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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

The Outdoors Are for Everyone—Fundamentals of Outdoor Recreation and Trails Accessibility

Universal Design

The best way to integrate accessibility is to use the principles of universal design. Universal design is simply designing programs and facilities to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without separate or segregated access for people with disabilities (figure 3). Using universal design principles is Forest Service policy, as stated in Forest Service Manual (FSM) 2330.3 These directives are available at

Photo of three people talking on a boardwalk. One of the individuals is using a motorized scooter-type wheelchair. Another is holding a probing white cane.
Figure 3— Friends enjoy a break during a stroll on a boardwalk through
a wetlands area. A trail built on universal design principles makes
it possible for a whole group to enjoy the same experience.

Since the early 1990s, the Forest Service has followed the universal design policy that all new and reconstructed facilities, programs, and associated elements are to be accessible to the greatest extent possible. This commitment often exceeds the minimum requirements of the Federal accessibility guidelines. The result of universal design is independence, integration, and dignity for everyone.

More information on accessibility guidelines is provided in the next part of this guidebook.

Program Accessibility

For the purposes of evaluating accessibility, a "program" is an activity in which people may participate. Basically, the program is the reason a person visits an area and may include opportunities such as:

  • Camping in a campground
  • Viewing the scenery at an overlook (figure 4)
  • Swimming at a beach
  • Enjoying solitude in the wilderness
  • Gathering information at a visitor center
  • Learning about an area on an interpretive trail

Photo of a person using a wheelchair at an interpretive station. The sign, mounted on a table-like metal stand, is situated at a level that can be read by a person using a wheelchair. The woman is using binoculars to look over the top of the interpretive signs at the dunes and ocean.
Figure 4—Interpretation is for everyone. Signs must be placed so
that everyone can see and understand them.

The 1994 USDA regulations—7 CFR 15e and 7 CFR 15b govern USDA implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They prescribe the requirements for ensuring access to programs.

If a program is provided inside a building or structure, everyone must be able to enter the facility to participate in the program. All facilities need to be constructed according to the applicable accessibility guidelines. Even historic structures are required to be as accessible as can be accomplished without destroying the historic significance of the structure. Unfortunately, some historic structures are not yet accessible, and a few cannot be made accessible without destroying their historic integrity. If a facility is not accessible, relocate the program or provide it in another manner (an alternative program). Any alternative program must allow everyone to participate together. Separate segregated programs just for people with disabilities aren't permitted. For example, if an evening program at a campground previously has been held in an amphitheater that isn't accessible, move the program to an accessible location until the amphitheater is accessible.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and 7 CFR 15, access to programs that don't depend on constructed facilities also are required to provide equal opportunity to all. People with disabilities may not be denied the opportunity to participate in a program if they meet the criteria to participate and their participation doesn't fundamentally alter the program. All participants must meet the essential eligibility criteria for the program and abide by any restrictions for that program in that area, including those of the forest land management plan. While all people are to have an equal opportunity to participate in programs and to strive to gain the same benefits offered by those programs, no guarantee of success is required.

The laws require equal opportunity; they don't require exceptional opportunity. For example, roads, trails, or other areas on national forests and grasslands that are not designated for motorized vehicle use under a forest travel management plan are closed to all motorized vehicles, including those used by people with disabilities.

Access to programs must be viewed through the lens of the entire program, not through the eyes of an individual. Access to the program is to be provided so long as doing so doesn't fundamentally alter the program. That is, providing access doesn't change the primary functions of the program. Allowing motor vehicles in a nonmotorized area would be a fundamental alteration of the recreation program for that area.

"Reasonable accommodation" does not apply to access to programs. Reasonable accommodation only applies in employment and involves making the modifications or adjustments to a job or the work environment so a specific qualified applicant or employee with a disability can participate in the application process or perform essential job functions. It does not apply to programs under Federal agencies, including recreation facilities and trails.

Questions often arise concerning the use of wheelchairs or other mobility devices in areas that restrict or prohibit mechanical devices or motorized vehicle use. As clarified in Title V, Section 508(c), the legal definition of a wheelchair is:

A device designed solely for use by a mobility–impaired person for locomotion that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area

This is a two-part definition. "Designed solely to be used by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion" means that the wheelchair was originally designed and manufactured solely to be used for mobility by a person with a disability. The aftermarket retrofit of a motorized unit to make it usable by a person with a disability does not meet this part of the definition. The second part of the definition requires the device to be "suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area" (figure 5). This means usable inside a home, courthouse, or other indoor pedestrian area, such as the food court of a mall.

Photo of two men chatting at a table in a mall food court.  One man is using a wheelchair that moves using smooth rubber belts rather than wheels.
Figure 5—To meet the definition of a wheelchair, a device must be
suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area, such as this food
court where two friends take a break from shopping. Like many
wheelchairs, the device shown here also is useful for outdoor
recreation, as shown in figure 11. Photo credit: Trac About,
Inc., Newton, KS

The device must meet both parts of this definition in order for it to qualify as a wheelchair. Figures 6 through 11 show six examples of devices that meet the definition; figures 12 and 13 show two examples that do not.

