Adaptive recreation helps people with disabilities enjoy outdoor recreation

Parks systems across Southeast Michigan are working to eliminate barriers and make outdoor recreation a more easily accessible experience for residents with disabilities.
This story is part of Equity in Our Parks, a series highlighting the people and organizations advancing equity through Southeast Michigan’s parks and related programming. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, City of Detroit, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. 

It's an uncommonly chilly late April day at Willow Metropark in New Boston, but a group of people with disabilities are excitedly gearing up for a bike ride along the park's trails. Participants unload a truck full of standard, recumbent, and tandem bikes, chatting and laughing with each other and their group leader, John Waterman, founder and executive director of the Ypsilanti nonprofit Programs to Educate All Cyclists (PEAC). Waterman asks the group if they would feel comfortable navigating the park's trails on their own, outside of a PEAC group.

"I know this trail left and right," says participant Nick Prusakiewicz. "But it's not easy. It's difficult."

However, he adds, being able to get outdoors and cycle "feels great."
Cyclists practice in a parking lot at Willow Metropark before hitting the trail.
Since 1988, Waterman has been working doggedly to ensure that Prusakiewicz and other people with disabilities can enjoy Michigan's outdoors. He notes that adaptive equipment, which allows people with disabilities to participate in outdoor recreation, has come a long way, but "the frustrating part becomes seeing how few individuals get that access." 

"It's only the most elite – the people that have a program in that area, or the families that are outdoor families that are extremely motivated and say, 'Hey, we don't care if you have a disability. You're going out with us,'" Waterman says.

Parks systems across Southeast Michigan are working to eliminate barriers and make outdoor recreation a more easily accessible experience for residents with disabilities, offering services ranging from specialized programming to a wide range of adaptive equipment.

"I always say that regardless of your socioeconomic status or ethnicity, whatever the case, parks bring people together, and that should mean all people," says Wayne County Parks Director Alicia Bradford.

Adaptive recreation programming

Southeast Michigan's parks systems offer a variety of programming dedicated to people with disabilities. For example, Oakland County Parks' adaptive recreation program will offer over 80 different programs this year, each tailored to specific sports, pieces of equipment, or disabilities. Similarly, this summer Huron-Clinton Metroparks will offer a series of adaptive recreation events, offering guided opportunities for people with disabilities to learn to use equipment like beach wheelchairs or adaptive kayaking gear. 

Many of these programs are conducted in partnership between organizations. For example, Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Oakland County Parks both often collaborate with the Disability Network of Eastern Michigan, as well as with each other, to present programming for people with disabilities. Sandy Dorey, recreation supervisor at Oakland County Parks, says partnership helps the organizations share expertise and increase their programming capacity, which is necessary given high demand.

"Right now, there's hardly anyone doing programs," Dorey says. "So you can automatically just create a program and the need pretty much follows."
Wayne County's sensory tent at a sensory-friendly marshmallow drop at Nankin Mills Interpretive Center in Westland.
Some parks systems offer amenities tailored to the needs of people with certain disabilities at events that are open to the general public. That's a big plus for Waterman, who notes that recreation is "the most segregated part" of people with disabilities' lives. One example of this type of offering is a sensory tent for people with cognitive disabilities, which Wayne County recently began offering at major events throughout the year. The tent functions as a quiet zone, removed from the hustle and bustle of the main event, with fidget toys, headphones, and other amenities available. If a person with a cognitive disability becomes overstimulated by the main event, they can recharge in the sensory tent.

Wayne County has also introduced sensory-friendly versions of some popular events, such as a sensory-friendly marshmallow drop held this March. Bradford notes that disability inclusivity efforts are often focused just on those with physical disabilities, but those with cognitive disabilities deserve consideration as well.
A sensory-friendly marshmallow drop at Nankin Mills Interpretive Center in Westland. After marshmallows are dropped from a fire truck ladder, children can turn them in for prizes.
"They want to have outdoor programming. They want to have educational programming," she says. "We're all just the same. It just requires another additional special attention for those individuals." 

