Prepared remarks of Charlie Bray

Prepared remarks of Charlie Bray, President & CEO, Intl. Assoc. of Amusement Parks and Attractions, at RAAPA’s 13th International Conference: Prospects of Amusement Industry Development in Russia, Monday, April 7, 2008, Moscow, Russia.

Introduction

Thank you for that generous welcome.  It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to be here this morning to participate in this annual conference, as part of your impressive yearly event showcasing Russia’s amusement and attractions industry.  I fully appreciate the various demands on your time, so I hope you’ll find my remarks both interesting and beneficial.

I want to begin by thanking the Russian Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions for its wonderful hospitality, particularly President Vladimir Gnezdilov and Vice President Boris Rabinovitch.  I also want to congratulate RAAPA on the tenth anniversary of its trade show exhibition this year.

What is the ADA?

As Russia explores how best to advance the application of its national disabilities law within the attractions sector, I’ve been invited here today to talk to you about the American experience in expanding access to our amusement parks and rides for people with disabilities.

Let me stress from the outset that while the unknowns of this issue may cause some worry for many of you – as it did for many of your colleagues in the U.S. at the start – the disabled market is one that should be welcomed, not only because of its size but because it’s the right thing to do.

Some of you may be familiar with the Give Kids The World Village near Orlando, but for those who are not, it is a truly special place, created solely to fulfill the wishes of kids with life-threatening illnesses and disabilities during a week-long vacation at the Village. 

When a child and his or her family arrive at Give Kids The World, they have already faced the many challenges of a daily life filled with hospitals, doctors, and medical treatment.  For six magical days, however, those worries are forgotten, as they visit Central Florida’s world-famous attractions and stay at the Village, all for free.  Once children leave the Village, many IAAPA member facilities provide additional special times through their participation in our World Passport for Kids program, which offers one day of free admission for Wish children and their immediate families.

More than 85,000 families from over 60 countries – including Russia – have visited Give Kids The World, and IAAPA has been blessed to share in their inspirational laughter and smiles as an official partner since 1995.

When a child visiting one of our attractions smiles, it lights up our own face.  But when a Wish child from Give Kids The World smiles, it lights up our heart.  Having personally witnessed many of these moments in the past few years, I know in my heart that providing these kids, and others like them, with as much access to our attractions as possible is the right thing to do.

As for market size, the disabled population encompasses people with long-term mobility, sensory, or mental impairments, including those from chronic diseases, and researchers estimate that disabilities affect 10 to 20 percent of every nation’s citizens.  As the population ages in both the U.S. and Russia, the number of those with disabilities will only continue to rise.  If patrons with disabilities can visit our attractions in a safe and feasible manner, then it makes good business sense to welcome this segment of our customer base.

And in the U.S., granting such equal opportunity is the law of the land, in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA – which governs the issue of disabled access in our nation’s public sphere.  It’s a law that we can and should live with, as long as it’s not applied arbitrarily or rigidly, is clearly communicated, and is implemented in a timely fashion.  As you’ll see from the U.S. amusement industry’s experience, we’ve tried to ensure just that, with varying degrees of success.

The long-time effort to fully recognize the rights of those Americans with disabilities was finally realized in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA in July of that year.  The law prohibits discrimination due to a disability and contains several sections, including one on the employment of persons with disabilities, which certainly applies to our industry.  But I’d like to focus my remarks today on the sections of the ADA that require public places and commercial facilities to “be readily accessible to – and usable by – individuals with disabilities.”

Working with the ADA – Communication & Education

Following passage of the law, the U.S. Department of Justice was charged with implementing most of its provisions.  In carrying out this task, the Department relied on the work of the Access Board, a federal agency created by the ADA to develop guidelines on disability access for different aspects of American life.  The Justice Department then uses these guidelines to establish formal regulations and the associated penalties for failing to follow them.

Now in discussing how the ADA has been applied to the U.S. amusement parks industry, we need to keep two things in mind: 

  • First, the law covers not just rides, but also basic things like walkways, food service areas, restrooms, entertainment venues, and parking lots.
  • Second, the law requires parks to provide reasonable accommodations not only as part of new construction or major alterations in the future, but also through the prompt removal of existing barriers where readily achievable.

Thus, the first set of guidelines produced by the Access Board in 1991 covered items like restrooms and parking lots that applied to all types of facilities – amusement parks included.  To provide more sector-specific guidance, the Board then established advisory committees.  The Recreation Access Advisory Committee was formed in July 1993 to address, among other things, the unique aspects of amusement rides, miniature golf facilities, and waterparks.

IAAPA and many U.S. amusement professionals have participated in this process from the start, and over this 15-year-period, we’ve been reminded time and again of the vital need for constant communication and education between our industry, the disabled community, and public officials.  This work has also generated a great deal of industry collaboration and innovation both between and among parks and ride manufacturers, who are critical partners in this process.

