Access: An Experiential Perspective

It sounds simple to say that people want to go places, do things, and have fun in their spare time. For people with disabilities, however, going places, doing things and having fun isn’t always easy, and it’s rarely simple. In fact, it’s usually difficult and complicated; not just for these individuals, but also for the professionals who serve them. This is certainly true in the world of outdoor recreation. Because providing accessible solutions is difficult and complicated, providing accessible designs to accommodate people with disabilities is often overlooked, or worse, ignored.

Why are the accessible solutions overlooked or ignored?

First, let me be clear. It’s not my belief that professionals serving the recreation or leisure activities industries are deliberately  withholding services or not trying to do the best they can with scarce financial resources. Nonetheless, it’s my supposition that there are a few reasons why “accessibility”, or more specifically, program access is often overlooked or ignored. Briefly stated these are:

Laws can be complicated.

It is not unusual for several laws to apply on the same project. When guidelines become complicated, we are often tempted to look for simple solutions that meet minimum standards.

In the area of program access, the result can gut essential experiences, emotions and interpretations that might be essential for everyone to have an equal opportunity to access and enjoy programs.

Title II and Section 504 are subjective.

Here’s a simplistic paraphrase of Title II: programs, activities and services, when  viewed in their entirety, will be made accessible for qualified individuals.

Unfortunately, the regulations don’t tell us how. Too often the interpretation of Title II or Section 504 is limited to the built environment (i.e. how do I get to the program?) and not the experiential, emotional or educational aspect of the program itself.

ADA park

The Martin Park Nature Center Project – Oklahoma City, OK. Not every element within a location is required to be accessible. Title II and Section 504 require that “programs, activities, and services, when viewed in their entirety”, be made accessible. We achieved a holistic experience without having to modify this structure.

When guidelines are fuzzy, and considerable financial pressure on the project exists, designers and facility owners often shoot for minimum compliance, perhaps thinking, “If clear guidelines or definitions (what does program mean?) don’t exist, who is going to argue with my design?” The answer, of course, lies with the visitor. If the program (experience, emotion, education or information) isn’t as accessible the visitor believes it should, then a complaint may follow.

Most planners, designers and managers have limited perspective.

It’s hard to effectively design accessible programs if you’ve never experienced or thought deeply and frequently about the needs of a variety of disabled users. I am disabled, which means that I understand a lot about participating in programs and activities from a wheelchair. But my experience doesn’t automatically mean that I understand the needs of anyone with a sensory or cognitive disability. How does a person who is blind bird watch? How do you know unless you’re either blind or do some research? The same is true when architects are designing spaces and experiences to accommodate people with disabilities. To be effective you might need help.

Who cares, anyway?

Approximately 600,000 Oklahomans technically qualify as “disabled,” and many more are temporarily disabled.  Think back to the last time you visited the park, a museum a movie theater. How many people with a disability did you see? Probably not many: certainly not one in five visitors.

The absence of these visitors has led many to conclude that people with disabilities don’t want to go to the park, museum or other recreation venues. But that’s certainly not the case. For many of these visitors, simply getting to the venue is difficult, and, if there’s nothing to do when they get there, or the programs are extremely unfulfilling, you can be sure they won’t come back. Unfortunately, that’s the situation for many outdoor recreation facilities.

Program access in the area of outdoor recreation is essential. The proportionate number of people with disabilities increases geometrically with age and we live in an aging society. Despite the challenges I’ve listed above, it’s time to take a closer look at accessible design.

Jack McMahan

Jack McMahan is a guest blogger for The McIntosh Group and has co-presented with The McIntosh Group Principal Brad Gaskins at the AIA National Convention on the topic of Accessibility.  Jack is Executive Vice President at a Tier II accessibility management-consulting firm, Crossing the Chasm, LLC. Jack can be reached at


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