Bay Nature magazineFall 2006


Opening the Door to Nature for People with Disabilities

October 1, 2006

My love of nature started at an early age. I have vivid memories of Saturday outings with my dad in northern Michigan. We’d wake up early and head out to one of our favorite parks. We’d hike through the dense woods, along the edge of the lake, or up a steep hill to get a drink of water from a natural spring, a grand adventure for a seven-year-old girl. My father taught me the joys of listening for bird songs, of turning over rocks and leaves to discover what lay beneath them, and of exploring a stream bed for fossils. I treasured the peace that awaited me in the forest as we made our own paths through the leaves. In those days I could walk.

Today it’s a different story.

At age 15 I broke my neck in an all-terrain-vehicle accident. Now I use a motorized wheelchair to get around. I no longer explore streambeds or hike for hours in an isolated forest without encountering another person. More often than not, my enjoyment of nature is from a sidewalk in a crowded urban park, occasionally from the edge of a parking lot. If I want to find that lofty spot with a view, I generally need the assistance of a friend to get there.

My disability has not lessened my appreciation for nature or my desire to experience it. In fact, quite the opposite. These days I long even more to be outdoors, away from crowds and the daily challenges I face just getting around and getting by. Being disabled has definitely altered how, with whom, and where I get to enjoy nature. Now instead of thinking about where I want to go in nature, I have to think about where I can go.

John Muir once wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.” People are drawn to nature and the outdoors for a variety of reasons. Some people long for the solitude of the backcountry, some want a convenient urban recreational setting, while others like to participate in a strenuous activity that provides exercise and pushes their physical and mental boundaries. Personally I take great joy in learning about the natural history of a place, identifying the wildflowers, and then sharing that knowledge with family and friends.

When someone loses vision, or hearing, or use of their legs, they don’t also lose their need or desire to enjoy nature. Nor do their experiences become less rich and rewarding than those of people who have all their senses and limbs. Of course, if you’re a person who loves identifying birds or wildflowers, losing your eyesight will change that experience, but it doesn’t mean you can’t feel the satisfaction of identifying a flower or bird. You might even learn to distinguish between two birds of the same species by hearing the subtle differences in their songs, or learn to identify a plant’s family by touch.

Kathi Pugh grew up sailing. After a spinal cord injury left her a quadriplegic, with little or no use of all four limbs, she buried any thoughts of enjoying nature and delved into her work as an attorney. Then she learned of an adaptive sailing program in San Francisco, the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS), which uses (and even invents) adaptive equipment for boarding and sailing a range of boats. Her initial assumption was, “Oh great, they’ll put me in a dinghy and I’ll float around passively like a novice.” But on her first sail the thrill and wow factor was immediate and she was hooked again. Since then, she has achieved the status of skipper and can take boats out whenever she wants. She loves being in charge of the boat while her husband sits back and enjoys the ride, a switch in roles. Now there is a lot more to her life than just work.

According to the 2000 census, 54 million people—or almost 20 percent of the population—in the country are classified as disabled. That number includes people who are deaf, blind, or in wheelchairs—those we typically think of as disabled—as well as people with cognitive disabilities, heart and lung conditions, or degenerative diseases that impair activity.

Of course, even the most active of us could be considered temporarily able-bodied, as our physical abilities eventually diminish with age, and we are all subject to temporary disability from accident or illness. Would you be willing to give up being in nature if a broken ankle landed you in a wheelchair or on crutches for several months? Wouldn’t you still want to go out to see spring wildflowers? Do we just stop including our elderly parents in our nature outings?

Accessible nature outing
The Bay AreaOutreach and Recreation Program (BORP) sponsors a variety of accessiblenature outings, including this one to view the elephant seals at AnoNuevo State Park. Photo by Lawrence Robbin, courtesy of Coast and Ocean.

The pedestrian/bicycle bridge over Interstate 80 to Eastshore State Park in Berkeley is a clear example where accessibility benefits everyone. Previously, to get over the freeway to the Marina, bicyclists had to carry their bikes up the steep stairs and anyone with a stroller was plain out of luck. The new accessible bridge offers safe passage over I-80 for everyone.

