For many years, Wilderness Inquiry has worked alongside the National Park Service (NPS) to create opportunities for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to access, enjoy, and explore on our public lands. As an organization, we have consulted on accessible design at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and in other National Parks, and we have collaborated with NPS staff to deliver programming to those that might otherwise experience barriers to outdoor participation.
On April 13, 2021, Wilderness Inquiry staff and participants were featured as presenters in an accessibility training hosted by the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program of the National Park Service. The workshop included partners such as the U.S. Access Board, Assistology, and others, and engaged 150 participants and staff from across NPS for a discussion and training focused on inclusion, access, and engagement in National Parks.
Our presentation on “How to be an Inclusive Organization,” featured a panel of participants and began with Founder Greg Lais highlighting Wilderness Inquiry’s implementation of the Universal Program Participation Model and our journey to become a nationally-recognized inclusive outdoor organization. Lais explained the origins of Wilderness Inquiry in the mid-1970’s, and the process of finding out that not only can the outdoors be accessible to everyone, but also a medium for “bringing people together” to discover their common humanity.
Panelists included long-time participants Janet Badura, Riss Leitzke, and Laura Oftedahl who all brought their perspectives as people with differing abilities. Each panelist shared their experiences in the outdoors including their barriers to access. They provided insights to National Park Service staff on how they can best facilitate seamless experiences for people with mobility, vision, and hearing impairments.
Janet Badura is a longtime Wilderness Inquiry participant, including on trips to the Rio Grande, Canyonlands, and Apostle Islands. As a person who uses a wheelchair, she appreciates the supportive environment Wilderness Inquiry creates and the accessibility of the Little Sand Basecamp.
Riss Leiztke, who brought the perspective as a person who is deaf/blind, was introduced to Wilderness Inquiry as a high school student intern. This experience sparked an interest in the outdoors, leading to a degree in Environmental and Outdoor Education. Riss is now an accessibility advocate and has invaluable insight in how to make programming universally accessible.
Laura Oftedahl has extensive outdoor experience and shared insight as a person with a visual impairment. Her first experience with Wilderness Inquiry was kayaking in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. She had such a great experience that she invited another friend with a visual impairment to join her on a trip to the Florida Everglades and 10,000 Islands.
One of the resounding themes our panelists echoed is the importance of communication. This includes the accessibility of information on a website (easily accessible for visually impaired users), information about trails (conditions, elevation change, distance between benches, etc), use of plain language on signage (especially important for those with intellectual disabilities or communication disorders such as autism) and ease of connecting with someone to answer questions.
We also focused on customer service interactions and it was stressed how important it is to talk directly to the person with a disability and not an interpreter or companion when in conversation.
Finally, there is the issue of choice. Panelists asked the group to give people with a disability the choice to make decisions about what is accessible for their own circumstances rather than make assumptions. For instance, someone using a manual wheelchair could manage different types of terrain than someone using a power wheelchair. By giving information about trail conditions up front, users can make their own determinations on whether it is accessible for them.
The virtual chat was busy with questions from NPS staff about panelist personal experiences, including the use of service dogs and programmatic access.
David Thomson, Midwest Region Program Manager for RTCA expressed his enthusiasm for inclusion and the many universal benefits. He asked if Wilderness Inquiry had any parting thoughts on how to become an inclusive organization, and our panel’s response was: “Ask how, not why.” Inclusion is a process that everyone must embrace. We learn more about it and how to become more inclusive every day.
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