After many hours of meetings and public hearings, the Recreation Committee provided its recommendations to the Access Board in July 1994, which contained a consensus agreement between the industry and the disabled community on amusement ride access.

Following this burst of regulatory activity, however, the process slowed considerably.  While the Board did invite public comment on the committee’s recommendations and did conduct additional research, a draft set of recreational guidelines would not be forthcoming for five full years, as available resources were focused on areas of daily life that impacted the most people.

Nevertheless, during this time, IAAPA communicated the content of the 1994 consensus to its members, and a number of parks and manufacturers began to get a head start on this issue by making changes based on the consensus.

Unfortunately, when the Access Board eventually did unveil its draft recreation guidelines in July 1999 for public comment, much of the amusement consensus had been discarded, instead replaced by standard provisions from unrelated industries in a one-size-fits-all approach, with little room for flexible application.  In fact, the draft guidelines had the unintended effect of actually reducing ride access, as well as being economically and technologically unworkable.

Needless to say, the industry was very disappointed at this development.  Fortunately, the relationship we had established with the Access Board provided the foundation for renewed dialogue – highlighting, again, the importance of constant communication and education.

During the next three years, IAAPA engaged in additional meetings, public hearings, comments periods, and site visits with the Board.  Our patience and persistence were rewarded when the agency issued its official recreational guidelines, or “final rule,” in September of 2002, with amusement ride provisions that were much closer in both letter and spirit to the 1994 consensus.

Overall, the rule provided the basis for a workable system.  Its ride parameters and expectations were economically and technologically reasonable, particularly with regard to accommodating a guest in a wheelchair.  Moreover, the flexibility contained in the provisions ensured that they didn’t compromise the safety or nature of amusement rides, nor did the rule require the industry to design completely different products than those that it currently offered.  Finally, the provisions exempted mobile rides, patron-controlled rides, kiddie rides, and rides without seats, as well as water slides.

Following widespread notice to our members of the rule’s availability, we began working with the Access Board on producing technical guidance materials, to provide U.S. amusement facilities with user-friendly help in implementing the rule.  Manuals for rides, miniature golf courses, and swimming pools were issued in June 2003.

Since then, IAAPA has continued to educate its members on the ADA through articles in our monthly FUNWORLD magazine, products like our latest Skill Builder staff training DVD on disability etiquette, and numerous expo seminars.

Parks and manufacturers have also worked with the Access Board on developing options for guests in wheelchairs to transfer into and out of a ride seat on their own or with the help of a companion.  These options are crucial on rides like a log flume or roller coaster where a patron may have the physical and mental capacity to board an attraction, but its dynamics or design do not allow a wheelchair to be safely or reasonably loaded into the ride vehicle.

To spur new thinking in this area, IAAPA and the Board jointly sponsored the Access to Fun contest in 2005, which focused on ideas for a transfer device that would serve as an intermediate step between the wheelchair and the ride seat.  The contest produced several promising designs that were durable, user-friendly, cost-effective, and safe.  Last summer, we also participated in the North American Spinal Cord Injury Conference and Disability Expo, to procure further data about the optimal height range for such transfer devices.

Putting the ADA into Practice

A second focus for us in the last few years has been interacting with the U.S. Justice Department, whose job is to take the Board’s guidelines and turn them into official, enforceable regulations.

At this point, the Department has still not produced its official regulations for recreational access.  This delay has turned out to be more an issue of bad timing than one of bad faith, as the Board’s final rule for recreation was published after the start of a massive and still ongoing effort to update the entire set of employment and public access provisions in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines.  Thus, the Department of Justice has incorporated its work on recreational regulations within this overall project, and that has obviously made things take much longer.

While this delay has been frustrating, it has also allowed us to work with the Department in trying to address any remaining items not fully resolved in the Access Board’s final rule.  This includes aspects of the transfer issue I just mentioned, as well as issues surrounding miniature golf facilities, which I’ll touch on more in a few moments.

Nevertheless, the rule and its technical guides have unleashed a new and continuing round of accessibility improvements and innovations by parks and manufacturers.  As we all know, this industry is based on innovation, and the rule allows for that within a defined set of parameters.

In addition to the accessibility information available from guest services staff, Braille signage and tactile maps for the visually impaired, and hand-held devices and interpretations for the hard of hearing, parks are also using assigned entry times and other means to let guests with disabilities wait for rides in a comfortable location of their own choosing rather than the queue line.

