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Breaking barriers: providing outdoor recreation opportunities for people with disabilities.

"A true friend knows your weaknesses, but shows you your strengths ... recognizes your disabilities, but emphasizes your possibilities."--William Arthur Ward, author and inspirational speaker

For many of us, motivation (or lack thereof) may be the biggest challenge to enjoying the outdoors. But for people with disabilities, the greatest challenge isn't motivation, it's access. Just imagine if you had to overcome barriers if you wanted to canoe, hike, hunt, fish or view wildlife from a nature trail.

Fortunately, many long-standing barriers for people with disabilities are coming down. DEC and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) are working to improve access and expand opportunities for all people to enjoy campgrounds, day-use areas, trails, streams, rivers and lakes. At the same time, dedicated organizations across New York offer programs to empower individuals with disabilities to participate in activities like paddling, skiing, cycling, fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming and more.

The dual goal--and challenge--is to create universally accessible resources and facilities, while also helping to educate and train individuals with disabilities so they have the necessary skills and support to partake in outdoor recreation activities. The progress being made to achieve universal access and promote "adaptive use" is opening up outdoor recreation to everyone.

Training & Skills

In New York, people with disabilities can find a number of programs that offer training, equipment and assistance to help them develop, employ and hone their skills in various sports and recreational activities. For example, Move Along, Inc. of Baldwinsville provides a range of inclusive programs in Central New York, including adaptive horsemanship. Using trained personnel and specialized adaptive equipment, the program develops a highly individualized plan for participants that adapts to a prospective rider's physical, cognitive and emotional needs. The goal is to help participants improve their muscle strength and flexibility, develop fine and gross motor skills, and build self-confidence. A key feature of the program is that it integrates people with disabilities with others who don't have disabilities so that everyone can enjoy nature and all it offers.

People might be amazed (and likely inspired) that a man whose leg was amputated would train to waterski, but a program offered by Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw made it happen. Another man whose legs were amputated trained to paddle a kayak. The physical rehabilitation hospital's staff worked with them on methods to maintain balance, practice their technique and gain confidence. Then, they were ready to hit the water--two examples of participants who received instruction and support in sporting activities offered through the hospital's Adapted Sports & Recreation Program. The program offers both competitive and recreational opportunities, including sailing, softball, downhill skiing, golf and other activities. "It's great when individuals try out a new activity or participate in a sport they may have played prior to being injured," says Eileen Andrassi, Director of Therapeutic Recreation. The hospital makes adaptive equipment available to any participant who may need it.

Universal access is essential to opening nature's doors to everyone, regardless of age or physical ability.

Winter enthusiasts can take advantage of several programs aimed at keeping them active. The Capital District Sled Warriors of STRIDE Adaptive Sports take to the ice each October for a competitive twist on traditional hockey. Sled hockey follows most of the typical ice hockey rules, but players sit in specially designed sleds that rest on top of two hockey skate blades and use two, short sticks to pass and shoot the puck. The sticks also have picks on the ends so players can propel the sleds on the ice. It's a fast-paced sport for people with disabilities and usually includes a few teammates who don't have disabilities.

For those who prefer the slopes, the Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program in Cattaraugus County (and other organizations in the state, including STRIDE) offers lessons to individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities. The program uses volunteers who often go the extra mile to help people get out on the slopes, with the focus on what an individual can do, not what he or she can't do. (See "Winter Sports for All," Conservationist February 2011.)

Adaptive sports programs like these create and expand opportunities for people to be physically active and interact with nature and other outdoor enthusiasts, which is good for everyone's health and spirits. Although disabilities may present unique challenges, those disabilities are not insurmountable. And overcoming challenges is one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of the outdoor experience for any participant.

Access for All

Skill training and support are only part of the equation. Universal access is essential to opening nature's doors to everyone, regardless of age or physical ability. New York strongly supports universal access efforts and has established specific requirements to open lands and recreational activities to people with disabilities.

