Accessible Recreation and Your Outdoor Business

By: Peter Abele, Erie Canal Boat Company

As much as 20-30% of the general population are largely untapped sectors of the US recreation/tourism market.  Programming to accommodate these sectors, which include individuals with a disability and their families, has been historically disregarded by businesses. This is a great area of opportunity for outdoor recreation businesses. 

Since the introduction of the Americans with Disability Act in 1990 the advocacy for those with a disability has increased exponentially, along with the implementation of the ADA regulations.  Increasingly, advocacy by organizations and individuals has pushed businesses to include people with disabilities, continuing to stress the need for access to both private and public recreational activities and facilities to promote an overall higher quality of life. 

Consider making your business accessible and inclusive of people of all disabilities. Some concepts that all recreational businesses should become familiar with are adaptive programming, inclusive programming and universal design. Embracing these concepts will advance your business into a new marketing realm, and, most importantly, will increase access of people with disabilities to the benefits of the services you provide.

Woman in wheelchair prepares to kayak

Adaptive Programming

Adaptive programs are typically geared specifically towards a person with a disability. As such, businesses will develop specific outings and trips for customers with disabilities and perhaps their supportive organizations. There are benefits and considerations for this type of programming. Certainly, these programs increase participation by people with disabilities and can result in very beneficial experiences. For the business, such outings involve scheduling a specific date/time, and coordinating personnel for the event -- both of which have some distinct advantages. 

Adaptive programming has other benefits, including getting to know individuals who typically participate as groups, usually associated with a service organization. Outreach can occur through these organizations as word-of-mouth advertising does occur. There can be, however, higher costs, risks, and anxieties. Let’s take a rafting trip as an example. The raft must be loaded in a safe manner which ensures success of all paddlers, including determining the number of additional safety personnel, and what the optimal seating arrangement will be. What kind of and how much additional equipment is needed to accommodate any of the guests? The challenge of understanding the individual needs of every customer is magnified when working with groups in adaptive programs.    

Inclusive Programming 

Inclusive programming is the concept that our business is welcoming to everyone any time our doors are open.  When we operate inclusively, we invite the general public which includes organizations, individuals with and without disabilities, and their family and friends. The entire community becomes our marketing scope.  With over 25% of the population having some sort of disability, intellectual or physical, aging related, or acquired, the opportunity to increase access to an underserved market can help various aspects of your business, including your bottom line.

When striving towards inclusive programming, it is vitally important to demonstrate your company’s ability to work with various types of people -- and equipment.  Building trust and showing staff competency is of the utmost importance. The likelihood of repeat visits increases when a guest’s positive experience has been filled by a knowledgeable well-trained staff who show a true desire to be inclusive.

With this approach to business, we focus on service delivery every day, and this eliminates some of the challenges presented by an Adaptive Programming approach. We may see one or two people come together, one with a disability and one without.  Or a family of 4 with one person with a disability. Safety and planning for this kind of interaction becomes different than group planning. Having one or two people with a disability, along with family or friends, on a raft is quite a different scenario that figuring out how to safely fill a number of rafts with 10 people with disabilities.

At Erie Canal Boat Company, we continue to see greater return on our investment in inclusive programming than from our Adaptive Programming. From a bottom-line perspective, we get more returning guests after hosting an Open House event which introduces them to the equipment we have than we do from individuals in the group programs. From a social aspect, Inclusive programming opens the opportunity for the entire community - with and without disabilities - to interact with your business and with each other. This inevitably creates shared experiences which can positively impact your business and how the community values people with disabilities.

Universal Design

Universal design is a way of looking and designing the world through someone else's eyes.  Envision your business from a customer’s perspective, driving up in a car, exiting the car and walking towards your business. A simple process, right? Now picture yourself as an individual with a disability driving up to your business. How far away are the accessible parking spaces? What is the surface of the parking lot?  If you were in a wheelchair, using a walker or on crutches, what would the experience be? Are there any stairs or curbs obstructing the pathway? Can someone that is Deaf or Blind or speaks a non-English language communicate with your staff? Universal Design is about increasing access to everyone of all abilities.


Take the Next Step

Could your business benefit by becoming accessible to everyone? The answer is most definitely yes. Recreation businesses can become the leaders in reaching underserved markets in our communities.  I believe it’s time to embrace the realities of who lives in our communities and grow our business accordingly. Resources for building an inclusive business are abundant. Research adaptive equipment for your business, ask questions of local and national organizations that work with individuals with disabilities.  Explore grant programs and funding projects, including state and federal agencies that provide incentives for reaching various underserved sectors of the populations. The bottom line, change may be coming to our business, you can embrace it or be forced to accept it.


Read more

To learn more about the local organization that the author worked with when he began this journey, read this article about Rochester Accessible Adventures. 

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