Year-round amenities

While Waterman says it's valuable to have specific events (or sections of events) dedicated to people with disabilities, such offerings can also be frustrating.

"You get to experience it once a year, and everyone feels good about it, and then we take our toys and go somewhere else and somebody else gets to experience it," he says. "But then you're still at home 362 days a year."

Fortunately, some Southeast Michigan parks offer adaptive recreation equipment and facilities that can be used year-round. For example, many of the 13 Huron-Clinton Metroparks offer adaptive equipment to rent or borrow, ranging from floating beach wheelchairs to "sit skis" that do not require use of one's legs. Danielle Mauter, chief of marketing and communications for the Metroparks, says one-off programs also work hand-in-hand with year-round equipment availability, helping visitors with disabilities learn how to use equipment that is new to them.

"[The Metroparks] had really positive comments that [visitors] sent back to us about how great it is [to have] this equipment available in the Metroparks for them to use," she says. "But then to have the structured program, to actually have somebody there to help them feel more comfortable to use it the first time as their first experience, made them feel like they could come back and do it again."

In other cases, people with disabilities simply need some flexibility to be able to use facilities that are open to all. Myreo Dixon regularly leads wheelchair basketball, wheelchair softball, and handcycling classes at the Metroparks in his role as the adaptive sports coordinator at the Detroit-based Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan (RIM) Foundation. The nonprofit promotes rehabilitation of people with life-altering disabilities. Dixon has been a wheelchair user since 1988, when gun violence left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 18. Dixon says wheelchair basketball helped him "come out of the black hole of depression" after his injury, and he's passionate about teaching adaptive recreation to others.

Dixon says he and his colleagues at the RIM Foundation have encountered challenges trying to find facilities to accommodate their programming. Some have raised concerns that wheelchair users will mark up basketball courts, while others have relegated RIM Foundation groups to undesirable time slots. But he says the Metroparks have been a "great partner" to the foundation, making basketball courts available to them and also engaging in conversations about the possibility of creating a dedicated wheelchair softball diamond.

"They think about people with physical challenges or disabilities in the forefront instead of in hindsight," Dixon says. "They think about us, they ask our opinions, and we really appreciate that."

Systemic change

Beyond programming or adaptive equipment, local parks systems are also working to make broader changes to increase understanding throughout their organizations of the needs of people with disabilities. For instance, Wayne County Parks staff recently completed training through KultureCity, a national organization that provides a certification in inclusivity for those with unique sensory needs. Bradford says that supporting such individuals entails more than just setting up a sensory-friendly tent.

"We're really getting the training to understand and be able to expand our programming, and expand our recreation improvements across the parks, to meet those needs," she says.

The Huron-Clinton Metroparks have engaged representatives of local organizations who work directly with people with disabilities to form a volunteer council that has consulted directly on some major Metroparks projects. The Fun, Accessible, Inclusive Recreation (FAIR) Play Coalition has weighed in on projects like the universally accessible playground at Kensington Metropark's Maple Beach, providing input on how the facility could best serve people with disabilities. 

"As we do more and more of this work, it has become something that more and more staff think of in their day to day work," Mauter says. "So when a project gets started, it's no longer what has to be added. It's more part of the conversation. It's baked in, so to speak."
Kids enjoy the sensory room at Nankin Mills Interpretive Center in Westland.
Dorey hopes that the continuing growth of disability equity efforts in Southeast Michigan's parks will build more understanding of disability not just among parks staff, but among the general public. She thinks most people don't understand just how difficult it can be for a person with a disability to enjoy the outdoors.

"When you can offer someone an opportunity to recreate and enjoy life, that's what it's all about," she says. "I don't do this for the money. It's basically the rewards of the job – to see that kid's smile when they get done doing a program, or that mom and dad get a little break while we take the kids out to do a program. It's just a very rewarding job."

If you enjoyed this story, check out more Equity in Our Parks stories here, and keep an eye out for more to come.

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the Equity in our Parks series. He's also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

Marshmallow drop photos by Nick Hagen. PEAC photos by Patrick Dunn.
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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere