One of Ray Bloomer’s first trips to Missouri’s Gateway Arch National Park, in the 1980s, began at the gift shop. There, he purchased a figurine of the famous arch and traced his fingertips along its steep curve, creating from touch a mental image of the structure.
Back then, this was the best way for Bloomer, who is blind, to interact with the exhibit. He repeated this method when touring other attractions, like the masonry fort at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida. Today, there are better ways for Bloomer to enjoy his favorite places—in particular, national parks.
Over the last several decades, the National Park Service has taken steps to make its sites accessible to more people. It has updated many natural sites and exhibits within visitor centers to include tactile features, audio description and Braille. NPS has redesigned physical spaces like bathrooms to accommodate wheelchair users and has restructured some trails to be, among many things, wide enough and graded in a way that is accessible for wheelchair users. Gateway Arch, for instance, now has touchable images of its main attraction, an addition that Bloomer, who is an accessibility specialist with the WASO Accessibility Support Program, helped design. A model of a school bus provides visitors with a sense of scale.
Some of these improvements can be credited to legislation meant to bolster accessibility, like the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, which mandates that buildings be accessible to people with disabilities, and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which requires that federally funded programs can be enjoyed equally by those with disabilities. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 and has been updated over the years, provides standards for accessible design, including the width and steepness of walkways. These measures helped pave the way for a decade of growth in park accessibility, Bloomer says.
But while these laws served as the impetus for making NPS facilities and experiences accessible, Jeremy Buzzell, manager of the NPS Accessibility Support Program, says that demands from visitors and employees have been the driver for continued improvements.
“People with disabilities have been asserting their rights to access for decades, and that includes access on public lands,” he says. “As society itself has become more accessible, the NPS needed to keep pace with consumer expectations and advances in technology and focus on inclusion of underserved communities.”
But there’s still work to be done and the process can be slow. Budget constraints are part of the challenge. The organization has long grappled with a list of deferred maintenance and repair need that in 2020 reached $12 billion and today is $21.8 billion. The backlog includes road repairs, trail updates and necessary fix-ups to utility systems. Some of this backlog will be addressed by funding from the Great American Outdoors Act, which in 2020 allocated up to $6.5 billion over the next few years toward national parks’ maintenance needs. Given that accessibility improvements to infrastructure depend on general improvements, the progress is gradual.
And some visitors say the existing updates to parks haven’t been enough.
In June, Alex Wegman, a wheelchair user, drove to California’s Joshua Tree National Park with her husband and two children. They wanted to hike as a family, and Wegman’s husband and young children, ages 6 and 4, hoped to boulder. But despite having researched the park for hours to identify campsites and trails that would accommodate her wheelchair, Wegman discovered that much of what she and her family planned wasn’t an option for her. Their campsite was too far from their van for her to access. Many trails they’d planned to explore lacked features that made them hike-able with her wheels. And the bathrooms, even those marked as accessible, had a 6-inch step that prevented Wegman from entering them without her husband’s help.
“The other thing I’ve found frustrating and a little surprising is the whole park only had one trail marked ADA,” she says. “There were a lot of spaces that could have been manicured just a little bit differently, and they would have been accessible.”
Even man-made trails at the park—for example, a children’s discovery trail—weren’t hike-able. She identified a few paths she could trek, but, more often, she retreated to the van to read a book while her family bouldered and hiked.
“[My family] got to be super active, and everyone was beat by the end of the day,” she says. “I was just twiddling my thumbs a lot.”
This isn’t her first time feeling disappointed by a park’s offerings. During a separate trip to Yellowstone, Wegman says she couldn’t access about half the buildings or campgrounds, nor could she take her hiking wheelchair on the park’s trails.
Her most consistent frustration, though, is that even when parks make improvements to their trail systems or visitor centers—for instance, creating trails wide enough for a wheelchair or offering the option to rent a hiking wheelchair—they don’t make the information easy for trip planners to find. And the accessibility labels themselves are often too broad to provide people like Wegman a clear understanding of whether something will be available to them. Because of this, planning for a typical park trip can cost Wegman between six and 10 hours of research time to understand what trails, campsites and other attractions are accessible. This doesn’t include the effort it takes to book the campsites or build an itinerary.
“Things are either marked as accessible or not accessible,” she says. “There’s no in-between, and the criteria [parks] use to mark as accessible is too general for people to know whether they can or can’t access the trail.”
Wegman depends on trail reviews from other wheelchair users to decide whether a hike is doable. She also searches for feedback left by people toting strollers because they generally require the same wide, debris-free paths that Wegman needs. But this process is cumbersome and occasionally misleading, given that needs vary from person to person. Disabilities come in many forms—visual impairments, physical limitations and chronic illness, among many other things. And even within those identities, abilities and needs can vary. For instance, while some wheelchair users may prefer short, level trails, others may crave inclines and longer distances.
Wegman says she would like to see park officials offer specifics about trail features, like whether the path has stairs or involves bouldering of any kind; whether there are known obstacles like large tree roots that could block a wheelchair; what the path’s steepest incline is; and what materials were used to construct the trail. She also wants those details to be easier to find—a sentiment echoed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, a disability rights advocate and program manager of Access Northern California at Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program.
Right now, Lewkowicz says there’s a major “information barrier.”
“It takes an insurmountable amount of work to find information on a park’s website to see whether it’ll meet accessibility needs—if the website is even accessible for someone who, say, uses a screen reader,” she says.
Too often, details on park accessibility are layered beneath other information or included in disparate places on a website. She says this is one of the first problems that needs solving, adding that she’d also like to see organizations and businesses—including national parks—create a culture of considering all types of needs when designing new features.
“[Access often] only gets attention when there’s a problem,” she says. “There aren’t preventative measures taken.”
That’s not to say everyone is at odds with the trail systems. Some people are happy with the rate at which parks are improving. Bloomer is one of them. But Wegman’s frustrations are also very real—her experience is that accessibility varies considerably from park to park. And her trips don’t always satiate her appetite for adventure.
“If you’re talking to someone who is mostly OK with short walking tours, I’m not surprised to hear the parks are pretty accessible,” she says. “But for someone like me who wants more grit and adventure, I don’t think they are.”
For now, that largely means the park experience is one that can leave some people feeling renewed by nature—and others grappling with the disappointment of not having access to the version of adventure they want.
“It is frustrating.” Wegman says. “When we have built environments that accommodate other kinds of vehicles and bodies, but people who can’t get around on two feet aren’t considered, it feels like a snub, it feels careless and it feels like a waste of resources.”
For those who want to help improve access, Lewkowicz suggests contacting the ADA coordinator of a particular establishment, should they have one. You can then write a formal letter detailing the complaint. Lewkowicz says she often works with these coordinators first before taking further action in the form of a lawsuit.
“The burden of access shouldn’t fall on the consumer, but the reality is most parks don’t know their access shortcomings,” she explains. “They usually appreciate me telling them about the barriers that I’ve encountered. I believe it takes a dialogue and collaboration.”