To determine whether the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has taken adequate steps to ensure State parks and historic sites are accessible and can accommodate persons with disabilities, including meeting State and federal requirements. The audit covered the period January 2018 to October 2022.
About the Program
According to the New York State Department of Health, more than one in four New York State adults have a disability. In addition, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, access to green space can provide physical health benefits such as reductions in stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension, and heart rate – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease – as well as mental wellness benefits such as lower risk of depression and faster psychological stress recovery. Access to parks and historic sites within the State is important for all citizens including those with a disability. The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (Parks) is responsible for the operation and stewardship of the State’s park system, as well as advancing the statewide parks, historic preservation, and open space mission. The State’s park system comprises over 250 State parks, including 37 historic sites, encompassing nearly 350,000 acres across 11 regions. Parks is responsible for managing a vast array of public amenities, including 5,000 buildings (e.g., pavilions/shelters, restrooms), 28 golf courses, 24 swimming pools and spray grounds, 57 beaches, 21 marinas, 75 boat launch sites, 25 nature centers, and more than 2,000 miles of trails. Parks’ central administrative office oversees the regional offices as well as the State Historic Preservation Office (Preservation Office) – a branch of Parks involved in helping communities identify, evaluate, preserve, and revitalize their historic, archaeological, and cultural resources. As part of its mission, Parks works to provide universal access to safe and enjoyable recreational and informational opportunities for all New York State residents and visitors.
Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governments. Generally, under the ADA’s implementing regulations, a public entity may not deny the benefits of its programs, activities, and services to individuals with disabilities because its facilities are inaccessible. Parks is not required to make each of its existing facilities accessible, but it must operate each service, program, or activity so that, when viewed in its entirety, it is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. Additionally, the ADA requires public entities to perform a self-evaluation of their ability to provide access to individuals with disabilities. The self-evaluation is designed to uncover areas that require more attention and identify policies that may, directly or indirectly, adversely impact accessibility. If a self-evaluation reveals that a public entity must make structural changes to achieve program accessibility, it must develop a Transition Plan (Plan).
The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (Standards) set minimum scoping and technical requirements for newly designed and constructed or altered state and local government facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities. For any new construction or alteration that began on or after March 15, 2012, the project must comply with the Standards. An alteration is defined as a change to a building or facility that affects or could affect the usability of the entire building or facility or a portion thereof. Additionally, alterations to historic properties will comply, to the maximum extent feasible, with the regulatory provisions applicable to historic properties. Although the Standards apply to new construction and alterations that began on or after March 15, 2012, they may be used as a guide to determine when and how to enhance accessibility within pre-existing structures.
- Parks has not actively incorporated accessibility into its processes for maintaining and operating its parks. Despite having developed a Plan, Parks did not include a timetable for executing improvements, and has taken little action to implement recommendations for accessibility improvements. Although many staff stated that they assess their facilities during periodic walk-throughs at the parks, as problems arise, and when they receive complaints, staff were not familiar with the Plan or provisions therein that identified policy, program, and physical barriers to accessibility and the proposed solutions that would facilitate access. Also, most staff were not knowledgeable of requirements under the Standards, and stated that they receive little guidance from the regional and the central administrative offices on accessibility.
- We reviewed areas and amenities available for public use at 40 Parks within 11 regions as well as four historic sites. We examined 1,446 amenities at the 40 park facilities and found the amenities were ADA compliant. However, we identified 892 areas (62%) where accessibility could potentially be improved, should Parks seek to exceed the ADA’s minimum requirements.
- Information on accessibility – used to inform visitors about accessibility in each of the parks – is not always accurate. We compared posted accessibility information with observations from our visits. We found a total of 97 instances where the agency’s website and/or accessibility signage at parks contained seemingly erroneous information. This included: no wheelchair-accessible stalls; lack of wheelchair accessibility; access routes with obstacles; restroom entrance and/or stall entrance dimensions less than Standards; and restroom stalls missing grab bars.
- Although historic sites pose unique challenges due to their age and design, we found Preservation Office officials were generally committed to making each site as accessible as possible within the constraints of the location.
- Develop processes to actively incorporate accessibility into the operation and maintenance of parks, which may include but not be limited to:
- Communicating and training park staff on ADA requirements;
- Monitoring new construction and alteration projects to ensure compliance with the Standards;
- Developing procedures for recording and addressing accessibility complaints; and
- Assessing potential barriers to accessibility and, to the extent feasible, addressing the newly identified potential improvement areas as well as the barriers identified in the Plan.
- Improve the accuracy of publicly reported information on accessibility – communicated both online and through signage at parks.
State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Nadine Morrell
Phone: (518) 474-3271; Email: [email protected]
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236