Skip top navigation

Accessibility and Inclusion in Parks

Individuals of all backgrounds and ages should have the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits that parks and recreation facilities provide. Parks offer a setting where people can explore nature and participate in a variety of fun and educational activities that improve health, well-being, and overall quality of life. Achieving inclusivity in parks and recreation facilities is a prerequisite to providing attractions, services, and programming that make these places a welcoming space serving all visitors. But along with being inclusive, parks and recreation facilities must also be accessible. This is especially important in accommodating people with varying physical capabilities. Many individuals say that the concepts of inclusion and accessibility go hand in hand when it comes to parks and recreation spaces.

In 2017, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) released its “Parks for Inclusion” initiative in which it defined inclusion as “removing barriers, both physical and theoretical, so that all people have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of parks and recreation.” In its initiative, NRPA highlighted the need for policies and practices that prioritize the inclusion of marginalized groups, including individuals with physical disabilities, in ensuring that park programming services and features are accessible. In support of the goals stated in the NRPA initiative, officials at local, state, and national parks throughout the United States are modifying programming and implementing adaptations to provide individuals with mobility, visual, and hearing impairments greater access to the attractions in parks and recreation facilities. Without such modifications, these individuals would otherwise be denied the benefits that parks and recreation spaces provide. Brenda Wiggins, Academic Program Co-Coordinator and associate professor in the Recreation Management program in the School of Sport, Recreation, and Tourism Management (SRTM) at George Mason University, recently provided an overview of some of the adaptations that can be implemented which make parks and recreation facilities more inclusive and more accessible.

ADA Compliance

Public parks, recreation facilities, community centers, and playgrounds must meet the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in making their sites accessible to people with disabilities. Among ADA requirements, bathrooms must be accessible with doorways wide enough for passage of a wheelchair, ramps must be built and installed per certain specifications so they are not too steep, and trails in national parks must be wide enough so that two wheelchairs can maneuver past one another without colliding.

Park playgrounds must also be ADA compliant and designed to meet the needs of children of all abilities. They should also promote a culture where diversity is celebrated. An example of an inclusive playground in the Northern Virginia area is Clemyjontri Park located in Fairfax County. Park agency officials in Fairfax County describe Clemyjontri Park as a place where children who use wheelchairs, walkers, braces, or who have sensory or developmental disabilities, can enjoy a “parallel playground experience of fun and exploration.” This playground features:

  • Ramps that connect structures;
  • Swings with high backs, arm rests and special safety features;
  • Rubber surfacing that allows wheelchairs to roll easily;
  • Lowered monkey bars providing easy access; and
  • Wider openings facilitating easy access to play structures.


For individuals with visual impairments, the use of Braille on signs can help them navigate their surroundings without the assistance of another person acting as a guide. A tactile or relief map that involves the sense of touch is another tool by which an individual with blindness or low vision can orient themselves within a park setting. Other aids may include the use of self-guided audio tours which can be made available through devices installed at information kiosks in the park. These can play pre-recorded descriptions of attractions and events at the park and provide other useful information. Smartphones can also play a significant role in helping individuals with visual impairments. For example, the National Park Service offers self-guided audio tours of many of its parks through apps which can be downloaded to smartphones. This can help individuals with disabilities plan their visit to a park before their arrival.

Mobility Aids

Historically, those with severely compromised mobility have had limited access to the experiences that our national parks can provide. However, thanks to technological advancements and increased emphasis on inclusivity, there have been many innovations that make it possible for all individuals to enjoy the majestic natural environments for which our national parks are known. This is particularly true for national parks that include beaches. For example, at some park beaches in California, including Rodeo Beach and Crissy Field East Beach, mats are available which provide a firm and stable surface on top of the sand that makes it easier to navigate for people who use crutches, a wheelchair, a cane, or a walker. Other recreation spots offer rentals of beach wheelchairs which can transport an individual seamlessly from the parking lot to the waterfront. Beach mats and beach wheelchairs have given individuals with mobility-related disabilities new ways to access the fun and relaxation of being at the beach and enjoying the seaside. For those looking for an even more adventurous outing at the beach, modified surfboards have been developed which can provide an individual with the thrill of riding the waves.

Finally, wheelchair accessible trails can be found at national parks throughout the country. The National Park Service permits off-road mobility wheelchairs and electric scooters utilized primarily for outdoor locomotion to be used anywhere foot travel is allowed. As technology continues to progress, mobility assistance devices will be further adapted and refined to handle rough terrain thus providing individuals with disabilities more opportunities to experience wilderness areas in national parks.

To learn more about degree offerings in the Recreation Management program within George Mason University’s School of Sport, Recreation, and Tourism Management, please visit the program website.