Improving Access to Nature for People With Disabilities

How can we make nature more accessible for people with disabilities?

Those who spend lots of time in nature on hiking trails and visiting local/state/national parks know how helpful it can be to have well-maintained trails and proper signage. Many parks don’t take this into consideration and what most don’t realize is how inaccessible these nature spots become, especially for people living with with disabilities. Having access to nature is beneficial to people of all ages, races, income groups, and abilities. Living with a disability can impact all different types of people at any age, so how can we make nature more accessible to these people?

The first step in making nature more accessible begins before people even step foot on park grounds. Providing visitors with updated information on trail conditions makes a big difference for people with disabilities. Knowing whether trails will be rocky, muddy, slippery, etc. and whether there are steep inclines/changes in elevation is important. Having this information readily accessible allows people with disabilities to plan ahead and avoid unexpected safety concerns. Another important aspect to notify visitors of beforehand is whether there are benches or other places to sit along the trail. People who may need a safe, comfortable place to sit to rest or for other reasons are going to want to know ahead of time if that will be available to them. Knowing that will be available to them takes away an added stressor and makes it that much easier for them to enjoy their time outside.

https://thepointsguy.com/guide/best-national-parks-wheelchair-users/
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most wheelchair-accessible national parks. This park includes wheelchair-accessible paved trails and they have an Accessibility Permit available which allows access to areas restricted to the general public.

The importance of proper signage is often overlooked and even when signage is available, it usually only caters to able-bodied people. For example, it’s important to include signs and barriers at various heights to include those who have different eye-level views. People who use wheelchairs are going to have a lower eye-level view and placing all signs at higher heights makes it hard to comfortably read them. Including signage with Braille or audio descriptions is so important for people who are blind or visually impaired. Trail maps given out at ranger stations and visitor centers should also be available in Braille. People are much more likely to spend time in nature and reap the benefits when they know they can do so comfortably and safely.

https://www.dreamstime.com/everglades-national-park-sign-homestead-united-states-entrance-to-popular-florida-image181522357
Everglades National Park offers assisted listening devices (ALDs) on ranger-led tours and includes both audio explanations and braille on many of their displays. The trails at this park have clear, interpretive, and large print signage.

Another aspect that gets overlooked is the extra space that people living with disabilities might need when visiting these nature spots. The physical width of trails plays a role in accessibility. Widening trails as well as the entrances/gates to enter makes it easier for people who use wheelchairs to access them. Having accessible restrooms at campsites means including a handicap stall and grab bars near the toilet and shower if included. This is also information that should be accessible online before visiting.

Having access to ways to enjoy nature in a comfortable, safe way should not be a luxury. Everyone deserves access to this and being conscious of the ways we can make that a reality is the first step towards creating change. One way you can help is opening this conversation up to lawmakers making decisions on the maintenance of nature spots near you, as well as those working directly for local/state/national parks!

Check out our other articles on accessibility and National Parks!:

References:

Improving Health and Wellness Through Access To Nature. American Public Health Association. (2013, November 5). Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/08/09/18/improving-health-and-wellness-through-access-to-nature#:~:text=Access%20to%20nature%20has%20been,being%2C%20and%20greater%20social%20capital.

Zhang, G., Poulsen, D. V., Lygum, V. L., Corazon, S. S., Gramkow, M. C., & Stigsdotter, U. K. (2017). Health-Promoting Nature Access for People with Mobility Impairments: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(7), 703. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14070703

Freudenberg, P., & Arlinghaus, R. (2009). Benefits and Constraints of Outdoor Recreation for People with Physical Disabilities: Inferences from Recreational Fishing. Leisure Sciences, 32(1), 55–71. https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1080/01490400903430889

https://www.wta.org/news/magazine/features/helping-disabled-people-find-belonging-outdoors

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