Where is the Outrage Against Inaccessibility?

By Chris Kain, kellisaspath.com

My 23-year-old daughter, Kellisa, is one of the 13.7% adults in the United States with a mobility disability.*

Over the last two decades, Kellisa has visited 31 of the 63 national parks across the United States. Some parks we've only visited once for a few hours, like Denali in Alaska; while we've been to others many times, for instance, the Everglades at the southern tip of Florida. We never kept official records, but we can say with great confidence that it is rare to see someone with mobility limitations in a national park, especially if the visitor is limited to a wheeled mobility device to get around. That's not to say these disabled visitors don't enjoy the park from a moving vehicle, we just don't see them out enjoying a trail.

Slickrock trail in the Southwest: are these parks accessible?

Disabled Hikers Seldom Found on Trails Deep in National Parks

Kellisa's has been pushed in wheelchairs, jog strollers and specially adapted mobility chairs hundreds of miles on many trails throughout the national park system and we've only crossed paths with one other visitor dependent on a mobility device along a non-accessible trail. While hiking in Arches National Park, we came across another family using a jog stroller for their 7- or 8-year-old son who couldn't walk on his own.

When we met them, the mother was carrying her son so he could have a better view. We were more than 2,000 miles from home and were surprised to learn our new friends lived less than an hour south of our home at the time in Jacksonville, Florida.

That was June 2007, and we haven't encountered another park visitor dependent on wheels in the wilderness away from scenic overlooks, visitor centers, paved sidewalks, etc. since.

Montage of Kelissa in different National Parks

Because we are well connected within the disability world, we do know many people who are pushing the boundaries in our national parks and there is a greater awareness being raised with awesome events like Ride Rainier, an annual gathering of wheelchair users who enjoy a wheelchair accessible trail in Mount Rainier National Park. We also see articles and news flashes of young, active adventurers who have suffered from an injury or disease that takes their mobility from them getting back out in the outdoors with adaptive gear.

Only Small Percentages of the Nation's Most Popular Parks are Accessible

According to the United States Department of Transportation, 2.9 million Americans over 5-year-old use manual wheelchairs. An additional 975,000 use motorized wheelchairs. Accessible trails also benefit the almost 21 million Americans who use canes, walkers, scooters and crutches to be mobile.

As you can imagine, an article posted by Travel + Leisure rating the accessibility of our national parks caught my attention. Badlands National Park in South Dakota stood alone at the top as the most wheelchair accessible park out of the 63. I had visited the Badlands once, alone and before I was aware of accessibility issues and don't have a firsthand opinion.

Referencing a study completed by Aging in Place, the article mentions the Badlands has 3 wheelchair friendly trails. Before I could get too excited, the article pointed out that those trails consisted of 17% of the park's trails. Instead of getting excited, my first thought was, "only 17?"

The Grand Canyon came in second with two dozen wheelchair friendly trails, but those represent barely 10% of their total trails. Yellowstone, the first and probably most well-known of all the national parks, ranked third with 16 wheelchair accessible trails. While 16 seems like an impressive number for one park, those trails accounted for less than 6% of all the trails in Yellowstone.

Kelissa in the Redwoods

I couldn't help but wonder, "what park is the least wheelchair friendly?"

Pinnacles National Park in California has the distinction of ranking last. Travel + Leisure reported zero wheelchair accessible trails. I found this hard to believe and decided to do my own investigation. According to Pinnacles National Park's official website, they now report having 1 of their 8 trails meeting ADA requirements for wheelchair accessibility along with a short section of a second trail being improved to handle visitors on wheels.

Since Pinnacles National Park is one of the most recent additions to the national park system and on the smaller side, it's not surprising the park only has 8 trails totaling a little more than 30 miles.

If I recalculate Pinnacles, they would vault up the list with 12.5% of their trails and 3.3% of the total trail miles now wheelchair accessible.

Since Kellisa has never been to Pinnacles National Park and it's only 200 miles from our current residence in Roseville, CA, we will be visiting (and reporting) on the accessibility in the next couple of months. 

Several other parks report having only one wheelchair accessible trail, including the wildly popular Zion National Park in southern Utah. In fact, Zion is the second most visited national park reporting more than 5 million visitors in 2021.

I think the article was supposed to be a mostly positive piece pointing to the accessible features and how getting outside benefits the mind and body, but since I live in the disabled world with a mobility restricted daughter who happens to love national parks, I felt anger instead of pride.

People with Disabilities Continually Overlooked in Access to the Great Outdoors

Where else in our society would these percentages be acceptable?

If any large group of people were told they could only see and enjoy less than 6% of Yellowstone National Park based on their race, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status., etc., I strongly believe there would be relentless outrage and rightfully so.

I can imagine reporters racing to Yellowstone to show the blatant discrimination with words and pictures. Politicians would give endless speeches about the inequality and promise to throw millions of dollars towards the problem. The American people wouldn't tolerate such disparity and demand immediate change and call for boycotts of the iconic park.  

Kelissa on a boardwalk trail in the woods

But since it's disabled people suffering, sadly, you hear and see very little being done to change and improve access in the national park system.

While I strongly agree with Deb Haaland, the current United States Secretary of the Interior, "Everyone should have access to the outdoors" and former President Barack Obama when he stated, "One great thing about national parks is they belong to everybody," I also strongly believe the mobility disabled aren't fairly considered and included in our national parks.

Visitor centers, bookstores, water fountains, bathrooms, overlooks, parking spaces, a few picnic tables, an occasional campsite, and sidewalks are all nice, and I realize people and families who have to deal with disabilities on a daily basis are worn out and have greater fights to fight, but we need to find the time, strength and power to demand more access to the beautiful places our national parks protect for all people to enjoy.

We are the outrage!

About the Author:

Chris Kain is Kellisa's adventurous and devoted father. With a blog (www.kellisaspath.com), Chris shares Kellisa's medical journey (not expected to survive more than a few hours after birth, 22 surgeries and countless brushes with death) and how she lives a life without limits (hiking, camping, kayaking, dancing, bike riding, playing little league baseball, bowling, bungee jumping and many other activities) as she continues to break the stereotypes of a young woman dependent on a wheelchair.

*13.7 percent of U.S. adults have a mobility disability with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

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