In 2007, a NYS Developmental Disabilities Planning Council grant established the Inclusive Recreational Resource Center (IRRC) at SUNY Cortland to promote inclusive recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their families. More recently, the IRRC performed in-depth, on-site accessibility assessments of approximately 400 DEC and State Parks sites. Using an online database (, people can review site information and learn about: the availability of designated, accessible parking; whether the entrance to the facility and registration areas are easily accessible; the surface materials and slope of paths and trails; the presence of stairs, railings, ramps, grab bars and signage; restroom accessibility; and adaptive equipment available on-site. The website also includes contact information for a facility's access coordinator (where available), who can assist with planning an outing. In addition, the IRRC provides training for DEC and State Parks employees so they can track and report on programs and policies that address the needs of persons with disabilities.

Under the NY Works program, the state is making critical investments to improve access to public lands and waters for a variety of activities, including hunting, fishing, boating and nature exploration. The state has also taken steps to tailor some programs to accommodate individuals with disabilities. For example, DEC offers a non-ambulatory hunting permit that allows qualified hunters who require a wheelchair or other mechanical assistance to utilize a motorized vehicle when hunting, subject to several important rules that pertain to safety and fair chase. Likewise, individuals with disabilities can obtain a modified crossbow permit or modified longbow authorization to use adaptive devices on their equipment. DEC also offers individuals with disabilities the ability to get a temporary, revocable permit for motor vehicle access to certain DEC-administered state lands not readily accessible from public roads.

Helpful Services

New York is home to some of the nation's premier lands and waters where recreationists can pursue a myriad of outdoor activities and adventures. In fact, every region of the state offers unique and exciting opportunities. DEC Regional ADA Coordinators can help answer questions about accessible sites and activities, and discuss individual needs. Contacting them is a great first step to plan a visit: outdoor/42324.html.

Licensed guides are another great resource. These knowledgeable individuals can provide instruction and assistance with fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, or whitewater rafting. A list of licensed guides can be found at: DECLicensedGuide/.

Universal access creates opportunities for everyone, and adaptive-use training, assistance and equipment provide critical support to get people active and outdoors. And when barriers disappear, it's clear that individuals with disabilities can do a lot. After all, as with all outdoor enthusiasts, it's in our nature, and with the right tools and motivation, it's also within reach.

Peter Constantakes is an associate public information specialist with Conservationist.

Carole Fraser: All About Access

"Passionate" may be the best way to describe Carole Fraser, DEC'S Universal Access Coordinator. She takes on tough challenges and won't stop working till she's satisfied with the outcome, which is why her position is a perfect fit.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), DEC needed someone to ensure state lands and facilities were accessible to people with disabilities. This included 185 projects slated to improve access in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Carole was intrigued by the opportunity to help develop and manage universal access projects and the chance to "do more and learn more."

She quickly encountered challenges of her own. There were few existing accessibility standards to follow and only limited information on how to best serve the needs of individuals with disabilities. In addition, there were concerns that access projects could disturb the natural environment.

Over the years, Carole worked tirelessly to overcome these and other challenges, and helped drive significant access improvements. She has seen (and overseen) the implementation of many positive changes; for example, most DEC projects are now designed from the outset to incorporate universal access.

Having grown up in an urban home with no backyard, Carole firmly believes spending time in nature--whether camping in the mountains or fishing at a local stream--promotes good health, both physical and mental. She works closely with numerous organizations to get people with disabilities outdoors, including children, and treasures seeing their smiles when they catch a fish or enjoy a beautiful day in the woods.

As New York continues to expand recreational opportunities, Carole will ensure these projects meet the needs of people with disabilities. After all, it's not just her job, it's her passion.

Caption: Adaptive cycling (handcycling) opens up opportunities for everyone to enjoy one of the most popular types of outdoor recreation.

Caption: Scott surveys his catch during an enjoyable day of fishing.

Caption: As part of its Adapted Sports & Recreation Program, Helen Hayes Hospital provides the kayaks, specialized seating, and other adaptive equipment that allows participants to paddle on a local lake or the Hudson River.

Caption: DEC has created adaptive trails at many sites for all people to connect with nature.

Caption: Sled hockey is a fast-paced sport where people with disabilities compete with and against those without disabilities to put the puck in the net.
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Author:Constantakes, Peter
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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