Accessibility for Recreation Areas and Trails

Access to Parks and Outdoor Recreation Areas

A bench next to a trail with trees
USA-Reiseblogger / Pixaby

Imagine you’re on the trip of a lifetime, taking your family to the Grand Canyon or Acadia or anywhere really. Just before the trip, your child falls, breaks a leg and ends up on crutches. She’s a trooper though, and still wants to do some hiking and see the sites. She selects a trail shown on the map–it’s a mile long loop with a historic cabin and scenic vista along the way. You pull in and see the trail is paved. She doesn’t think she’ll have a problem but as you walk, the paving suddenly ends. The trail surface evolves from firm gravel to loose gravel. She starts struggling, but doesn’t want to stop. You don’t know if it’s less walking to complete the loop or to turn back to the paved section. You just wish you had known what to expect when you started walking.

Did you know that nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the U.S.? According to the Census Bureau reports, about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population — had a disability in 2010. – Census Bureau Newsroom

A trail sign providing information on Grade, Cross Slope, Trail Width, and Surface Type.
Example of a trail sign that informs all visitors of what to expect.

As frustrating as this scenario sounds, it’s something people experience everyday. You don’t have to be confined to a wheelchair to benefit from Accessibility Standards. If the park in the scenario above had acted on the US Access Board Guidelines, there would have been a sign at the trailhead telling you how long and steep the trail is. You would have known what the surface material consisted of. You would have been able to make an informed decision about whether to take that trail or not.

Trail signage is just one example of the guidelines that exist to ensure everyone has access to the same experiences. Do you want to know more? Is there a particular project or task related to accessibility that you need assistance with? Not sure where to begin? The resources below will help get you started!

National Center on Accessibility

The National Center on Accessibility (NCA) is a partnership between Indiana University and the National Park Service. They provide services such as consultation, facility walk-throughs, concept development and planning, and program assessments. They have lots of good online resources:

In partnership with the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, the NCA also helped develop online courses. Here’s some highlights:

Free Micro-Learning Courses

Build a foundation of the concepts of accessibility and disability in this free micro-learning e-course series! These courses are intended for anyone in the parks, recreation, and tourism industry who wants to learn about methods of appropriate interaction with people with disabilities.

  1. Historical Perceptions of Disability: Understand the historical perceptions of disability in the United States and describe the modern-day demographics of people with disabilities living in the U.S.
  2. Disability Etiquette and Interaction Guidelines: Learn how to communicate with and about people with disabilities in an appropriate manner and engage in respectful interactions with people with disabilities.
  3. Accessibility vs. Usability: Recognize the link between the minimum standards for accessible design and access to recreation opportunities.

Paid Courses

  1. Universal Design in Park and Recreation EnvironmentsThis course offers parks professionals an opportunity to develop a knowledge of accessibility from a big-picture perspective. Universal Design goes above and beyond the minimum standards for accessible design and makes sustainability of accessible programs and facilities achievable through implementation of seven guiding principles.
  2. Navigating the Standards for Accessible Design: Within this course, the learner will be introduced to the history of accessibility legislation; learn how to access, navigate, and use the ADA/ABA accessibility standards; and apply the standards in a variety of built-in exercises.

Certificate Program

Earn a certificate in the Foundations of Accessibility Program. This program establishes a strong foundation in the physical and programmatic components of accessibility compliance. This certificate program explores disability and accessibility as a social construct and provides knowledge in disability awareness concepts, program access, universal design, and guidelines and standards for accessible design.

Other Resources

After you’ve done some homework, give your recreation facilities the once-over with the ADA Checklist. You can select checklists for different facilities like fishing or swimming.

Points of Contact

On InsideNPS, the Accessibility page connects you with the NPS Accessibility Plan and provides a list of Regional Accessibility Coordinators who can help answer your questions.

Write a Review

  1. A few things. Could we please change the “confined to a wheelchair” to “a person who uses a wheelchair to benefit….” As a person who uses a wheelchair is the preferred, PC, terminology. The information here is great, I am wondering if someone is updating this or working on keeping these links, trainings, guidance up to date? I am in new tri-division role and would love to connect — talk trails- accessibility/usability, guidance documents, work groups etc.

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