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Predating the ADA, This Park County Camp Is A Prime Example Of Accessibility In Nature

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Henry Zimmerman
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KUNC
One of two boardwalk trails at Wilderness on Wheels, a 20-acre camp in Park County that boasts accessible fishing, hiking, camping and more.

Through the pandemic, outdoor recreation has emerged as critically important to our state’s economic recovery. National and state parks here are reporting record visitation, and businesses that sell outdoor gear have gotten a shot to the arm thanks to all the extra interest.

And while the pandemic might have driven much of the recent interest, the outdoor recreation industry has been growing a lot over the past few years. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the outdoor recreation economy in the United States is bigger than ever before — and bigger than sectors like mining and agriculture.

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Henry Zimmerman / KUNC
Visitors spend time fishing at the accessible pond up at Wilderness on Wheels.

But as important as outdoor recreation is to the overall economy, not everyone is a part of this boom due to accessibility issues. These issues can make it difficult, or sometimes impossible, for people with certain disabilities to access recreation hotspots. But it’s also more than that. Attitudes surrounding access and who should be able to be a part of outdoor recreation have limited what opportunities are reasonably available to people who have a disability.

Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has sought to address these issues. The landmark civil rights legislation kicked off a new era of accessibility and has shaped the way our country looks, weaving accessibility standards into everything from sidewalks to doorframes. But outdoor recreation wasn’t an early focus of the ADA, and that’s meant progress in this area has been slower.

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Henry Zimmerman / KUNC
The Bellamys pose for a photo with foundation president, Alison Kessler. Top, left to right: Justin Bellamy; Alison Kessler. Bottom, left to right, Beth and Jahki Bellamy.

But in Park County, a 20-acre camp called Wilderness on Wheels has been making progress since the mid-1980s, before the ADA became law. Now in its 35th year, it's a rare example of how to keep accessibility at the forefront of experiencing nature.

Colorado Edition's Henry Zimmerman takes us up to see the experience they've been working on for decades, and to meet the folks who run the camp, Beth and Justin Bellamy, former caretaker Barb Cramer and current president of the foundation for Wilderness on Wheels, Alison Kessler.

Zimmerman also explores the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how it has shaped accessibility and attitudes towards people with disabilities, with Emily Shuman. Shuman is the director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, one of 10 regional centers across the U.S. that provide information, guidance and training on the ADA.

Interview Highlights
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: Can you give us an idea across the Rocky Mountain region what accessibility looks like in general?

Emily Shuman: About 20% of Coloradans have disabilities, which is about one in five people. That includes all kinds of disabilities. So everything from what we call obvious disabilities, things like being in a wheelchair or using some other sort of mobility device or perhaps using a seeing-eye dog for a person who's blind. But then also invisible disabilities or non-obvious disabilities — that would be the majority. And so that could be anything from cognitive disabilities, mental illnesses, lots of other types of conditions that wouldn't be obvious to the naked eye.

When we talk about accessibility within the region, all of those different types of disabilities are going to have different accessibility needs. Whether that's a physical access barrier, like being able to get your wheelchair into a building, or it might be an attitudinal barrier that a person faces. What kind of stereotypes do they face because of their disability? Or what are the attitudes of other people toward them? So, you know, accessibility, it's a really broad topic and it's kind of individualized, right? Every single person is going to need something a little bit different than the next person.

How has our general view of accessibility changed since the ADA was signed into law?

I think we used to view accessibility as simply removing those physical barriers, making sure that there are curb ramps and elevators. That there are accessible parking spaces, things like that. Now, when we talk about accessibility, we're talking about attitudes as well. And we're also talking about alternatives that are not always structural in nature. You know, we can provide accessibility sometimes without having to redesign a building or tear out a sidewalk.

There are opportunities to innovate with accessibility, opportunities to find new ways of doing things. And often when we find new ways of doing things for people with disabilities, a lot of times that provides more opportunities and better access for non-disabled folks as well. So, I would definitely say that we're shifting from, you know, such an intense focus on physical access to some of those more innovative approaches to accessibility.

How does the ADA interact with things like hiking or trails or that kind of infrastructure as opposed to, say, like new construction development?

The ADA does contain some pretty specific regulations for those things. Physical spaces are governed by something called the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which applies to like what you were talking about, new constructions and major alterations of facilities. But the 2010 standards actually also contain a whole chapter on recreational facilities, including some of those outdoor recreation spaces. So the ADA does have some specific guidelines on the accessibility of those things.

Also, many of the outdoor recreation, parks and trails, things like that, are managed and owned by state and local governments, which would be covered under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and under Title II, state and local governments have to provide what's called program access. If you see your state parks as a program — which that's how that would be defined under the ADA — then when viewed in their entirety, they have to be accessible for people to enjoy and benefit from that.

What does the future of accessibility look like to you?

I think the future of accessibility is really going to be making sure that everybody has equal access to digital spaces and online spaces. We also need to continue to do work tackling those attitudinal barriers that face people with disabilities and making sure that microaggression, implicit bias, those types of unintentional attitudinal discrimination doesn't occur. And I think the first step is education awareness. And then, like I said, exposure and integration with people who are different from one another. And that's always going to be the best way to tackle those attitudinal barriers.

This story was originally aired as a part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Aug. 2, 2021. You can find the full episode here.

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