Let me show you just a sample of the many other ways the U.S. attractions industry is reaching out to these patrons: 

  • Here’s a carousel with a dedicated wheelchair space and restraints,
  • A log flume equipped with a transfer device,
  • A wheelchair lift for a train ride,
  • A coaster with a seat designed for transfer straight from a wheelchair,
  • And a spinning ride with a dedicated wheelchair space and restraints.
  • Parks have also improved their accessible routes to rides with ramps & elevators.
  • As well as access to water fountains, food service, & eating areas.
  • Access has also been enhanced in entertainment venues, walkways, games areas, parking lots, pay phones, & restrooms.

Ongoing and Future Issues

Clearly, the U.S. amusement industry is moving in the right direction when it comes to providing expanded access to our guests with disabilities.  But there is certainly more work to do, and our dialogue is ongoing with public officials, the disabled community, and our members.

As I noted earlier, we have worked especially hard in the past few years on the application of the ADA to miniature golf courses.  Many of our smaller members operate such courses, but they’ve been hampered in moving forward by the ambiguous state of the Access Board’s guidelines, particularly regarding entry to and exit from the course, accessible routes on or adjacent to the playing surface, and the definition of “undue burden” as it relates to barrier removal.

A number of these facilities have worked with IAAPA staff in further educating both the Board and the Justice Department about the unique aspects of this form of entertainment.  These efforts will result in a much-needed Frequently Asked Questions document for mini golf operators, and will hopefully yield additional results through several clarifications contained in the Department’s forthcoming enforcement regulations.

The issues of finite resources and complex rules are not limited to miniature golf courses, however.  IAAPA is well aware of the widely varying capabilities for ADA implementation in the industry, and we are continuously seeking to increase the types and levels of assistance available to small and medium-size facilities and ride manufacturers for this important work.

Of course, many aspects of how the ADA is actually applied to the U.S. amusement industry will be decided by our courts over the coming years.  Is preferential treatment for visitors with disabilities, such as discounts and front-of-the-line access, a violation of the ADA’s equality provisions?  How does the ADA address larger-size patrons who do not fit in standard ride restraints?  Have facilities met the ADA standards for accommodating their deaf and blind customers?

How U.S. courts interpret these and other legitimate questions – as well as many unsubstantiated complaints – will play a key role in determining whether the ADA represents a truly workable solution for expanding disabled access in America’s parks and attractions.

Moreover, the ramifications of these decisions will be felt far beyond our shores, as the global attractions industry becomes increasingly integrated.  America’s ADA actions will continue to affect current and future debates over disabled access in nations around the world, which ultimately impacts both the parks in those countries and the market for all ride manufacturers.  Judging by Russia’s own disability laws, which date from 1992, and the Council of Europe Disability Action Plan adopted in St. Petersburg 18 months ago, the discussion over disabled access is already well underway in this part of the world.

In addition to these ongoing debates, our experience with the ADA has demonstrated the value of industry collaboration on this issue, the direct and indirect innovations that result from such work, and the benefits of advance planning in combination with retrofitting.

Consequently, the ASTM International F-24 Committee and the IAAPA Safety Standards Harmonization Group may be appropriate forums for discussing the technical aspects of ride accessibility on a global scale.  Both bodies are working in tandem on the development of a comprehensive and universal set of ride standards.

The creation of consistent standards will benefit amusement facilities and manufacturers alike, from the park’s assurance that rides meet world-class safety specifications to the supplier’s assurance that he no longer has to bear the costly expense of re-engineering his rides for installation in each region or even each country.

The unparalleled expertise and established procedures of both groups could generate further worldwide progress in ride access for the disabled, based on each panel’s record of bringing the industry together to produce cost-effective safety advancements.

Conclusion – Expanding Access Together

In the spirit of this call for cross-border cooperation, I hope that my remarks today have helped broaden your perspective as to the opportunities and possibilities for expanding disabled access to the amusement and attractions industry.

I hope that you have also gained some useful insights from the lessons we’ve learned in the U.S. when it comes to this issue, particularly the importance of:

  • constant two-way communication and education between our industry, the disabled community, and public officials
  • reaching out to the disabled community and individual guests for ideas on improving accessibility at your facility
  • examining and addressing current accessibility conditions at your attraction step-by-step, from parking lots and entry sidewalks to general areas like restrooms and food service to specialized offerings like rides and entertainment
  • incorporating disabled access in all your planning for future additions or alterations, as well as within ongoing operational areas like staff training, and
  • exchanging new ideas on disabled access with other attractions and with ride manufacturers, who are critical partners in this process.

In the final analysis, IAAPA fully supports the fundamental aim of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the goal of both the ADA and our association is essentially the same – allowing the greatest number of people to safely enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the attractions industry without compromising its economic strength.

I know you share this sentiment, and IAAPA stands ready to assist its worldwide membership in achieving this admirable goal on an individual, national, and international basis.  Thank you.