National Parks were created to give everyone the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich, ecological history of our nation’s public lands. But until the 1990s, that wasn’t possible for a large population of Americans. People who used wheelchairs or those who were blind, deaf, or lived with other disabilities did not have the same access to National Parks as others.
Today, the National Park Service (NPS) is required by federal law to comply with a set of accessibility laws, the most well-known being the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). July 26, 2020, was the 30th anniversary of signing the ADA Law.
Since then, the NPS has made great strides to be inclusive, placing a strong emphasis on making its parks and historic sites accessible. Braille alternatives to print materials, sign language interpretation of guided tours, wheelchair-accessible campsites and trails, and ramps and elevators in buildings are available across almost all National Parks and historic sites. The Architectural Barriers Act state that there are exceptions to requiring accesibility
In an effort to find more innovative ways for participation and inclusion, the NPS engaged individuals with disabilities to share their histories in the Telling All Americans’ Stories (TAAS) Disability History series. There’s also an Access Pass for people with disabilities that can help get more folks out into nature.
In 2012, the NPS formed an Accessibility Task Force to create a welcoming environment for visitors with disabilities, to ensure that new facilities and programs are accessible, and to upgrade existing facilities to improve accessibility. The Task Force also made sure that accessibility guides could be found on each National Park’s official webpage.
Online Accessibility Resources
Even with the Task Force and ADA in place, accessibility varies among the individual National Parks. The complications of planning for possibly rugged terrain, unexpected barriers like weather, and unpredictable sleep accommodations still keep some people with disabilities away from getting outdoors. To help with this,Outside Magazine compiled a list of the best National Parks for those with disabilities, including favorites like Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. In a similar fashion, National Geographic provides a list of the best wheelchair-accessible trails in U.S. National Parks.
And just because you use a wheelchair does not mean you can’t take part in the #vanlife. Outdoorsy, a company that connects local RV, motorhome, and campervan owners with people and families wanting to rent them, shows you how to narrow down your search on their platform to include only accessible rigs. They also provide their own roundup of the most accessible, wheelchair-friendly National Parks. With a little online research and the help of some inclusive outdoor organizations, anyone can enjoy the trip of a lifetime — or a lifetime of road-tripping — in America’s beautiful wild places.
Assistive Technology in National Parks
While studying at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in San Diego, California, Kelly Twichel and Eric Packard were inspired during a class called Assistive Technology to create a device that would help people with disabilities in their daily lives. Now, occupational therapists, Kelly and Eric decided to help adaptive surfers cross beaches in their wheelchairs with dignity and independence — a project that evolved into a product called Access Trax.
Access Trax is an ADA compliant outdoor pathway system used to make terrain like sand, grass, gravel, and snow accessible for people with physical disabilities. It can be permanently installed or set up temporarily for events and is sturdy while being lightweight, compact, and modular. With the mission to provide universal access for all to pursue life’s activities over any terrain, Access Trax is one elegant solution that National Parks can use to further their accessibility goals.
Golden Gate Recreational Area and Access Trax
Golden Gate Recreational Area, the most-visited location within the National Park Service in 2019 with 15 million visitors, uses Access Trax at two popular beaches: Crissy Field East Beach and Rodeo Beach. Visitors who use mobility devices like wheelchairs, walkers, and even parents with kids in strollers can enjoy Golden Gate Recreational Area’s pristine beaches with over 1,500 square feet of wheelchair accessible pathway.
According to Access Trax, routine maintenance for park staff is easy; they can simply sweep or use a leaf blower to clear sand or other debris off the accessible pathway. While Access Trax pathways are secured into the ground with stakes during installation, they can also be moved — all at once or in small sections — to allow the periodic grading of sand. The Access Trax panels even fold and stack for easy storage during the offseason.