How to make the outdoors more attractive to someone in a wheelchair?
July 21, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I love the outdoors but want to spend more time with someone in a wheelchair, any ideas for compromise?

My teenage niece is in a wheelchair most of the time (and has been since she was only a few years old). She can transfer and walk short distances with and arm or hand railing for assistance. She is fun and mature and perfectly normal - really awesome in fact, and I love spending time with her. We often go to the movies, do crafts, or play board games together. She loves books and plays multiple instruments.

However, some of my favorite things in the world are sports, the outdoors, adventure, traveling, and fitness. Understandably, she says she hates sports in general. She is a decent swimmer (in a rec pool) and has a cool 3-wheeled bicycle which she is quite good at riding, but I don't have a car big enough to transport it to a bike trail. She does have a fold-up wheelchair that I can fit in my trunk so going to any accessible place is totally doable.

I'm not her mom, so I'm not into forcing her to do anything outside of her comfort zone that will make her dislike me - but I do want to expand her horizons of what she thinks is possible. I am also reasonably selfish so I'd like to spend my spare time doing things I really enjoy. Besides, borrowing a kid-partner to do things you want to do and need someone to enjoy it with you is one of the perks of being a childless adult with a job and a gaggle of nieces and nephews that like the individual attention. I'd even be up for preparing myself by taking something like a first aid or lifeguarding course if I thought it would help us find something interesting and active to do together while still feeling safe.

We went to Disney World a few years back and that worked well because they are exceptionally attentive to accessibility. That's a bit young for her now and I crave something more adventurous. We live in a nice midwestern US city with good access to and airport, the Megabus, and a regional Amtrak line - but no major natural features like national parks nearby, fwiw.

Are there any websites or online resources for accessible traveling and active pursuits? Any experience with tour companies who specialize in outdoor adventures for those with mixed abilities? Can you help give me any ideas of things we can do together?
posted by faheypb to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Fishing is a nice way to be outdoors and can be done easily from a dock/pier. If you want to add a little to it you can go canoeing and then fish from the canoe. It may not be feasible for your niece to help with the canoeing but if you aren't in a rush or going super far carrying a passenger is no big deal. Kayaking may be a better activity for her than canoeing, but won't be as good for the fishing.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:12 PM on July 21, 2011

My wife could be described similarly; she has cerebral palsy, can walk short distances but can't run at all. Her mom made her wear a helmet when she was little because she fell over so often. We once did a 2.4 mile hike and it was a huge effort. She avoids most sports but can swim.

A few years ago we took a whitewater rafting trip on the New river in West Virginia, and my wife loved it. We alerted the company ahead of time, and they put us in the raft with their most senior / seasoned guide. My wife sat in the middle of the raft's middle seat, sandwiched between me and a trainee guide, so she didn't have to paddle. She was terrified at first, but I think she'd do it again in a heartbeat.
posted by jon1270 at 3:14 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Accessible Opportunities in National Parks is a National Park Service webpage with information on accessibility by region and park, and you can find similar pages and resources by state (for example, locations of beach wheelchairs, available to borrow free of charge). has a list of wheelchair accessible trails, sorted by state.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:18 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Vancouver's former mayor Sam Sullivan is a pioneer in accessible outdoor experiences. He started this group based in British Columbia specifically to solve this problem -- their main innovation is the "trailrider", an inexpensive off-road style wheelchair. I'm sure you could contact them and they would put you in touch with any local resources that may exist. Here is a list of organizations I found on their website.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

They make "hiking" wheelchairs, with giant oversized tires (like mountain-bike vs street bike) and a heavier-duty suspension (and probably other appropriate features I don't readily recognize).

You won't exactly do any technical terrain, but I've seen them occasionally on the trail and they can easily manage 90% of the trails I've encountered (as an avid day-hiker myself).
posted by pla at 4:16 PM on July 21, 2011

Adaptive horseback riding programs? Hang gliding and/or ultralight piloting? Small craft sailing? Dog sledding?

(Really though, the horseback riding- there are some pretty excellent programs that let you camp and ride. Camp for the nights- ride to see the scenic vistas during the days. The Grand Canyon is ADA compliant at the bottom, is all I am saying.)
posted by aint broke at 5:06 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

A lot of the beaches in cities on lakes have very extensive boardwalks, which are wheelchair friendly. I remember Wildwood from high school, and now that I'm in Rochester I can think of Ontario Beach at the north of our city. So, yeah, gorgeous outdoors, seeing loads of funloving people, and like you mentioned about swimming - it's always water adjacent.
posted by carlh at 5:28 PM on July 21, 2011

Seconding horseback riding. I also went hot air ballooning with someone who uses a wheelchair, and that was a fun outdoor adventure.
posted by southern_sky at 7:42 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

If she and you enjoy looking at architecture and gardens, many cities have historical or garden districts. It's a lot of fun to roll & stroll along looking at Victorian Gingerbread houses or Urban Post Modern buildings. I love rolling through established neighborhoods and looking at and smelling the flowers.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:56 PM on July 21, 2011

My husband is in a wheelchair (with much the same mobility as your niece) and mentors at a Wheelchair Sports Camp for kids. He attended when he was a kid and firmly believes in the work it does expanding horizons for kids in wheelchairs. Some of the activities they do:

Basketball (wheelchair basketball at the pro level is brutal! Take her to a game!)
Martial Arts

And tons more. Off-road stuff will take special equipment (I know they make both hiking and beach tires for chairs), but there's a ton of stuff you can do with someone of the mobility level of your niece. I'll show this thread to my husband and see if I can get him to contribute any more suggestions/details.
posted by ninjakins at 6:50 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd posit that the link of accessible National Park opportunities is woefully incomplete (or they are just going for large opportunities). For example, at Zion NP there were certainly some wheelchair accessible trails along the Zion valley floor and the Virgin River. Probably quite a bit more of the valley would be accessible with one of those hiking wheelchairs that was mentioned (although I bet it would take some fitness).
posted by mmascolino at 7:57 AM on July 22, 2011

Another recommendation for horseback riding. You may want to try to find a PATH (formerly NARHA) center in her area for her to take some lessons and try talking to the instructors about the two of you being able to trail ride together as a goal. That would give her a chance to learn basic riding skills and figure out what adaptations (e.g. a mounting platform, specific reins, other adaptive equipment) would be needed for her to feel comfortable and safe on a horse. Once you've got that down, it's just a matter of finding trail riding establishments that can accommodate whatever it is she needs.

I teach therapeutic riding, and my students who have physical challenges find it to be a pretty awesome experience in terms of freedom, mobility, and how it can level the playing field between them and those without a disability (some of my therapeutic students are a lot gutsier than friends and family members I've put on a horse).
posted by scandalamity at 8:23 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

These responses are great! Gives me some solid ideas and a place to start. Thanks to everyone!
posted by faheypb at 8:13 PM on July 22, 2011

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