As a result of the pandemic, outdoor recreation has proven critical to our state’s economic recovery. National and state parks here are reporting record visits, and companies selling outdoor gear stand a chance thanks to the added interest.
And while the pandemic may have piqued much of the recent interest, the outdoor recreation industry has grown significantly in recent years. A recent report from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the outdoor recreation economy in the United States is bigger than ever – and bigger than sectors like mining and agriculture.
Henry Zimmerman / KUNC
Visitors spend time fishing in the accessible pond in Wilderness on Wheels.
But as important as outdoor recreation is to the overall economy, not everyone is part of this boom due to accessibility issues. These problems can make it difficult or sometimes impossible for people with certain disabilities to access leisure hotspots. But it’s more than that. Attitudes towards access and who should be able to participate in outdoor recreation have limited the options that are reasonably available to people with a disability.
Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has attempted to address these issues. Breakthrough civil rights legislation ushered in a new era of accessibility and shaped the look of our country by incorporating accessibility standards into everything from sidewalks to door frames. But outdoor recreation wasn’t an early focus of the ADA, and that means progress in this area has been slower.
Henry Zimmerman / KUNC
The Bellamys pose for a photo with Foundation President Alison Kessler. Above, left to right: Justin Bellamy; Alison Keßler. Below, from left to right, Beth and Jahki Bellamy.
But in Park County, a 20-acre camp called Wilderness on Wheels has been making headway since the mid-1980s, before the ADA became law. In its 35th year it is a rare example of how accessibility can be kept in the foreground of the experience of nature.
Colorado Edition’s Henry Zimmerman takes us to see the experiences they have been working on for decades and to meet the people who run the camp, Beth and Justin Bellamy, former caretaker Barb Cramer and current president of the Wilderness Foundation on Wheels. Alison Keßler.
Zimmerman also explores the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act with Emily Shuman and how it has shaped accessibility and attitudes towards people with disabilities. Shuman is the director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, one of 10 regional centers in the United States that provides information, guidance, and training on ADA. A transcript of this conversation is available below, which has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Henry Zimmerman: In the Rocky Mountain area, can you give us an idea of what accessibility is like in general?
Emily Shuman: About 20% of Colorado’s residents have a disability, that’s about one in five people. This includes all types of disabilities. So all of what we call obvious disabilities, things like sitting in a wheelchair or using some other type of mobility aid or maybe using a guide dog for a blind person. But then also invisible disabilities or invisible disabilities – that would be the majority. And that can be anything from cognitive disabilities, mental illness, and many other types of conditions that are not obvious to the naked eye.
If we talk about accessibility in the region, all of these different types of disabilities will have different accessibility needs. Whether it is a physical access barrier, such as the ability to get your wheelchair into a building, or an adjustment barrier that a person may face. What stereotypes do you face because of your disability? Or what are other people’s attitudes towards them? So accessibility is a very broad topic and somehow individual, right? Each and every person will need something different from the next person.
How has our general understanding of accessibility changed since the ADA was signed?
I think we used to see accessibility as simply removing those physical barriers by making sure there were curb ramps and elevators. That there are barrier-free parking spaces, things like that. When we talk about accessibility now, we are also talking about attitudes. And we also speak of alternatives that are not always structural in nature. You know, we can sometimes provide accessibility without remodeling a building or tearing down a sidewalk.
There are opportunities for innovation with accessibility, opportunities to find new ways of doing things. And often when we find new ways to do things for people with disabilities, it often offers more opportunities and better access for the non-disabled as well. So I would definitely say that we are shifting from such an intense focus on physical access to some of these more innovative approaches to accessibility.
How does the ADA interact with things like hiking trails or such infrastructures in contrast to new buildings, for example?
The ADA has some pretty specific rules for these things. Physical spaces are subject to what is known as ADA’s 2010 Accessibility Design Standards, which, like what you talked about, involve new constructions and major changes to facilities. In fact, the 2010 standards also contain a whole chapter on recreational facilities, including some of these outdoor recreational spaces. So the ADA has some specific guidelines on the accessibility of these things.
Also, many of the outdoor recreational activities, parks and trails, such things are managed and owned by state and local governments, which would fall under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and under Title II, state and local governments have to provide what is known as program access . If you see your state parks as a program – that is how it would be defined under the ADA – then they have to be accessible in their entirety to people so that they can enjoy and benefit from it.
What does the future of accessibility look like for you?
I think the future of accessibility will really ensure that everyone has equal access to digital spaces and online spaces. We must also continue to work to address the hiring barriers that people with disabilities face and ensure that microaggression, implicit bias and these types of unintentional discrimination based on hiring do not occur. And I think the first step is to become aware of education. And then, as I said, meeting and integrating with people who are different. And that will always be the best way to break these hiring barriers.
This story originally aired as part of the Colorado Edition of KUNC for August 2, 2021. You can find the full episode here.