Beyond ADA Accessibility in National Parks: Q&A with Access Trax Co-Founder Kelly Twichel
National Parks have come a long way when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities, but there are still a few barriers that should be addressed to make the outdoors a destination for all. While the National Park Service (NPS) is required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) — now in its 30th year — individual National Parks have varying degrees of accessibility.
Sequoia National Park Path Source: @picsbyjameslee
What’s more, accessibility laws like the Architectural Barriers Act state exceptions to requiring accessibility. If construction of accessible features will alter a historical site in such a way as to cause "substantial impairment,” or if it causes "undue financial or administrative burden," entities can legally bypass accessibility requirements. Despite this, the NPS and other outdoor administrations have noticeably upped their accessibility game in recent decades. The rise in adaptive technology invented and manufactured by private companies in the accessibility space has only served to make accommodations more universal and cost-effective.
Source: Access Trax Facebook
We caught up with Kelly Twichel, co-founder of Access Trax, to get her take on accessibility for people with disabilities in National Parks. You can learn more about Kelly and her work with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the Access Trax website.
Q: How do you think National Parks can improve their current accessibility in general?
A: From what I've seen and heard, there are a few common barriers to (physical) accessibility in parks: stairs or steps at facility entrances, doorways that are not wide enough to accommodate a mobility device, inaccessible routes to features (for example, a stable pathway going to a building or amphitheater), trails or pathways that are too narrow, and not enough accessible features in general, such as trails and campsites. Addressing these issues can be met with innovation and creativity. For example, you don't have to pour concrete everywhere to make a place accessible. You can still preserve the landscape while incorporating Universal Design. Assistive technology can also help make adventure attainable— for example, some parks have purchased (or had donated) a few all-terrain wheelchairs in an effort to make trails and outdoor areas in general available to more people. Individuals can use the power or manual chairs for a few hours and enjoy all the park has to offer!
Source: Access Trax
Q: When did you realize Access Trax could be of use in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and how did that partnership begin?
A: There have been a lot of really serendipitous connections to key people on my journey with Access Trax. In January 2019, I was referred to an artist, Zach Pine, from San Francisco who wanted to know if I could donate some mats for his outdoor sand sculpture event. While I didn't have the resources to donate at the time, I asked if there was any other way I could help. We decided I would travel to San Francisco for his event and bring mats to volunteer with. This way, there would still be inclusive beach access. As it turns out, Zach was friends with the Accessibility Coordinator for the Golden Gate Recreational Area and he connected us. I was able to set up a meeting to demonstrate my portable pathway during that two-day trip. It was incredible! Within a few minutes of seeing the product, the Coordinator liked what he saw enough to place an order. And the mysterious person who originally connected me to Zach? That happened to be Bonnie Lewkowicz, a leader in advocating for access to the outdoors, tourism, and the founder ofAccess Northern California. I had the pleasure of thanking Bonnie in person on a second trip to San Francisco later in 2019.
Q: Are partnerships with any other National Parks or outdoor recreation areas in the works?
A: In 2019 I compiled a list of my top 10 parks that I would love to work with. It turns out that it is not so easy to find out who the Accessibility Coordinator for each park is. Sometimes that job title just doesn't exist, so you have to contact the Superintendent and hope they have the time to speak with you and know enough about accessibility to see the potential. Budget cuts have been a huge factor in being able to work with more parks. Unfortunately, sometimes a budget allocation to accessibility projects only becomes a priority after a park has been sued for non-compliance. I hate to learn that so much money was lost when it could have been very easily (and cost-effectively) prevented. Furthermore, there is a huge backlog in maintenance and restoration projects across the NPS, so that makes it hard to spend funds elsewhere.
The good news is that I am finding more and more nonprofits dedicated to the needs of National Parks. One such organization purchased a $12,000 all-terrain power wheelchair in 2019 so visitors of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park in Michigan can enjoy nature. I hope to work with more organizations like this to serve our parks.
Q: What do you want people to know about accessibility in outdoor spaces?
A: I think it is important to know that the outdoors is for everyBODY. There are so many benefits to being outside in nature, whether you're exercising, socializing, or adventuring. When it comes to accessibility, each person's needs are going to be unique. The ADA does a great job of setting a minimum standard, but I encourage people to go beyond that. Get input from a diverse group of people, look at what other organizations are doing, and don't be afraid to think outside of the box. With collaboration and dedication, we can all be problem-solvers!
Q: What do you want people to know about Access Trax?
A:Access Trax was inspired by adaptive surfers needing to get across the sand in their wheelchairs so they can get out and do what they love. I'm dedicated to breaking down those physical barriers so everyone can access the outdoors, whether it's for surfing, camping, or visiting a National Park. But my company isn't just about the environmental barriers — I am also dedicated to advocacy and education so we can start to break down the attitudinal barriers in society. Inclusion and Universal Design should be concepts everyone understands and uses. It is my hope that someday, this becomes a reality so that accessibility design features are second nature in our communities.