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Five Ideas for Making Outdoor Recreation Accessible for All

In our current engagement with the State of Maine’s 10-Year Outdoor Economy Roadmap, we have facilitated several focus groups comprised of people who self-identify as having disabilities to understand how they experience outdoor recreation and identify opportunities to make the outdoor economy more inclusive, welcoming, and equitable. We are grateful they have entrusted us with their lived experiences, and we are excited to elevate their voices and recommendations in this blog.  In all our work, including our focus on the outdoor economy, we strive to bring underrepresented voices to the planning table to ensure everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. 

Here are some recommended ways to make the outdoor recreation economy more inclusive of people with disabilities: 

Support adaptive organizations

Adaptive organizations, like Maine Adaptive, are a critical avenue through which folks with disabilities can gain access to the outdoors. These organizations are often key to helping people afford specialized equipment. They also present the ability to work with staff who are attuned to the unique needs of those with disabilities and gain valuable exposure to accessible opportunities. In Vermont, Kingdom Trails has built a network of over 100 miles of high-quality, non-motorized, multi-use trails for all levels of ability.  

Provide education to those involved in infrastructure planning and development

For those building trails or parking lots, for example, intentionality about how one might get from the parking lot to the trail is important. Ensuring these amenities are developed in a way that is accessible for wheelchair users or others using adaptive equipment is equally essential. One organization that has accomplished this particularly well is the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). As an organization, they are open and responsive to training for staff on how to make mountain biking more accessible and have integrated those lessons into their trail-building and trail maintenance efforts across the region.  

Support 'gear hubs'

Gear hubs have been elevated as a standout resource for making outdoor recreation more accessible by allowing people to use outdoor gear for free or at a low cost. While most adaptive equipment is customized and therefore not convenient to lend, gear hubs can provide weather-appropriate apparel and other accessories to make outdoor recreation more financially feasible.  

Use incremental universal design in your approach to increasing accessibility

There sometimes is an all-or-nothing attitude to inclusion, where people think that meeting stringent and expensive ADA standards is not feasible, for example, adaptive efforts are not undertaken at all. However, starting with easy, feasible options to increase accessibility can be a great start to learning and advancing your approach as you gain more insights and experiences serving recreationists with disabilities.  

For example, Enock Glidden of Maine Adaptive works with land trusts and other landowners who provide trail access and access to the outdoors in general. Through this work, they can see how a wheelchair user is affected by trail conditions and then learn how to mitigate some of the low-hanging fruit types of barriers. By starting with the easiest-to-fix issues, much of the outdoors can be opened up to people with very little work or cost involved. Trail users with disabilities do not necessarily enjoy using fully built accessible trails that do not always offer the challenge they are looking for. By fixing existing trails we can offer people with disabilities the chance to choose their challenge just like everyone else. 

Increase accessibility information in guidebooks and at trailheads

Often when accessibility information is included in guidebooks, it refers to ADA compliance only, which is the highest standard of disability accommodation and is built for hospital-style wheelchairs. People need more encompassing information about accessibility that includes more nuanced information. For example, if a trail is accessible for wheelchair users, except for a bridge too narrow to pass, it’s important to know that before you get to the bridge. 

Gliden recommends a list of quick-hit information that allows someone to quickly scan and decide whether or not a space is usable by them. Some critical information includes the steepest running and cross slope of a trail, trail width, trail surface material, the length of the trail, a date that indicates when the information was collected, and pictures of obstacles or barriers. 

We are currently in the process of collecting input from the public about what they would like to see in Maine’s Outdoor Economy Roadmap. Visit the Trailblazer website for more information, and to contribute your voice to the planning process! 


If your community is planning to leverage your outdoor assets for economic growth and prosperity and would like to do so through an inclusive, welcoming, and equitable lens, please get in touch. We also offer an Equitable Community Planning Toolkit that includes activities and resources, such as workbooks, to aid practitioners and community leaders.


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