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Adapting courses can encourage all to participate in adventure programs

By Alison Voight and Alan Ewert


Changing the Physical Environment

The final method for encouraging participation of all people is to change the physical environment. When we consider changing the physical environment, there are four areas for contemplation:

  • Universal design
  • Course adaptations
  • Element adaptations
  • Design considerations

Universal design involves making activities usable and accessible by all people so no one feels separate or “special.” Challenge courses that are universally designed will offer multiple, meaningful levels of challenge. In many courses, this concept is already in existence. For instance, a facilitator may present the spider’s web feature to a group of participants with cognitive disabilities and say that if anyone touches the web at anytime, then the entire group must start over. A simple method of offering multiple levels of challenge is to make the adaptation that for every three touches, one person must go to the other side and start over, a very simple adaptation that follows the spirit of universal design. One key word in the description of universal design is meaningful. To change the physical environment and encourage participation of all people on a challenge course, we cannot simply make activities and elements easier: We must also make them meaningful.

The second step in changing the physical environment involves course adaptations. These might be some of the easiest changes to make and observe. Suggestions include widening trails and pathways to allow for a wheelchair to pass and to allow two people to walk side by side (e.g., a participant walking with a guide or assistive device). We must also consider the surfaces of those trails: Durable material that makes a smooth and solid surface free of tree roots and stumps will increase physical access to our courses.

Other considerations are the amount of shade at our challenge courses and the location and condition of restroom facilities. Wide-open areas with direct sunlight may pose difficulties for some who wish to participate in our challenge courses. Likewise, although portable toilets may be an economical choice for restroom facilities, they are certainly not inviting to participants who need extra space (or any people with olfactory senses). Other course adaptations could involve the manner in which information is delivered and disseminated. Braille brochures, large-print materials, and telephone typewriter/telecommunications device for the deaf (TTY/TDD) communication systems are three simple suggestions for opening our courses and advertising to a new clientele, a clientele who may be very interested in participating if the physical environment is adapted to their needs. An interesting note about all of these suggestions is that not only do they create a physical environment that is more inclusive for people with disabilities, but they also create a more comfortable environment for all participants.

In addition to adapting our courses, we can also adapt our elements to provide a more inclusive environment. For an excellent discussion of this idea, review the text by Rohnke and colleagues (2003). These authors provide an in-depth discussion of the adaptation of certain elements; however, designing activities that cater to participant strengths is the best way of making element adaptations. For instance, if you are working with a group of participants with severe physical impairments, try providing activities that are more cognitive than physical in nature. Brain teasers that require problem solving, thoughtful consideration, and creative solutions may be very acceptable activities for those who have limited physical mobility. Similarly, if participants have impairments in their lower extremities, providing activities that require more upper-body strength may be a viable adaptation. Regardless of the group we are working with, we traditionally select activities and elements that emphasize participant strengths; when we work with people of varying abilities, this idea must not change. What must change is our way of thinking about activity choices. If the “traditional” challenge course activities are the only ones we consider, we will have difficulties adapting our elements for our participants. Recently a challenge course facilitator described to me some of his frustrations and difficulties with trying to adapt current elements on our challenge course to include people with different abilities. In our conversation I came to understand that he was trying to use the existing elements that had not been created with universal design in mind. We were able to explore several new initiative activities that would work very well, but the more important result of the conversation was that we had to rethink the concept of challenge course elements that were specific to our course.

The final area of physical adaptations involves specific design considerations. Rohnke and colleagues (2003) provide an extensive discussion of issues such as determining platform height for transfers of people in wheelchairs, designing handholds that allow for different gripping abilities, changing the angles of ascent and descent for high elements and climbing walls, using trolley and scooters for mobility, incorporating belay systems on low elements, and using pulley systems. By designing our courses with these concepts in mind, we can create challenge courses that are physically designed to encourage people of all ability levels to participate.

Clearly, our challenge courses must be accessible. See the Assessing Challenge Course Access sidebar for a summary of components to keep in mind when planning a challenge course. But regardless of the physical accessibility of courses, if attitudes of staff and other participants are not welcoming and inclusive, it doesn’t matter how many physical changes we make to our courses. We must start with our thinking and our attitudes.

This is an excerpt from Inclusive Recreation: Programs and Services for Diverse Populations.



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