Fortunately, we live in a time and place where access to the outdoors and nature is becoming easier for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, it took a civil rights movement and numerous state and federal laws to get us here, and there’s still a ways to go. While many people have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, fewer know of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandates accessibility in the built environment under specific circumstances. These laws are first and foremost civil rights and nondiscrimination laws and apply to government agencies as well as businesses and nonprofits. When enacted and enforced, these laws give people greater control of their lives and the ability to participate fully in the world around them.

There’s a natural tendency to want a one-size-fits-all solution, but that’s not the nature of access. There are many things to consider aside from accessibility laws: the wide-ranging needs of people with various disabling conditions; the particular characteristics of each site; the potential impact on natural and cultural resources; and the cost of infrastructure changes. Providing better access to nature doesn’t have to mean paving it over. In fact, proposed federal guidelines for “outdoor developed areas” have a lot of built-in flexibility, to make sure that increased accessibility is balanced with protection of historic, natural, and cultural features. In some instances, providing reasonable access—such as raised boardwalks over marshes—can even mean better protection for fragile ecosystems.

What’s key is that the ADA is not intended to provide equal benefit or enjoyment to everyone; it is intended only to allow a person with a disability the opportunity to benefit equally. In other words, the objective is to level the playing field, without flattening the ridge or filling the valley. Take Alcatraz Island, for example. The path from the dock to the hilltop cell block is long and steep. For many years, people with disabilities who couldn’t climb the hill were limited to watching a DVD of the cell block tour from the dock. It was an attempt to provide access, but it fell woefully short in the equal opportunity department. Thankfully, in 1998 the National Park Service instituted a shuttle for people who can’t climb the hill, finally providing access to a piece of our shared national heritage and a spectacular view of the Bay.

Even with access laws on the books for over 30 years, many significant changes have only come about through litigation. Under a 2005 court-ordered consent decree, California State Parks agreed to make all its parks, facilities, and programs more accessible. Some of these improvements include physical alterations, such as increasing the number of accessible trails; bringing restrooms, visitor centers, campsites, and parking areas up to code; and ensuring proper signage so that deaf people can navigate without having to ask for directions. Exhibits and interpretive programs must provide interpreters or captioned video for deaf people, or information in large print or audio for people who are visually impaired.

All existing parks and trails were surveyed—an enormous undertaking—and assigned a priority level based on such criteria as a park’s popularity, location, and the number and uniqueness of programs offered. A timeline for making the improvements was included and each priority level has corresponding deadlines, from July 2009 to July 2018.

For plaintiff Peter Mendoza, the suit was a way to finally take part in his family’s outdoor traditions. “My whole life I’ve listened to my grandparents and parents talk about the beauty of the natural world, places I could never get to,” he says. “I’ve learned sometimes you knock on the door to get in, but I finally had to knock down the door of State Parks to get access to those places my family raved about.” He is quick to point out that the department was responsive to the lawsuit and proved to be a willing and flexible negotiating partner. With more than 278 parks throughout the state, the California Department of Parks has the largest and most diverse natural and cultural heritage holdings of any state agency in the nation. According to Larry Paradis, executive director of Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and lead counsel in the suit, “with this settlement, California is on its way to having the most accessible parks system in the country.” The agency has committed to spending $10 million a year to that end.

So what difference is the settlement making on the ground? Mike Bielecki, transition plan manager for State Parks, says a number of local parks and trails have been improved recently, including the Verna Dunshee Trail at the top of Mount Tamalpais. The stairs there have been removed, allowing for an uninterrupted circle trip with fantastic views around the mountain top. Farther south, Frances State Beach in Half Moon Bay offers accessible campsites, paved trails, and a beach wheelchair. The California State Parks web site ( has a page that lists other accessible areas.

After receiving numerous complaints from disabled nature enthusiasts, DRA approached the East Bay Regional Park District in 2003 about its lack of accessibility compliance. EBRPD conducted an access evaluation in the 1970s, but the effort had ended there. District officials acknowledged the agency had come up short, turning a potential confrontation and lawsuit into a fruitful collaboration, with the district agreeing to dedicate half a million dollars a year toward improvements. A new comprehensive access survey has been completed, with staff from each site identifying and ranking the most popular programs and activities. Improvements will be prioritized based on which programs provide the most complete experience. For example, if a site offers a kite-flying area, nature walks, and camping, the camping would most likely be given the top priority for access improvements.

