Conclusions and Recommendations
The physical accessibility of the challenge course itself was not addressed in this study. This area needs to be assessed through other means. Accessibility in and around programming sites was part of this study. The results indicate that accessibility around the high and low challenge courses is not a highly developed aspect of these programs. It is not unusual that courses are built in undeveloped areas where the terrain is difficult to negotiate. This should not be a reason for lack of accessibility. Trails will still need to be built and areas around the course elements cleared as part of typical construction. Having a site that is relatively level and free of hazards on and above the ground is consistent with current practices when serving any population. These hazards include tree roots, holes, large rocks, low-hanging branches, poison ivy, steep drop-offs, and sharp edges on the elements. In addition to areas around the elements, trails should be level, firm, and free of obstacles, belay areas should be level and firm, and debriefing areas should be accessible as well. For information, read the NCHPAD factsheet on trail accessibility.
A strength of these programs is their philosophy of including participants with disabilities. This was expected because these persons were selected for the study based on their existing practice of including people with disabilities. Still, it is encouraging that their practice is rooted in a philosophy of inclusion. Another area of strength was the application of safe practices in the field and on the courses. There is little about physical or mental disability that prevents the use of typical spotting and belaying techniques. In fact, with little more than some harness padding or increased numbers of spotters, belay and spotting systems are very similar for everyone on the course. This is one area that cannot allow for much deviation in how it is done. One concern is what is happening in situations where the facilitator does not know how to adapt the harness or spotting system, or does not have the equipment, such as the right type of full body harness, for the participant. Are these participants sitting out of that event, or asked to be involved in some other way that is secondary to the main experience? As previously mentioned, if the facilitator is not sure how to include the participant safely, then it is best to not put him or her in harm's way. Unfortunately, this results in a compromised experience for the participant and the group.
A participant is pulled up to a high elements course. Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods.
Once the agency has this prescreen information about a person's disability, it needs to know how it will affect the program plan for that individual and group. The person may make some suggestions as to how it might affect his or her experience, and those certainly should be valued, but participants are not the experts on challenge course programming. The facilitator has the ultimate responsibility for safety, and is expected to apply his or her knowledge about disabling conditions, activity analysis, and activity adaptations to develop a well-reasoned program plan. Once participants are active in the program and have a better idea of the challenges, they should be included as active agents in any problem-solving regarding their participation. Respondents to this study reported collecting prescreen health information from participants with disabilities, but then indicated limited success in applying this information to areas of the program, such as when dealing with equipment adaptations, environmental conditions, warm-up activities, and specific risks involved with participation due to a disability. A challenge course 'package' that is being presented as accessible to participants with disabilities or one that is based on universal design principles should prepare staff to understand assessment information in the context of a challenge course-based program.
The biggest area of concern with this data is the apparent lack of comprehensive training that prepares staff to include participants with physical and/or other types of disabilities. When asked about receiving soft skills training that covered inclusion, 50% said they received it and 50% said they did not. When asked if they received technical skills training that covered inclusion the response again was 50% yes and 50% no. A third item asked if they had received any additional inclusion training after the initial training. The responses were 57.9% yes and 42.1% no.
The low training-related responses throughout the survey may be due to only half of these programs receiving inclusion training and limited additional inclusion training. Another potential concern is the content of the training that they did receive, though that information is not available from this study. A lack of knowledge about how to adapt equipment and the unique risks that disability presents in activities should be essential components of inclusion training, yet these items were only partially implemented. In addition to a comprehensive initial training, a schedule of ongoing training is necessary to improve areas of operational weakness and provide growth opportunities for staff.