Historically, outdoor spaces have been designed with solely the most able-bodied individuals in mind. Eventually, as car travel became more affordable and popular, driving routes which approach scenic features became quite the rage. Providing opportunities for increasing numbers of people to experience areas that they otherwise could not or would not, debate still lingers regarding these parkways and lots but one cannot argue that individuals previously not considered are visiting our resources in vast numbers.

Welcoming underexposed groups, with a focus on older generations and individuals with disabilities, to our nation’s unique and valuable features, is a key motivator for what I hope to accomplish in this field. As the population distribution continues to trend older for the foreseeable future, and as our country considers the wide range of individual abilities, service providers wishing to be successful and positively received will be wise to consider the needs of all visitors and utilize universal design. Sometimes, though, we needn’t redesign an entire park, exhaust precious budgets, and permanently alter landscapes in knee jerk reaction out of fear of liability and public perception; by communicating with present and potential stakeholders and visitors, we can temporarily affect our surroundings in ways that legitimately benefit all parties.

In our near future, a group of 120 students from a local school is coming to our park as part of their Problem-Based Learning program. Asking our office to guide at two separate sites for specific activities generally is a breeze, but this group has a variable which we have not previously considered: one of the students, a young lady, is permanently in a wheelchair and has a serious condition wherein the slightest jarring has significant impact on her health. The nature of nature is that the outdoors often presents obstacles, unstable terrain, and hazards which challenge all visitors. The young lady’s father, along with her teacher and vice-principal, visited our park to assess the areas where we anticipate taking the students.

One of our sites sits directly off the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail and is often an ideal location for invasive plant removal, one of the day’s planned activities. While in this area, our intention is to teach the students about running a transect for the purpose of data collection. Long story short, over the past year or so, Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Volunteer Management Office has accomplished tremendous progress in this spot, though it is still a wooded floodplain and comes with the typical inherent hazards of the outdoors. The father strongly requested that we not exclude his daughter from activities, nor segregate her from classmates, both of which are fully understandable, yet he also recognized the danger in which his daughter might find herself should we introduce her to a resource inappropriate for her condition. What are we to do?

Considering the requests of the father, our office examined our abilities, all the variables of the situation, and arrived at a solution about which we are very excited. Two of our Rangers, let’s call them “Dan” and “John”, joined me and Liz for an examination of the Towpath site. Our analysis showed that by improving an existing social trail off the Towpath, we could create a gentle trail for this girl to bring her wheelchair and input transect data on her tablet. Elsewhere, once she and her group are ready for invasive plant removal, we identified a proper area which could be prepped and allow the chair to motor so she can photos of her group working without being separated by distance or barriers. When she comes to the park, Dan, a gentle sort, will accompany her for the duration and consider her needs along the way.

Dan, Liz, and I set to work clearing brush, trimming plants, eliminating roots and rocks – creating a welcoming route while not negatively impacting the environment. This is what we all determined to be a “reasonable accommodation” – an alteration which would provide for the well-being of this young lady without placing undue burden on our office. Proud of the work we accomplished, we are excited to create an opportunity for this student to experience the outdoors in ways that, from our understanding, other parks have not been willing to consider. We can’t wait to have her and her classmates to the park!