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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

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

It's all about people having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Public lands offer a wide range of recreation settings and opportunities from highly developed campgrounds to untouched wilderness areas.

Why Accessibility Is Important

The Forest Service is committed to integrating accessibility into the complete range of recreation opportunities while protecting natural resources and settings so that all people, including people who have disabilities, have the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. This commitment is established in Forest Service policy. Visitors have the right to choose both the type of recreation they want to pursue and the setting in which to pursue it. Of course, recreationists must always check to make sure that what they want to do is allowed.

How does accessibility fit into this range of opportunities? We certainly don't want to pave the wilderness. However, when the decision is made to construct or alter a building, trail, or other facility, we must ask, "Will a person with a disability have an equal opportunity to use this facility?" The key is to ask this question before the facility has been designed and built. Then we can provide facilities for use by all people, including people with disabilities.

For more information on Forest Service recreation opportunities, visit

How many people benefit from accessible facilities? At the time of the 2000 census, 54 million people, or one in every five people in the United States, had a disability that significantly limited one or more major life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, thinking, and so forth. Of that number, 4 percent used wheelchairs and 7.4 percent used crutches, canes, walkers, or other assistive devices.

Additionally, the population of the United States is aging. By the year 2030, 110 million people will be older than 55. As people age, impairments are more likely to hinder activities. There's a lot of truth to the saying that if you live long enough, you are sure to join the ranks of people with disabilities.

If anyone in a group has a disability, accessibility is an issue for the whole group, as shown in figure 1. It influences where the group can go and what they can do. Ski areas learned many years ago that each skier who has a disability is usually accompanied by three or four additional skiers who don't have disabilities. They all want to buy lift tickets, rent gear, eat lunch, and ski together. Accessibility is good customer service and good for business.

Photo of three people setting up a tent. One of the individuals is using a wheelchair.
Figure 1—Although the Blackberry Crossing Campground in the
White Mountain National Forest is not highly developed,
it's a great place for this group of friends to enjoy camping together.

Just as recreational preferences vary among the general population, people with disabilities enjoy different types of outdoor recreation. We must make sure that facilities allow all visitors, including people with disabilities, to choose their own recreational activities.

What Terms Should Be Used?

Although people who have disabilities refer to themselves in many different ways, as an agency we must ensure that the terminology we use complies with legal direction and is considered acceptable by the majority of people. Numerous "buzz words" have been used to describe people with disabilities over the years. The good news is that the terminology question was settled in the early 1990s. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) uses the terms, persons with disabilities and accessible. In 1992, when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was renewed and amended, its terminology was corrected to include just the terms "accessible" and "persons with disabilities." Also in 1992, Federal agencies were directed to correct terminology in their regulations, policies, and other documents to match the Rehabilitation Act and ADA terminology.

A disability is a medically definable condition that causes a limitation in one or more of a person's major life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, thinking, and so forth. Person-first terminology is used because the person is more important than his or her disability. Examples of person-first terminology include:

A handicap is a barrier or circumstance that makes progress or success difficult, such as a flight of stairs that may be impassable for a person using a wheelchair or a negative attitude toward a person who has a disability. The term "handicapped" has negative connotations. The word has been around for centuries, but wasn't used to refer to people with disabilities until the late 1800s. Many people believe that the term "handicapped" was first used in relation to persons with disabilities when Civil War veterans whose injuries prevented them from working were begging on the streets with "cap in hand." Standard references do not support this story. But because the story has become legend and begging for a living is degrading, describing people with disabilities as "handicapped" is offensive to most people with disabilities. It may be useful to think of handicapped as the "H" word and eliminate it from your vocabulary, publications, and other materials.

Accessible facilities comply with the accessibility guidelines and standards. A site, facility, or program is either accessible or it is not accessible. The only way to evaluate accessibility is to evaluate the facility's compliance with the guidelines in effect at the time it was designed, constructed, or altered. There are no shades of accessibility. For instance, a parking space either complies with the standards and is accessible, or it doesn't comply with the standards and is not accessible. The specific technical provisions of the standards for surfacing, slope, and the size of the parking space and walkway connection must be met, regardless of the conditions around the parking space. "Almost" doesn't count. For instance, figure 2 illustrates one type of trail that complies with accessibility guidelines.

Photo of two people using wheelchairs on a trail.
Figure 2—Two friends enjoy an accessible trail that allows
them to hike through the rain forest.

Other terms concerning accessibility that are not correct include "partially accessible," "accessible with assistance," "barrier free," "ADA accessible," and "handicapped accessible." The first two terms are incorrect because a facility is either accessible or it is not accessible. If the facility is not accessible, the visitor or employee needs to know which specific areas are not accessible. "Partially accessible" and "accessible with assistance" imply some accessibility problems, but don't provide enough information to be helpful. "Barrier free" isn't legally defined or commonly understood. "ADA accessible" confuses laws with accessibility standards. Although "handicapped accessible" is a common phrase, it includes the "H" word that many people with disabilities find offensive. "Handicapped accessible" is also a contradiction in terms, because a handicap is a barrier and the term "accessible" means there aren't any barriers. The best terms are simply "accessible" and "not accessible."

The Law Requires Accessibility

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) ( became law in 1968. The act mandates that all facilities built, purchased, rented, altered, or leased by, for, or on behalf of a Federal agency must be accessible.

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act became law. Section 504 ( of the act applies to programs and activities that are conducted by Federal agencies and by entities that receive funding from, or operate under a permit from, Federal agencies. Section 504 requires that these programs and activities provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in an integrated setting, as independently as possible. The only exception to the requirement is when the program would be fundamentally altered if changes were made solely for the purpose of accessibility. An example of a fundamental alteration to a program would be allowing use of a motor vehicle in an area not designated for motor-vehicle use.

The USDA implementation guideline for Section 504 is 7 CFR 15, which was finalized in 1994. Subpart 15e ( applies to programs conducted by the Forest Service. Subpart 15b ( applies to programs operating with Federal agency funding, under special use permits, or under other agreements with the agency. If a building or structure must be entered for someone to participate in the activity at the site, the building must be accessible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ( became law in 1990. Except for Title V Section 507c, the ADA doesn't apply to Federal agencies' facilities and programs. They were already required to be accessible under the ABA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA applies to State and local government services and to public accommodations, such as motels and hotels, and organizations that are open to the public. Title V Section 507c of the ADA applies to congressionally designated wilderness. It reaffirms the 1964 Wilderness Act and clarifies that agencies aren't required to change the character of wilderness areas to provide accessibility. Section 507c also defines a wheelchair and states that wheelchairs meeting that definition can be used in congressionally designated wilderness.

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 the Forest Service Manual, Section 2333.33 (

Photo of three people talking on a boardwalk. One of the individuals is using a motorized wheelchair. Another is holding a cane.
Figure 3—A group of friends enjoy a break during
a stroll on a boardwalk through a wet area.
The accessible trail makes it possible for the
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 chapter.

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