Idaho’s rugged outdoors are now more accessible than ever for people with disabilities - East Idaho News

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Idaho’s rugged outdoors are now more accessible than ever for people with disabilities

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Roger Howard was inspecting an Idaho campground when a nearby camper said he hoped Howard didn’t “ruin the outdoors.”

Howard was assessing the campsite for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, looking for features like accessible restrooms and parking spaces that would help more people use the site. It’s part of his role as the executive director of LINC Idaho, an organization that helps people with disabilities live independently.

“We hear the sentiment of ‘ruining the outdoors’ much less now,” said Howard, who has worked with disability advocacy groups in Boise since the 1980s.

In an interview, Howard told the Statesman he took a moment to talk with the camper, who worried “accessibility” meant more pavement and fewer trees and trails — essentially turning Idaho’s outdoors into something more akin to a city park. By the end of their conversation, Howard said, the camper had not only changed his tune but began to offer suggestions for even more improvements.

Howard and other accessibility advocates in the Treasure Valley said in recent years there’s been a real push to make Idaho’s outdoors — and the adventure of hiking, biking, rock climbing or otherwise recreating in it — more accessible to people of all abilities than ever before. New disability advocacy groups have cropped up in Idaho alongside existing ones, which are seeing a surge in participation. Meanwhile, local businesses and land management agencies are updating their equipment and facilities to accommodate different needs while still maintaining the ruggedness that defines the outdoors.

How to make the outdoors handicapped-accessible

For Cindy Kowalczyk, the Bureau of Land Management’s lead civil engineer in Idaho, good design isn’t about catering to a single group.

“We’ve always looked at accessibility in this state under universal design,” Kowalczyk said in an interview, referencing an approach meant to make buildings, products and more usable by all people. “We don’t design it specifically for the person in the wheelchair.”

For years, Kowalczyk and Idaho BLM officials have created recreation facilities using universal design principles. Recently, the agency also has moved to update existing facilities in ways that make them accessible. As a federal agency, the BLM is bound by the Architectural Barriers Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandate buildings that can be used by people with disabilities. But Kowalczyk said she strives to meet the higher standard of the ADA, which became law in 1990.

Outdoor REc
The Bruneau Canyon Overlook is one of the Bureau of Land Management’s Idaho sites that’s accessible to people with disabilities. | Courtesy Bureau of Land Management

“We try to take the ADA to recreation settings, which tend to be more primitive,” Kowalczyk said.

That’s not to say that accessibility means removing that primitive element.

“People who are recreating … don’t necessarily want to go out and have everything paved for them,” Kowalczyk said. “My challenge is trying to strike a balance between that more natural, primitive environment the BLM is known for without creating barriers.

“People who recreate, they aren’t bound by their disabilities at all,” she added. “I can go out and make all my sites fully accessible … but do people want that trail paved?”

Howard said an update to the ADA in 2010 outlined standards for recreation and outdoor facilities. The ADA even offers guidelines on trails, which include preferred trail materials, designated trail width and more. Like Kowalczyk, Howard said many people with disabilities don’t want to see the outdoors changed drastically.

“When you’re in the ‘built environment,’ you expect a certain level of access,” he said. “When you get farther away from that, that expectation lessens. When you go to a fee campground, expectations are higher than for the backcountry where you pack it in and pack it out.”

Of the BLM’s 300-plus sites in Idaho, each major site includes accessible restrooms and parking, Kowalczyk said. In some cases, the BLM is able to grade pathways and trails to a less-steep grade that could be easier to navigate for individuals who have trouble walking or use assistive equipment.

“It’s difficult to get those sites truly accessible, but we try to include accessible features,” Kowalczyk said. “We will always try to make something accessible to a point.”

In recent years, the BLM built the Bruneau Canyon Overlook, offering a wheelchair-accessible view of the canyon in the Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness. Earlier this year, the agency also announced plans for an ADA-accessible trail at the Milner Historic Recreation Area near Burley, and last week the BLM announced plans to start construction for improved access at Perjue Canyon in 2020.

Howard also praised the Boise National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, for its inclusive campsites, trails and fishing areas.

“It’s real common if you go up to Lucky Peak, almost every (family) I see has someone in a wheelchair with them,” Howard said.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game runs an Accessible Idaho program with fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing sites that can be used by people with disabilities.

