better assessment tools are engineered and shared.
“It is rough to respond to this new rule, but at the same time it doesn’t say that once you make a regulation, it is set in stone,” says MacDonald.
“The rules can be changed with new technology and new circumstance as well as desire from the public.”
The American Trails organization is serving as a collection house for the assessments created by parks and recreation departments across the United States.
Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.