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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

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

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:

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 15b ( govern the 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, including people with disabilities, must be able to enter the facility to participate in the program. Unfortunately, some older structures are not yet accessible, and a few cannot be made accessible because doing so would destroy their historic integrity. If a facility is not accessible, the program must be provided in another manner, called 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, the program must be moved 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. That means that a person with a disability cannot be denied the opportunity to participate in a program that is open to everyone. To participate, any person, with or without a disability, must meet the criteria for the program and abide by any restrictions, including those of the Forest Land Management Plan, for that program in that area. While people with and without disabilities 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 motor-vehicle use under a forest travel management plan are closed to all motor 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 motorized vehicles in a nonmotorized area would be a fundamental alteration of the recreational program for that area.

People ask, "What about reasonable accommodation?" The laws are clear. Reasonable accommodation, which means doing whatever each individual needs to be able to fulfill the functions of a job, despite any disability, only applies in employment. It does not apply to recreation facilities and trails. The laws also are clear that when it comes to program access, the overall program is the focus. Criteria to participate in that program must be the same for all participants.

Questions often arise concerning the use of wheelchairs in areas that restrict or prohibit mechanical devices or motorized use. As clarified in Title V Section 507, the Federal Wilderness Areas section of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 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.

"Designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion," means that the wheelchair was originally designed and manufactured solely for use for mobility by a person with a disability. This term doesn't include the aftermarket retrofit of a motorized unit to make it usable by a person with a disability. "Suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area" means usable inside a home, mall, courthouse, or other indoor pedestrian area. Figures 5 through 9 show some examples of devices that are wheelchairs and one that is not.

Photo of a man using a "standard" wheelchair.
Figure 5
Photo of a man using a wheelchair with large front wheels and angled rear wheels.
Figure 6
Photo of a woman using a motorized wheelchair.
Figure 7
Photo of a woman using a motorized, 3-wheeled "scooter" type wheelchair.
Figure 8
Photo of a woman riding an all-terrain vehicle.
Figure 9
Figures 5 to 9—Although figures 5 to 8 show wheelchairs, figure 9 shows a device that is not a wheelchair. Many wheelchairs look different from those shown. The only sure way to determine if a device is a wheelchair is to answer the two key questions described in the text.

A person whose disability requires use of a wheelchair or assistive device may use a wheelchair that meets the definition in the preceding paragraph anywhere foot travel is permitted, in accordance with Title V, Section 507c, of the ADA; 36 CFR 212.1; and the Forest Service Manual 2353.05. Wheelchairs or assistive devices, including battery-powered wheelchairs, aren't categorized as motorized vehicles or mechanical devices.

To determine whether a device meets the definition of a wheelchair, evaluate it against the two sections 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 and can be used wherever foot travel is permitted.

Transition Plans

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

To correct this problem, 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 the changes. Funding to complete the transition plans was provided to the regions in 1991, 1992, and 1993.

The accessibility regulation for the programs of all USDA agencies, 7 CFR 15e, was finalized in December 1994. This regulation required transition plans to be completed by December 31, 1997. 7 CFR 15e Section 150 (d) ( details the specific requirements for transition plans and their contents.

In 1998, under Public Law 105-359, Congress mandated an evaluation of accessibility to outdoor recreation on federally managed lands for both the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior agencies. The results of the independent study that was published in June 2000 highlighted to Congress that many Forest Service and other Federal agency units still had not completed their transition plans. The attention resulting from the report increased the pressure on Federal agencies to get the plans completed. To keep units focused on completing this work, the Forest Service national budget direction each year since 2001 has included direction to the field to complete the transition plans.

"Program Accessibility: Existing Facilities" (7 CFR 15 e Section 150) allows a program to be "viewed in its entirety" when accessibility is evaluated. However, a transition plan must be developed and implemented for any program that is not accessible because the facility housing the program is not accessible.

No standardized format has been provided for transition plans. Each region and some national forests developed their own transition plan format. Check with your agency's accessibility coordinator, your regional recreation accessibility coordinator (RRAC) ( or your region/station facilities program leader ( 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:

Transition plans must be available to the public.

Accessibility Evaluation Surveys

An accessibility evaluation survey is the first step in developing a transition plan. During the survey, each portion of a structure is compared to the accessibility standards, and compliance and deficiencies are recorded.

For example, doorways must be checked to see whether they have at least 32 inches (815 millimeters) of clear width. Measure clearance when a swinging door is open 90 degrees and when the door is fully opened for other types of doors. Stretch the measuring tape from the face of the open door to the nearest portion of the doorframe or latch mechanism on the latch side (figure 10).

Photo of a man measuring the clear width of a doorway.
Figure 10—All doorways must have a minimum
of 32 inches (813 millimeters) clear width.

Two checklists on the Internet can be used as accessibility evaluation guides for facilities: the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards Checklist ( and the ADA Accessibility Guidelines Checklist for Buildings and Facilities ( However, your local unit may have developed checklists that will better match your facilities. Check with your agency's accessibility coordinator, your regional recreation accessibility coordinator (, or your region/station facilities program leader ( for more information.

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