Denise Hurt asks, ‘Must golf courses accommodate wheelchair golfers?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 replaced a collection “barrier-free site design” initiatives, making disabled access to employment, goods and/or services on an equal basis with the rest of the general public, a civil right.

A “disability” is a permanent physical or mental impairment (like sight, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, motor skills, but not temporary sprains, breaks, or diseases) that substantially limit any major life activities, including learning, recreation and working. Forbes Magazine once noted that over 43 million Americans qualify as disabled under ADA.

Golf courses – including most private clubs – must provide “reasonable accommodation” to a wide variety of disabled individuals, which is defined as one that does not present an undue burden or alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Generally, this has been defined by complaints and litigation to mean that golf facilities must:

· Allow wheelchair access anywhere carts are permitted, with similar limitations regarding specific weather conditions.
· Erect rope barriers that don’t eliminate access, but mildly inconveniencing disabled golfers is permissible.
· Provide access to all courses at multiple course facilities, not just one.
· Make all new and renovation work ADA compliant, but there is no reconstruction required solely to satisfy ADA.
· Make parking lots, practice facilities and buildings accessible. This has affected parking lots, walkways and two story clubhouses, which often require an elevator to accommodate any job requiring access to both floors.

Your compliance with the ADA guidelines is likely to require a combination of both policy and design.

The Federal Access Board’s golf subcommittee issued initial guidelines. The golf industry initially feared that ADA might outlaw contoured greens and fairways, and possibly sand bunkers to achieve disabled access. Future rules revisions may eventually eliminate features like “perched” greens* and steep banks, but for now, traditional golf course architecture is not compromised by the guidelines.

Wheelchair access routes are defined as “a turf slope with a maximum vertical rise of 5%, and a maximum cross slope of 2%,” without impediments like curbs. All key areas must be accessible, including at least one access point to each green, fairway access every 75 yards, and two tees on every hole. At present, there are no limitations on green contouring, and wheelchair access into sand bunkers and natural areas is not required.

Most courses have complied; overcoming design limitations with policy modification. No doubt, you’ve seen “orange-flagged” carts signifying disabled golfers and their special access (read: closer than the superintendent allows me to get!) to greens and tees. Most courses allow disability claims “on their honor,” and won’t deny any reasonable accommodation request, and it’s now common for facilities to maintain a few specifically adapted golf carts.

Other “day to day” issues include special use of spiked shoes, carts on tees, crutches on greens, and allowing riding assistants. All should be addressed using reasonable – and consistent – criteria, denying access only when turf damage – or safety issues - arise, especially in wet conditions.**

As with most endeavors, a positive attitude goes a long way towards minimizing complaints. Most disabled golfers want to feel welcome, and will be satisfied with your “best effort.” Few will be unreasonable and abuse the system. Courses now train employees in ADA, and address it in employee manuals, which are reviewed and kept up to date with changing requirements (a solid ADA plan is necessary for any legal defense).

ADA is enforced through plan and field review, individual complaints to government agencies, and lawsuits. Rules often change, and there is rising consistency in defining “reasonable access.” After a decade of designing with ADA in mind, it turns out that it is usually easy and always the right thing to do.

*As I reach “Senior Status,” its amazing how much more I agree with avoiding tall climbs. In fact, I find that designing green access for my aching body naturally follows ADA requirements!

** For example, “wheelies” are not automatically permitted by ADA.