With an unwavering goal to reach the top, Vivian Letters, 10, Boise, climbs a rock wall with one arm and the support of people below. “It feels like I’m not the only one,” she said. “There are other people that have difficult issues just like me.” Coyote Prosthetics sponsored a rock climbing clinic for amputees and other people with disabilities Aug. 10 at the Boise State Student Recreation Center. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

Adaptive recreation, outdoors programs in Idaho

In many cases, the easiest way to open up access to outdoor recreation is through special adaptations, like those provided by Boise’s AdVenture Seeker program. The program started at Boise State University in the 1980s before coming under Boise Department of Parks and Recreation management in 1997.

Adaptive recreation manager Emily Kovarik said the AdVenture Seeker program offers indoor classes like dance and cooking, but many of its outdoor programs are the most popular. Through AdVenture Seeker, people with disabilities can go whitewater rafting, water skiing or even fly into the backcountry for a wilderness trip via a partnership with the Idaho Aviation Foundation called Wilderness Within Reach.

“A lot more outfitters here have become more understanding of taking people with disabilities into the backcountry,” Howard said.

In 1998, the year after the city adopted the program, it had 719 participant visits. Last year, it saw nearly 10,000 visits.

“Our participation numbers have skyrocketed,” Kovarik said. “It’s a good problem to have.

“What’s really grown is the programs for people with intellectual disabilities,” she added. “People are wanting to make adaptive programs for people with disabilities.”

climbing wall
Volunteers help people with disabilities learn how to rock climb at an event sponsored by Boise company Coyote Prosthetics Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019 at the Boise State Student Recreation Center. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

Coyote Design is one business taking a leading role in encouraging Treasure Valley residents with disabilities to try new things. That’s because adaptive recreation is right in Coyote’s wheelhouse — the Boise-based company creates locks, pins and other equipment for prosthetic limbs that are specifically designed to withstand conditions outdoors doing everything from mountain biking to scuba diving.

“Everyone should be able to do everything they want to do,” said Matt Perkins, president of the company.

In 1994, Perkins’ father, an orthotics specialist, created the company, which also offers patient care. Perkins was born without a fully developed left leg, and his father later had his own leg amputated due to arthritis.

“(My father and I) personally have had so few limits, and we shouldn’t be the minority in that,” said Perkins, a five-time world champion paratriathlete and Paralympic skier.

In August, Coyote sponsored an adaptive rock climbing clinic at Boise State University in partnership with the Orthotic & Prosthetic Activities Foundation, which introduces people with disabilities to adaptive recreation at a beginner level. The clinic drew 15 adaptive climbers, along with many other family members.

“These (clinics) are great ways to bring people together,” Perkins said. “Sometimes the biggest benefit to this is not an amputee being able to climb, but an amputee being able to meet another amputee.”

It may soon become easier for amputees and others with disabilities to connect in the Treasure Valley. The Challenged Athletes Foundation, a national adaptive sports organization, opened an Idaho branch in Boise in May thanks to funding from the J.A. and Katheryn Albertson Family Foundation. Jenn Skeesick, regional director for the Idaho branch, said athletes are already making adaptive recreation more visible in the Valley.

Recently, adaptive surfer Christiaan Bailey surfed the Phase One wave at the Boise Whitewater Park.

“People were five deep on the Greenbelt because they could not comprehend that there was a wheelchair on the shore and this guy in the water riding the wave,” Skeesick said.

The Challenged Athletes Foundation also organizes indoor sports, but Skeesick said Idaho’s outdoor opportunities were part of the draw to bringing the foundation to Boise.

“(The Albertsons Foundation) saw a need for adaptive recreation … especially for all the great outdoors activities,” Skeesick said. “Outdoor rec is truly where people start to experience activities again.”

Adaptive options let people with disabilities use the same trails as anyone else, Skeesick added.

“I think often people think there will be an able-bodied option and a disabled option,” she said. “But truly those things happen concurrently.”

Growing demand for accessibility outdoors

Even in recent years, technology has allowed more and more people with disabilities to take part in the outdoors, said Willie Stewart, a Boise paralympic athlete and Challenged Athletes Foundation spokesman.

“I only see that technology changing recreation more and more,” he said. “You can see handcyclists in the Foothills that you didn’t see 10 years ago or 5 years ago.”

Kowalczyk, the BLM’s civil engineer, said she’s taking that technology into account when designing outdoor sites.

“I don’t see (access) being less of a demand, I see it being more,” Kowalczyk said. “The wheelchair of today is different from the wheelchair of yesterday.”

Not only is demand for access growing, Perks said attitudes about disability access have shifted in the last several years.

“The aging of America is exposing more people to the need for access,” he said. “You don’t need to be a quadriplegic or in a wheelchair to realize things aren’t as accessible as they should be.”