Online Master’s in Athletic Administration

The American with Disabilities Act: Are Your Sport Programs Compliant?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination against persons with documented disabilities. The entire Act defines what disabilities are, what constitutes reasonable access, and offers guidelines on how you can provide such access in order to stay in compliance with the law. If you are a busy athletic director, wading through all of its sections can be daunting. That’s why we’ve attempted to break down the ADA and explain what is required of university and college athletic programs in order to remain compliant. This is not meant to be a comprehensive description of the Act, but rather a guide to help you better understand its major provisions.

Breaking Down the ADA

The ADA defines “disability” as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” Further, it prohibits discrimination for those it covers. This part of the public law code was revised in 2010 to include ADA standards of accessibility. These final rules went into effect on March 15, 2011. This code, in its entirety, can be found on the ADA website. These regulations are typically enforced by the Department of Justice. If you are a student, or an aspiring athlete, you may require accommodations under the ADA to accomplish your academic and athletic goals. The Act extends protection to all students in their academic pursuits and also in extracurricular and athletic programs. Colleges and universities are legally required to make reasonable access available to you. Because you qualify for special accommodations, you will have to submit proper documentation. Usually this will consist of a statement from your doctor or therapist. Most colleges have designated offices with personnel serving students with disabilities to assist you with obtaining the required documentation. Student with disabilities can reap tremendous gains from participating in university athletic programs. Athletic directors and coaches must ensure that disabled students feel welcome to try out for teams and participate in intramural activities, as well as make all facilities and programs as accommodating as possible to all of their students.

The ADA and Student Athletes

The ADA specifies that students with disabilities must have the same opportunities to participate in sports and activities as anyone else. Equal access to team facilities, including fields, courts, locker rooms, meeting areas, exercise equipment and other amenities must be provided. However, equal access does not mean “special treatment,” or give any student an advantage over others. The ADA explicitly states that student athletes with disabilities must be held to the same standards as their teammates. Equal opportunity means that coaches and athletic administrators might need to make appropriate accommodations to allow students to participate. For example, a deaf student on a track team who can’t hear a starter’s pistol that begins the race might be allowed a signal light to indicate the start of the race. Without giving him or her a competitive edge, those in charge of the track meet have provided reasonable accommodations that allow the student to participate equally. Accommodations for athletic venues are quite specific and cover everything from seating space, the number and placement of restrooms and elevators and signage requirements. New facilities must be built with these guidelines as part of the design, while older facilities may be required by law to implement these provisions retroactively.

Facility and Equipment Accommodations

Athletic administrators and coaches must be aware of the ADA Accessibility guidelines dictating the accommodations necessary for athletic centers and the programs that are offered. The standards apply to the buildings, equipment and sports areas to ensure compliance with the ADA. Some of the recreational facilities covered by these guidelines include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Golf courses
  • Exercise equipment (strength training and cardiovascular)
  • Shooting facilities
  • Bowling alleys
  • Swimming pools, saunas, whirlpools, etc.
  • Locker rooms and changing rooms
  • Indoor and outdoor sport activity areas (courts, fields, gymnasiums, etc.)
  • Team and player seating areas


Accessible routes must connect each side of a court, as well as giving unobstructed access to clearly marked ingress and egress points. Players must not be forced to travel across one play area to reach another. The size and specifics of the play areas are dictated by the governing body over the particular sport. For example, a tennis court will remain the regulation size and no ADA laws will interfere with its size or the composition of the court itself.

Other Indoor and Outdoor Sporting Areas

This is a broad category that includes any number of different courts, fields, tracks, skating rinks, pools and other recreational facilities. Sporting areas include the regulated area of play and the boundaries players reasonably expect to be able to occupy or move across during the game. Accessible routes must connect each area to the others. Outdoor venues are not required to apply ADAAG regulations for accessible routes to the play area. For example, football fields must have accessible routes around the boundaries of the field and connect the area of play to other areas. But the field itself is not restricted in terms of flatness or composition of surface materials.

Exercise Equipment and Machines

Fitness centers and other recreational facilities must provide access for exercise equipment and machines. Centers with multiple types of equipment must have at least one of each type with wheelchair access. The floor space around the equipment must be at least 30 x 48 inches. Strength training machines differ by the targeted area of the equipment. As bicep curl machines differ from squat racks, both would require one to be handicap accessible. The same rule applies to cardiovascular exercise equipment. Stationary bikes and treadmills must have enough clear space around them to allow those with limited mobility and wheelchair users to transfer to and from the machines. It’s okay if the clear space of more than one machine overlaps. Those selecting the exercise equipment should choose models that will accommodate persons with lower extremity disabilities when possible.

Shooting facilities

For shooting sports, facilities that have fixed firing positions must have at least 5 percent, but not less than one accessible position, with a handicap accessible route. These positions must have a 60 inch wide space and provide a stable, level position from which a person in a wheelchair can shoot.

Locker Rooms

Facilities with locker rooms or areas for athletes to store personal items and change clothing must also be handicap accessible in compliance with ADAAG guidelines. A minimum of 5 percent, but at least one, locker must be accessible to those with disabilities. Accessible routes must be provided to connect the appropriate lockers to adjacent areas and doors.

Team Seating Areas

Fixed team or player seating areas must be able to accommodate wheelchair and companion seats. The number is based on the number of overall seats provided, but must be at least one.

Saunas and Steam Rooms

These rooms must accommodate wheelchair turning space. This space can be obstructed with seats that are easily removable. Accessible space also cannot be obstructed by the swing of the doors. When you begin coaching and administering athletic programs, it’s important to use the ADA guidelines to allow equal access for all.



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