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Disability Network Southwest Michigan

Recreation for All!

[photo: beach with boardwalk and a row of wheeled loungers, sign reads: Beach Access Surface. Keep Clear”]

Michiganders with disabilities experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Outdoor recreational access and inclusion lead to improved physical and mental well-being and reduced healthcare costs for everyone. Universal access to outdoor recreation is essential; without access there can be no inclusion. Unfortunately, the majority of these opportunities are not available to everyone due to a lack of accessibility. 

Inaccessibility in outdoor recreation includes physical barriers you might expect such as trails/surfaces that are not traversable with wheelchairs and other mobility devices, a lack of accessible restrooms, and inaccessible boat launches. But according to Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails and a wheelchair user, the single greatest barrier to accessibility on public lands is a lack of information. Passo insists there is a need for more comprehensive information available about accessibility online. “Disability is on a spectrum, there’s no two people experiencing disability the same,” Passo said. “Just putting a wheelchair-accessible symbol on a campsite or trail . . . what does that mean?” 

Passo went on to recommend that accessibility guidelines for outdoor developed areas should be added to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Currently, there are guidelines in the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA); however, this only applies to Federal lands. By adding these guidelines to the ADA, states, cities, counties and private recreational areas would also be required to comply. U.S. Representative Katie Porter (CA), Chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight, agreed with Passo in an email where she stated, “Our public lands are national treasures belonging to all Americans, and they should be accessible to all Americans. Yet, this promise is not a reality for many people with disabilities.”

Here in Michigan we have seen some signs of progress; a few beaches added boardwalks and a grant secured a handful of off-road “track-chairs” and provided an occasional accessible boat launch. Unfortunately, these are the exceptions and not standard practice.

A recent positive development occurred in December 2021 when the state of Michigan’s Land & Water Conservation Fund awarded nearly $8 million for Department of Natural Resources (DNR) projects which included accessible playgrounds and general accessibility improvements at 14 state parks and campgrounds. Perhaps, the state’s efforts will be a model for local parks & recreation departments.

Whether it is visiting the beaches of Lake Michigan, camping at Yankee Springs, birding along the Kal-Haven trail or any of the other outdoor recreational activities Michigan has to offer, there is no question that Michigan provides many opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. As Governor Whitmer stated on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, “Recreation can, and should, be a part of all Michiganders lives.” We agree!

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Note: This article was written for our DARE to Impact Change publication which provides Disability Advocacy, Rights & Education. Follow this link for more info and to subscribe to our DARE to Impact Change e-publication.