Outdoor Policy: Equity for the Disability Community

Signal Group

Signal Intern Tanvi Chopra discusses creating access and quality outdoor experiences for people with disabilities.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the U.S. and around the world, marginalized communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by unequal vaccine distribution, higher rates of death, employment, housing, and financial insecurity. Throughout the pandemic, the outdoors has become a critical component of our lives and an outlet we have come to rely upon. Many of us have leveraged outdoor venues for health and wellness, a temporary escape from the pandemic, and a place to safely gather and explore with family. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the outdoors and as our policymakers consider solutions to make the outdoors for all, it will be important to consider policies that create access and quality outdoor experiences for people with disabilities.
There are several roadblocks that currently exist that prevent people with disabilities from accessing the natural world, including institutional issues, visual barriers, the lack of relevant assistive technologies, unreliable transportation infrastructure, and physical barriers. These are difficult challenges, but they are important, timely, and need to be a part of the policy discussion.
Why This Matters: The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional barriers for people with disabilities, making some more susceptible to the virus and as a result, more isolated. Many of these people may not have the accessible tools and resources to stay mentally and physically fit while quarantined. However, independent of the pandemic and the way it exacerbates these barriers, the benefits of the outdoors should be available to everyone—regardless of their identities, visible or not. It must be another part of creating an environment where disability is a normal part of life. The definition of whether a space is “accessible” may vary, and with so many, there is no singular formula—like building a ramp or implementing handrails—for providing accessibility across the board. To create a safe space for individuals with disabilities to experience the outdoors, it starts with acknowledging that this community exists and providing the means for them to be outdoors.
It is critical to acknowledge there are no requirements for the federal government to make things accessible, yet federal agencies are putting in the work to keep the intended experience of the outdoors for all people to enjoy. For example, the National Park Service has committed to evaluate both ongoing and new construction sites and projects with accessibility in mind. It is through the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504, accessibility in national parks can garner more attention and move things forward by putting pressure on taxpayer dollars to receive federal grants. The question remains how do we ensure that all parts of the government are willing to do the work to ensure inclusivity for all?
In order to drive the conversation around creating more access and opportunity for people with disabilities, the private sector, the public and Congress can work to gather to achieve shared goals through public policy. These include:
The Need to be Innovative: The outdoors needs to be a space that is reflective of what America is. The path to inclusion means constantly thinking of new ways to ensure that everyone is included and when they are, how do we ensure that they remain involved and active. It includes understanding the different disabilities that people have and finding more opportunities to create equitable experiences, whether that be through audio descriptions, tactile technologies, the layout of walkways, etc. For example, a company called Local Motors created the Ollie Shuttle, which was an extremely creative way to design an autonomous accessible vehicle through global crowd-sourcing with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. It breaks down traditional models of R&D, which is often a huge part of the cost toward designing accessible solutions. Innovation and technology can be the key to getting more people with disabilities outdoors and dismantling some of the roadblocks to access the natural world safely and with meaning.
Connecting with the Disability Community: The disability community has an ally problem. When it comes to creating policies, starting the planning process, or creating inclusive spaces, too often, the voices of people with disabilities are overridden by those with privilege. The people who are exposed to the problems, are the ones who have the solutions. In other words, the disability community’s lived experiences need to be at the forefront of this discussion because they have the answers to these complex questions since they have been living in the midst of this crisis. It is necessary for a comprehensive strategy that deals with disproportionate impacts and brings people with disabilities to the table in decision-making involving them at the federal, state, local levels.
Basing it off Experience: The outdoors is considered to be a safe recreation space for new experiences and allows many people like me to distress from all the chaos that is packaged with life. However, the outlet that it is for so many of us, simultaneously denies so many others from partaking in the beauty it has to offer. The way to address this is to base how the outdoors makes many of us feel for all people to feel – bring others into our shoes while adapting the outdoor space where possible to include them.
Willing to Make Tough Policy Changes: Although ADA compliance is not mandatory everywhere, there must be a willingness to engage and coordinate with it throughout the federal level. Albeit the pandemic is ongoing and policies moving through the House and the Senate are focused on improving the economy but creating accessibility in the outdoor space can be a part of that solution. Investing in outdoor infrastructure can help better connect communities to jobs and stimulate the economy. While eradicating the barriers people with disabilities experience, the opportunities within the outdoor policy space can also be a step in finally solving the nation’s larger, systemic issues and the broader, national conversation around equity.
Why We Need to Do More: No one bill will undo the generations of injustices and discrimination against the disability community. The answer is that more needs to be done, whether that be improving transportation infrastructure; improving the recreational permitting systems of the federal land management agencies to meet the needs of all people; or creating adaptive recreation opportunities like audio descriptions. Policy needs to be revolved around helping to identify easy access in outdoor spaces for persons with mobility, visual and auditory impairments. Additionally, the key is critically thinking and challenging ourselves to look past veils of fairness and tolerance to uncover deeper, entrenched systems of oppression and combat them. In order to so, we must have more dialogues with people with disabilities to ensure that they feel included and have a seat at every policy table.

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