Photo of a man using a "standard" wheelchair at an informal viewing area by a lake in a forest.
Figure 6

: Photo of a man using a low, external frame off-road wheelchair with two large rear wheels and a smaller front wheel, in a forest.
Figure 7—Photo credit: Axess Outdoors, Great Falls, MT

Photo of a man using a motorized wheelchair on a trail.
Figure 8

Photo of a woman using a motorized scooter-type wheelchair on a boardwalk in a brushy area.
Figure 9

Photo of a man behind and a girl in front, propelling a single-wheel EZ hiker chair down a trail.  Another girl is in the chair and is leading a llama alongside the hikers.
Figure 10

Photo of a man wearing camouflage hunting clothing and carrying a crossbow, using a belt-track type wheelchair that has been camouflage painted.
Figure 11—Photo credit: Trac About, Inc., Newton, KS

Photo of a woman riding an all-terrain vehicle in an area with tall grass.
Figure 12

Photo of a man riding a Segway on a trail in a forest.
Figure 13

A person whose disability requires use of a wheelchair or mobility device may use a wheelchair or mobility device that meets both parts of the definition in the preceding paragraph anywhere foot travel is permitted in the National Forest System, in accordance with Title V, Section 508(c) of ADA; 36 CFR 212.1; and FSM 2353.05 and FSM 2320.05. Wheelchairs or mobility devices, including battery-powered wheelchairs that meet both parts of the definition, aren't categorized as motor vehicles or mechanical devices.

To determine whether a device meets the definition of a wheelchair, evaluate it against the two parts of the definition. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Was the device designed solely for mobility by a person with a disability?

  • If "no," the device doesn't meet the definition and doesn't qualify for use as a wheelchair.
  • If "yes," ask the second question.

2. Is it suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area? Consider whether it could be used in a mall, courthouse, or similar area without the security personnel directing the user to leave.

  • If "no," the device doesn't meet the definition and doesn't qualify for use as a wheelchair.

If the answer to both questions is "yes," the device meets the definition of a wheelchair or mobility device and may be used wherever foot travel is allowed. Some devices that don't meet both parts of the definition (see figures 12 and 13) are useful tools for some people with disabilities to move about in the outdoor environment, but they must follow the requirements for the appropriate class of motor vehicle. A "Motor Vehicle Use Map" that shows routes (roads and trails) and areas designated as open to motorized travel with allowed uses identified by vehicle class is available at national forest and national grassland offices. These maps also may be available through each forest or grassland's Web site or through the National Forest Store Web site Visitors can check the "Motor Vehicle Use Map" to learn where they may use devices that don't meet the definition.

Transition Plans

Since the 1968 passage of ABA, facilities designed, built, altered, bought, rented, or leased by, for, or on behalf of a Federal agency have been required to be accessible. Unfortunately, some Federal facilities are not yet accessible.

In the early 1990s, the Forest Service called for all units to complete transition plans identifying the changes needed to make each facility accessible and the timeline for completing those changes. Funding to complete the transition plans was provided to the regions in 1992, 1993, and 1994.

The regulation requiring transition plans for the existing facilities of all USDA agencies is 7 CFR 15e, section 150 "Program Accessibility: Existing Facilities." It requires a transition plan to be developed and implemented for any facility housing a program that is not accessible. The regulation required transition plans to be completed by December 31, 1997. Section 150(d) of 7 CFR details the specific requirements for transition plans and their contents.

The transition plans covering many Forest Service areas were completed up to 20 years ago. The filed hard copies have been difficult to update and cannot be effectively entered into the National Resource Manager database that was later developed. To assure that their transition plans are current, Forest Service units are now resurveying facilities and recreation sites and recording the results electronically so that the database will contain accurate, current information.

Terminology Tip

Why wheelchairs are not motor vehicles.

In Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 212.1, a motor vehicle is defined as any vehicle that is self-propelled, other than:

  • A vehicle that is operated on rails

  • Any wheelchair or mobility device, including one that is battery powered, that is designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, and that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area

Wheelchairs that meet this legal definition may be used anywhere foot travel is allowed within the National Forest System. Mobility devices that do not meet this definition are considered to be motor vehicles within the National Forest System and may only be used where that class of motor vehicle is allowed.

No standardized format was provided in the regulation for the transition plans. Each region and some national forests developed their own transition plan format. Check with your accessibility coordinator or your regional recreation accessibility coordinator or (available only to Forest Service employees) or your region/station facilities program leader (available only to Forest Service employees) to find out whether your local unit has developed a format. If not, request a sample of the formats used by other units. At a minimum, the transition plan must include:

  • A list of obstacles to accessing the facility and program as identified in the accessibility evaluation survey
  • A detailed description of the methods that will be used to provide accessibility
  • The schedule for implementing the plan, including the actions that will be taken each year if the work takes more than a year
  • The signature of the official responsible for implementation of the transition plan

Ensure transition plans are available to the public.

Accessibility Evaluation Surveys

During an accessibility evaluation survey, compare each portion of a structure to the accessibility standards, and record compliance and deficiencies. For example, check doorways to see whether they have at least 32 inches (815 millimeters) of clear width (figure 14). This information is important for developing transition plans and for providing useful information about the wide range of Forest Service facilities.

Photo of a man measuring the clear width of a doorway.
Figure 14—All doorways must have a minimum of 32 inches
(815 millimeters) clear width.

A U.S. Forest Service Accessibility Database has been developed to facilitate the gathering, retention, updating, and use of the survey information. Check with your unit's accessibility coordinator or your regional recreation accessibility coordinator for more information about this database and about opportunities to have the accessibility of the recreation facilities on your unit surveyed. The Youth Conservation Corps Inclusive Toolbox Project offers one way to have surveys conducted and the resulting data entered into the accessibility database.