Mark Douglass is passionate about what he does and with good reason. Born with birth defects in his feet, he grew up in and out of wheelchairs all his life. As an adult, he faced more mobility challenges following a major car accident and when he went RVing for the first time in 1997 he was in a wheelchair – scooting up and down the steps but still doing the driving. In 2009, he underwent surgery and began moving again.
In the meantime, he and his wife Ellie were managing a campground – he working from an electric wheelchair. They bought a motorhome and decided to do some traveling. That’s when Mark began to encounter some major barriers. “When I would call a campground and request “handicapped” parking, we would be placed near the bathroom,” he says. “I couldn’t access the amenities in the park. It was difficult for my wife to push me in my wheelchair through gravel. We just made a list of the parks which could accommodate me and where we could go back. I didn’t know if I would ever walk again, but I really enjoyed the RV lifestyle.”
In 2010, when he was finally able to walk again, Mark decided he wanted to give back after being given back his legs. He founded RVing Accessibility Group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with a website initially listing parks he had found which were accessible to people with mobility challenges. At the same time, he decided he needed to better educate himself on accessibility issues and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
At the University of Indiana’s National Center on Accessibility, Mark underwent intense training and participated in field applications, learning about disability access routes, toilet and seating standards, and other ADA prerequisites. He continued classes on the ADA requirements led by both government entities and private teachers. “This wasn’t going to be a hobby,” he says.
Mark has no desire to become the “ADA police”, he says. Instead he wants to help RV campground owners develop their properties so they do meet ADA standards and at the same time offer enjoyable recreational opportunities to the disabled market. Initially, he began speaking at various campground owner association’s meetings and offering his services – conducting an accessibility assessment and preparing a 5-year plan for parks to be in compliance with ADA standards. On site, he walks through the property with the park owner, explaining the areas he’ll be evaluating. “Most campground owners have no idea if they are ADA compliant and neither do most local government agency inspectors, because they haven’t been trained in ADA regulations. For example, a bathroom needs to meet 30 different standards. I evaluate every element in the park which has an ADA requirement – access routes, doors, playgrounds – all get measured and photographed. And I know the owner is thinking about costs,” he adds.
Mark then puts together a detailed 5-year transition plan for the park, so that each year they can budget for certain improvements. If the plans can’t be completed in the 5-year period, he helps extend the plan another 5 years. “The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing ADA standards, but they are usually not aware of any problems until a customer files a complaint,” he says. “Even if you’re not totally ADA compliant, in the event of an ADA law suit, you have a much stronger case if you have a transition plan in place.”
RVing Accessibility Group does not report its findings to the Department of Justice, the ADA or any other government agency. “We are an advocate for the campground industry,” says Mark. “Our assessments are basically a road map toward ADA compliance. They are confidential and we don’t release the names of the parks we work with unless they want us to in order to promote their park.” Parks pay the organization for the accessibility study; it also subsists on individual donations and sponsorships.
Bill Small, owner of Small Country Campground in Louisa, Virginia contracted with RVing Accessibility Group for an assessment in 2013 after hearing Mark speak at a Virginia campground owners’ meeting. “I decided I didn’t want to get caught up by government regulations and invited him to come over and look at our park,” he says. “We were in the process of designing and building a mini golf course at the time, and we incorporated Mark’s assessment study’s suggestions. The 18-hole mini golf course is 100% accessible.” Bill went on to add accessibility ramps to his store and game room, as well as the pool, creating a whole new entrance with a ramp, accessible gate handles and an accessible pool chair lift as required for compliance with the ADA standards for accessibility.
According to Mark, 20% of Americans, or 57.6 million people have a disability of some kind. 60% of these people use wheelchairs. The disabled market has a discretionary income of more than $200 billion. And in 1999, a study by a collaborative group of both private organizations and public agencies determined that among our country’s disabled population, the # 1 recreational activity is camping. “Making campgrounds more accessible and marketing to this population segment is a new revenue stream,” says Mark. “The population is aging. One out of four baby boomers is projected to have at least one disability. If we make it easier for these customers to enjoy their campground stays, it’s better for the industry.”