Mike Anderson, Assistant General Manager for Planning, Stewardship and Development, says he and other district staff have come to realize that the changes will “improve everyone’s park experience, not just for people with disabilities.” He cites a new floating pier at Quarry Lakes in Fremont built to provide disabled access to the water. Previously, people fished from either boats or the lake’s steep, rocky bank. The pier enables everyone to have access to deeper water without a boat. Not surprisingly, even nondisabled fishermen are enthusiastic about the pier.

Larry Paradis, a wheelchair rider himself, hopes these cases set a precedent for other states and agencies to recognize their responsibility to provide access. DRA is now in talks with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Paradis says he’s found that “once you get to the right people, who intuitively understand their mission to ‘serve the public,’ they willingly get behind serving those who have historically been excluded from the parks.”

Crab Cove Nature Center
On another BORP trip, participants visit the Crab Cove Nature Center at Crown Beach in Alameda. The docent/guide is holding a harbor seal pelt, to providetactile information about the Bay’s wildlife for blind participants.Photo by Patty Zierman, East Bay Regional Park District.

From whitewater rafting to rock climbing to surfing, Bay Area-based organizations are challenging people’s perception of what disabled people can do, and what they might want to do, outdoors. Michael Muir, great grandson of John Muir, is an avid horseman. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at an early age, Michael took to driving horse-drawn carriages as a way to continue his passion for horse riding. Today, through his organization Access Adventure, he offers wheelchair-accessible carriage rides in areas that would otherwise be off-limits for people in wheelchairs. Muir’s aim is to “offer a sense of freedom to people who might otherwise feel stuck in their wheelchairs or homes.”

Advances in technology, such as the development of handcycles and sit-skis, have opened a lot of doors. Berkeley-based Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP), which offers everything from hiking to sailing and birding to wheelchair basketball, has a wildly popular cycling program. Every weekend people of all ages, skill levels, and abilities hit the trails and streets of the Bay Area.

San Francisco-based Environmental Traveling Companions was the first group in the nation to offer river rafting and sea kayaking trips to people with disabilities. ETC’s trained volunteer guides include many people with disabilities who started out as participants and are now helping others follow in their footsteps.

BAADS and BORP and ETC have all developed innovative and creative ways of getting people with disabilities out into the natural world, and the enormous popularity and success of their programs have shown us what’s possible when we think and act inclusively. George Covington, former White House adviser on disability, said it best: “You have to ramp the human mind or the rest of the ramps won’t work.” It’s not just about obeying a law; it’s about wanting to share what we all get from contact with nature and the outdoors. For those of us who believe passionately that a connection with nature is a powerful tool in making the world a better place, we can start by welcoming the opportunity to share the natural world with people different from ourselves.

When I got my first motorized wheelchair ten years ago, I cried. Not from joy but from the painful realization that I was more disabled than I had wanted to admit. Then a few weeks later, on my first hike from Inspiration Point in Tilden Park, I cried again, this time from elation on realizing that my wheels offered me a way back to nature. I took delight in the wind against my face as I flew down the hills; instead of worrying about how I’d make it back uphill, I got to linger and enjoy the sunset. Today I’m driven to help other people with disabilities find ways to climb their own mountain, to ride the rapids of a scenic river, or hike the shoreline near their homes. After all, the more of us there are going out into nature to do these things, the more likely it is that those mountains, rivers, and shorelines will be preserved for all of us for many more years to come.

This article appeared in our print supplement Accessible Outdoors: Opening the Door to Nature for People with Disabilities. Copies can be purchased for $3.00 each in Bay Nature’s online store. Bulk discounts are also available: Please contact for more information.

About the Author

Bonnie Lewkowicz is the director of Access Northern California, a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater access to recreation and travel for people with disabilities. She is also the author of A Wheelchair Rider's Guide: San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast, published by the Coastal Conservancy (2006).

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