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The Difference Between Accessible and Adaptable and Why it Matters – Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Wheelchair user pushing along a forest trail.
An adaptive nature trail in Maine.

Generally, when the word “accessible” in the United States is used in relationship to access for people with disabilities, it refers to ADA Accessible. For a place or a thing to be “accessible”, it has to meet some agreed upon standard that defines what it means to be accessible. In the United States, this standard is part of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and follows the accessibility codes/guidelines created by the United States Access Board.

Therefore, when something is described as “accessible” it is shorthand for saying that it complies with the legal standards of the United States Access Board or local architectural access boards that have jurisdiction in that area. Therefore, it is possible to describe every spot in the United States as either Accessible or not Accessible. Just like you are either married or you are not married. There is no gray area in between.

When it comes to utilitarian access to buildings, transportation, bathrooms, public venues, and the like, it makes sense to have this strict ADA Accessibility standard to guide construction and terminology. The Access Board standards for wheelchair access was based on the perceived physical capabilities and configuration of the standard wheelchairs of the 1990's. In other words, the standards conform to how the wheelchair and wheelchair users were perceived three decades ago for both manual and power wheelchairs.

Even today, the majority of the able-bodied population and organizations lump all types of wheelchairs and wheelchair users into a single category of “the wheelchair user”. Where wheelchair users are thought to only go to environments that are ADA Accessible and avoid all environments that are not ADA Accessible. It is important to recognize that from the non-wheelchair using perspective, this generalized lumping of accessibility makes things a lot easier to deal with. For example, the easiest thing for a business/landowner to do is to determine that it is too difficult to meet the legal standard of ADA Accessible and then do nothing. The second easiest thing to do is to make a tiny fraction of the environment ADA Accessible, and then not consider the rest, since it is not ADA Accessible.

For instance, what does a fully Accessible skateboard park look like? In order to meet the standards of the ADA, the majority of the skateboard park would have to be flat. Ramps could not have a slope steeper than 1 in 12. An Accessible skateboard park makes no sense. Nobody would want to use it. The very process of making it ADA Accessible would destroy the essence of the challenges and obstacles that draw people to go to skateboard parks in the first place.

What does a wheelchair adaptable skateboard park look like? Since “adaptable” doesn’t follow a specific standard, there could be a wide variety of interpretations. It would make sense that these interpretations (guidelines) were to be created by an organization familiar with wheelchair adaptive skateboarding (WCMX) and other forms of adaptive skateboarding. In my opinion, an Adaptive skateboard park would have ADA Accessible parking and ADA Accessible bathrooms. It would have ramp access to some percentage of features. In other words, it would be designed with wheelchair users in mind. Where the “wheelchair user” is not the generic “wheelchair user” envisioned by the ADA. The intended wheelchair user is described by the typical type of person and equipment used by people who actually use skateparks in wheelchairs.

The term “Accessible” is a legal standard, whereas “adaptable” is not. Adaptable is like the term “relationship”. It means different things to different people. A marriage is a subset of relationships just as Accessible is a subset of adaptable. Adaptable can be broad and expansive while Accessible is narrowly defined. When you make something Accessible, you also make it adaptable. But making something adaptable doesn’t necessarily mean that it is also Accessible.

Something that is adaptable is more usable to a larger population of people with disabilities. Some people like the term "Usable". I like "adaptable" since it follows the existing terminology of adaptive sports, adaptive handcycling, adaptive rock climbing, adaptive skiing, etc. Conceptually, "usable" and "adaptable" are interchangeable.

But why not just make everything universally ADA Accessible? Then everyone can use it, right? Ask yourself, what does an Accessible hiking trail the top of a mountain look like? They don’t exist. In order to keep the slope within the ADA standards, it would be impossible to build as a practical matter. How about an Accessible rock climbing route? When it comes to the natural environment, the vast majority of it will always be not ADA Accessible due to the inherent expense and undesirability of making it conform to Accessibility standards. But it would be possible to vastly increase the number of Adaptable trails and natural environments with not a huge amount of effort.

As I mentioned before, the easiest thing to do, is to do nothing. To claim that making something ADA Accessible is not technically possible and then forgetting about it. The second easiest thing to do is to make a tiny fraction of something ADA Accessible in order to check the "Accessible Box" and consider the job done. The previous methods represent the prevailing conventional style thinking that doesn’t account for the fact that people with disabilities are widely varied in terms of physical and mental capabilities, desire and willingness for challenge. Not all wheelchair users want to limit themselves to ADA Accessible environments.

For example, in Massachusetts, lists 29 miles of non-paved Accessible trails with many of these trails only ½ mile long. All Trails lists over 3,000 hiking trails (thousands of miles) in Massachusetts of which only 138 are listed as “Wheelchair friendly” which means Accessible. Of these wheelchair friendly/Accessible trails, I think we can safely assume that the majority of them are paved. While trying to be helpful, and All Trails are only thinking in terms of strict ADA Accessible rather than expansive adaptable. They assume, that either the trail is ADA Accessible or it is not of interest to wheelchair users and other people with disabilities.

How many of those 3,000 trails in Massachusetts could also be adaptable in some manner? Making trails more adaptable means increasing the scope of people who can actually use them by removing certain obstacles that prevent access from non-walking people.

For example, having an entry gate to a (non-accessible) trail wide enough to accommodate an off-road wheelchair or handcycle. Making sure that boardwalks to (non-accessible) trails are still ramped as opposed to having a step(s) and are also built wide enough to accommodate an off-road wheelchair or handcycle. Generally having more ramps/slopes and less steps. Removing trees, boulders, and tight sections that obstruct the trail creating blockage points. The overall concept is that while it may not be feasible or desirable to make a given trail fully Accessible, it can still be desirable and feasible to make it more adaptable. Making more adaptable trails can be done in conjunction with making more Accessible trails. In fact, more adaptability is the gateway to greater Accessibility because it is easier to accomplish. It will increase the usage and visibility of people with disabilities in the natural environment which leads to an increased acknowledgement of the need for more Accessibility.

“Adaptable” is a term that opens people’s minds to a variety of possibilities. It is about problem solving. It asks the question “How can we make this [thing] more usable to people with disabilities”. Whereas “Accessible” confines people’s thinking to following and adhering to traditional ADA standards which don’t account for the increased capability of modern mobility devices.

It is for these reasons that I feel the term “adaptable” should be used to describe generalized use and access by people with disabilities and “accessible” should be primarily employed to describe places and things that meet the standard of ADA Accessible.


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