Reporting from Washington — New federal regulations improving access for the disabled took effect Tuesday at more than 7 million facilities nationwide, including many used for recreation.
The changes, required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, affect places such as amusement parks and movie theaters.
"If you went on vacation and your family was going to go play a game of miniature golf, up until now, a child in a wheelchair would have to sit on the side and watch everybody else have fun," said Maureen Fitzgerald, director of disability rights at the Disability Policy Collaboration, an advocacy group. "Now there will have to be an accessible route for the child so they can play too."
New construction and renovation projects will increasingly have to take people with disabilities into account. Requirements include wheelchair ramps and handicapped-accessible benches in saunas.
Fitzgerald said the new standards were established in 2004, giving the building industry time to plan for such accommodations. Existing buildings must be retrofitted for the disabled only if the construction can be done "without much difficulty or expense," the regulations state.
Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said the new regulations fit well with many existing local building codes. "So now architects have one standard to follow – they don't have to comply with multiple standards that may seem conflicting."
These changes are the first major revision of Americans with Disabilities Act regulations in 20 years, the Justice Department said.
Golden said other important changes involved hotel rooms and seats at recreational events such as sporting events, concerts and plays.
"For example, let's say we're at a sporting event, and there's an exciting play and everybody stands up," Golden said. "Can an individual with a disability see over all those heads? It's much clearer that accessible seating has to provide a clear line of sight, and how that is to be achieved."
Golden said before these regulations, it was common for a person with a disability to reserve an accessible room only to arrive and find, for example, that a wheelchair could not fit through the bathroom door.
"This is not just to be considered a luxury," Golden said. "A disabled person who needs an accessible room may not be able to use an inaccessible bathroom. So you're in a position where you arrive late to your hotel, you need to get to sleep and get up to fulfill your professional obligations, but you can't use the hotel bathroom."