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Wilderness Visitor Accessibility Toolbox

This toolbox contains resources for managers to help insure accessibility for wilderness visitors. It provides information on relevant legislation, managing agency policy and practices, resources, and references. In addition to the resources provided here, you may also be able to obtain advice and recommendations through discussion on Wilderness Connect. Date of last update: 9/13/16.
  1. Legislation
    1. American with Disabilities Act, Title V Section 508 (c)
      Federally Designated Wilderness
      IN GENERAL - Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act prohibits wheelchair use in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires its use. The Wilderness Act requires no agency to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

      (2) Definition - for the purposes of paragraph (1), the term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.
    2. S. 783 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Accessibility and Fairness Act of 1997
    3. Accessibility Laws for Gates, Berms and Barriers
  2. Management Regulations, Policies, and Practices
    1. Agency Policy
      1. BLM
        1. 43 CFR 6302.17
          Sec. 6302.17 When may I use a wheelchair in BLM wilderness?

          If you have a disability that requires the use of a wheelchair, you may use a wheelchair in a wilderness. Consistent with the Wilderness Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 12208), BLM is not required to facilitate such use by building any facilities or modifying any conditions of lands within a wilderness area.

          BLM Manual 6340
          1.6.B.2.h mechanical transport.[mechanical transport] does not include wheelchairs suitable for indoor use when used by a person with a mobility impairment

          1.6.B.3.iii specific exception in other legislation. Rarely, a specific exception may be included in legislation that does not designate wilderness. For instance, Section 508(c) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows people with mobility impairments to use wheelchairs in wilderness. For the purpose of wilderness, the ADA defines a wheelchair as "a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area." It should be noted, however, the ADA says "no agency is required...to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of the lands within a wilderness to facilitate such use."
      2. FWS
        2.38 How does the Service address special needs for people with disabilities?

        A. The Secretary's regulations on "Nondiscrimination in Federally Assisted Programs in the Department of the Interior" (43 CFR part 17) require that we operate all programs and activities so that they are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities to the greatest extent practicable. However, 43 CFR 17.550 does not require agencies to take any actions or provide access that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a program or activity. The agency has the burden of proving that compliance would result in a fundamental alteration.

        B. ADA section 508(c) does not require agencies to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation or construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate use. Although we are not required to provide any special treatment to provide access for people with disabilities, if we make a modification to accommodate visitor use, we should consider the principles of Universal Design to provide the appropriate level of accessibility that does not diminish wilderness resource values. For example, if a toilet is necessary to protect the wilderness from the impact of many visitors, we should make the toilet as accessible as possible within its primitive design, to the extent that it does not diminish wilderness resource values.

        C. Our legal obligation is to make equal opportunities available for people with disabilities and includes the opportunity to participate in wilderness experiences. When responding to requests for special consideration to provide wilderness access to people with disabilities, management decisions must comply with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1978), and section 508(c) of the ADA. Our decisions should balance the intent of the disabilities laws with wilderness laws and find a way to provide the highest level of access for those with disabilities with the lowest level of impact to wilderness.

        D. We allow wheelchairs in wilderness if they meet the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) definition (see 610 FW 1.4EE.). We will provide reasonable accommodation to people using wheelchairs in wilderness without compromising wilderness character and its values.

        E. A publication entitled the "Wilderness Access Decision Tool" (available from the Carhart Center on the Internet) provides more guidance to assist managers in making suitable, objective, and consistent decisions about people with disabilities using wilderness areas.
      3. FS
        1. FS Regulations and Policy for Wheelchairs
        2. Highlights
        3. DOJ Accessibility Update August 2010
      4. NPS
        2006 Management Policy, Chapter 6 Wilderness Stewardship, 6.4.10 Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities
        The National Park Service has legal obligations to make available equal opportunities for people with disabilities in all programs and activities. This requirement includes the opportunity to participate in wilderness experiences. Management decisions responding to requests for special consideration to provide wilderness use by persons with disabilities must be in accord with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended in 1978), and section 508(c) of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 USC 12208(c)). Such decisions should balance the intent of access and wilderness laws and find a way of providing the highest level of protection to the wilderness resource.

        Section 17.550 of the Secretary of the Interior’s regulations regarding the enforcement of nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in Department of Interior programs (43 CFR Part 17, subpart E) states that agencies are not required to take any actions or provide access that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a program or activity. However, the agency has the burden of proving that compliance would result in a fundamental alteration. This concept is also found in section 508(c) of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

        (See Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities 1.9.3, 8.2.4, and 9.1.2. Also see Director’s Order #42: Accessibility for Visitors with Disabilities in National Park Service Programs and Services)
  3. Resources and References
    1. Wilderness and Accessibility Webinar
      Delivered by the Forest Service National Accessibility Program Manager, Janet Zeller. Includes, among other things, a key section on "when is a wheelchair not a wheelchair".
    2. Zeller, J. 2008. Wilderness and Accessibility. International Journal of Wilderness 14(1): 15-18, 24.
    3. FS
      1. Websites
        1. USFS Internal National Accessibility Website
          Includes: past webinars (PPT, audio, transcripts and handouts), all accessibility documents, white papers, etc.
        2. USFS Public National Accessibility Website
      2. National Accessibility Program Manager - Janet Zeller: jzeller@fs.fed.us