Providing access to people with disabilities (PWDs) is an important aspect of society. For much of history, PWDs have been excluded from participation in much of what society has to offer. Part of this exclusion has come in the form of lack of physical access to desired areas for outdoor recreation.
Typically, when people think of providing access to PWDs, they think primarily in terms of ADA Accessibility. This type of accessibility is an important means of providing outdoor access, but it is not the only means. It is a fundamental slice of the pie, but it is still only a slice.
The vast majority of the natural environment is not and will never be ADA Accessible. There are many places in the world that cannot be accessed by many people without disabilities either. The overarching goal of providing outdoor access to PWDs is to increase the overall participation of PWDs in as many aspects of the outdoors as possible. This access will look and be different for different PWDs due to the wide range of people in the PWD demographic, and due to the wide range of assistive technology devices now available.
The fairly recent development of highly capable assistive technology for outdoor recreation has forever changed how the outdoors can be accessed by PWDs. No longer is the specifics of the person’s disability the sole limiting factor. Now, what matters is the capability of the mobility system created by the combination of the PWD and their assistive technology device.
Limiting PWDs to using only ADA Accessible areas is like limiting runners to only having 5K road races since not everyone can run more than 5K. Increasing the overall participation of people running means making it easier for runners to enter into any type of race from 5K to ultra-marathons. While this concept is intuitively obvious when referring to able-bodied people, it seems to be lost when referring to PWDs.
Access for PWDs is seen as a binary proposition. Either the area is ADA Accessible and thus desirable for PWDs, or it is not ADA Accessible and is thus undesirable for PWDs. This type of binary thinking has excluded many PWDs from enjoying access to much of the built and maintained outdoor recreation areas. Their needs have never been considered in the access process.
Recreational areas such as hiking and biking trails are by definition not natural features. They have been specifically designed and built to accommodate the anticipated needs of their users. These trails vary greatly in terms of difficulty to provide wide variability in the terrain to appeal to the greatest amount of people. This is why ski areas don’t just have beginner slopes which technically could be accessed by all. Varied terrain is a desired design feature intended to attract as many people to the ski resort as possible from beginner to expert.
Assume a hiking recreational area with 100 miles of trails. Maybe 1% (1 mile) is ADA Accessible. It could conceivable cost several hundred thousand dollars and many years for the process of building an additional one mile ADA trail. An alternative would be to build an additional ½ mile accessible trail and use the remaining funds to immediately begin the process of making some fraction of the existing 99% of trails more usable for PWDs.
In this case, it is likely that of the 99% of non-ADA trails, at least 10% of them would require minimal effort to increase the number of PWDs who could access them through the use of Low Hanging Fruit Access (LHFA) methods. As the name implies, LHFA involves starting the easiest trails to make more adaptive/usable for PWDs by removing the infrequent but significant barriers to access by appropriate assistive technology devices. If a trail has frequent or difficult to remove to barriers to access, then it is, by definition, not part of the scope of LHFA.
Recreational areas typically have some percentage of trails made for hikers who desire “easier” terrain in terms of leveler ground, fewer ground obstacles, and lessor incline/decline slopes and pitches. These trails may have several narrow bridges, rock walls, switchbacks, fallen trees, and tight areas which are impassible for an adaptive mobility device. Adapting these trails for wider usage may be as simple as moving a few rocks, widening a boardwalk, cutting some trees, and improving signage information. These examples illustrate the concept of providing LHFA.
In essence, trails are designed and built to accommodate the needs of their likely users. Providing LHFA means expanding the scope of potential users to include PWDs using trail appropriate assistive technology. Trail makers assume that able-bodied hikers and mountain bikers will also be using trail appropriate assistive technology in terms of proper footgear and suitable bicycles. The trail is constructed with those capabilities and limitations in mind. LHFA means adding a few more (easy to accomplish) considerations to making a more comprehensive list.
Using the prior example of 100 miles of trails, assume that 10% of the trails could be made more usable to PWDs for the cost of building a ½ mile ADA trail. The final result would be 1.5 miles of ADA trails, 10 miles of adaptable/usable trails, and 89 miles of “typical” trails for the same cost of having 2 miles of ADA trails. The increase of trails available to PWDs goes from 100% to 1,050%! The additional 10 miles of adapted trails has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of PWDs along with their families and friends. While the difference of going from 1.5 to 2 miles of ADA trails doesn’t have nearly the same effect.
Constructing an ADA Accessible Trail is a multi-year approval, fundraising, and construction process. On the other hand, LHFA can begin immediately with your existing trail crew (or a bunch of volunteers). They start by picking off the lowest hanging fruit obstacles first and gaining experience, knowledge, and momentum. The LHFA method provides the biggest bang for utilizing the limited number of resources available.