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MN Expands Opportunities for 'Wheelchair Hiking' in State Parks

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Friday, July 21, 2023   

Spending time at state and national parks has often been linked with health benefits, but accessing sites has long been a barrier for those with mobile disabilities, and efforts in states like Minnesota aim to change it.

Starting Aug. 1, the Department of Natural Resources will bring its all-terrain track chair program to eight additional state parks. The initiative started last year at five other sites.

The adaptive devices work like a wheelchair but are fitted with rotating tracks, similar to an army tank, making it easier to navigate trails.

Jamie McBride, state park and recreation area program consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said it will allow people with disabilities to take in the scenery and fresh air like everyone else.

"That pilot project showed that visitors were gaining a sense of independence, [and] they were able to explore the trails as a family, rather than having somebody have to stay back at a campsite or a picnic shelter," McBride explained.

In putting together plans, McBride noted they studied a similar effort in Colorado. A recent survey in Frontiers in Psychology found 99% of people using wheelchairs report enjoying nature, but nearly 40% said they avoid green spaces because of accessibility issues.

McBride pointed out offering the devices aligns with broader efforts to eliminate barriers for marginalized populations to visit state parks.

"State parks, national parks were built in a time when these barriers weren't necessarily considered," McBride acknowledged. "All new development has to meet ADA requirements. That doesn't mean state parks are fully accessible, however."

He's referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. McBride added as they update sites, they will keep exploring ways to make parks less restrictive to those with physical limitations while balancing the need to protect nature.

The new state budget is expected to help by prioritizing funding for an agency program keeping accessibility in mind when modernizing parks.


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