Could you do it in a wheelchair?
A condensed version of this article appeared in the 2003 September
Sierra Club Yodeler
If a trail, or an outing on that trail, is potentially accessible
for some wheelchair users, it should be so labeled, with details available
covered a lot of unlikely terrain in several different (but all standard-issue)
chairs over more than 20 years, I should be qualified to tell you
what a really inaccessible trail looks like. But what with paraplegic
Mark Wellman climbing El Capitan, and the IBot, a wheelchair that
can climb stairs, now available for the merest $30,000, somebody will
probably prove me wrong. Still, judging whether a trail is potentially
navigable by wheelchair is not rocket science. Most trails don't qualify,
usually for obvious reasons.
Narrowness: Almost all wheelchairs are at least 24 inches wide,
and need extra space for turns. This rules out footpaths that
run in a deep groove or are cut into a steep hillside, as well
as ones closely overhung by trees or rocks.
Obstacles: usually rocks, deep ruts, roots and logs. Often these
are just about continuous, and almost no wheelchair user is interested
in struggling with them. And big ones, like a stream to ford,
or a locked gate are deal busters. But it may be possible to get
past a few more modest obstacles, depending on the disabled person's
desires, the chair s/he has, and the assistance available.
Steepness: Wheelchairs can't handle grades an ordinary car won't
take, and this includes transverse (side to side) slope. On pavement,
strong manual chair users may be defeated by loss of traction
well before reaching the limits of their strength, where a power
chair weighing over 200 lbs has no trouble. My chair is in no
danger of tipping either forward or backward on the slope pictured,
but skids uncontrollably unless I keep my weight over its drive
wheels by backing down. And the combination of poor traction and
steepness is difficult for everyone, especially if able-bodied
assistants can't get good footing. As with obstacles, if a steep
stretch is short, it may be possible to get past it, but if most
of the trail is very steep, we can call it inaccessible.
Surfacing: something that might not be self evident is that wheelchairs
do extremely badly in soft sand, even worse than cars. Soft dirt
or gravel can be just as bad, and even a few feet of it can be
very difficult. Many trails, and virtually all beaches, are inaccessible
for this reason alone. Uneven surfaces give an uncomfortable ride
and are very hard work for manual chair users and/or their assistants,
as is soft going such as grass. A power chair handles labor intensive
trails much better, but may overheat (many will stop running without
warning), and will get a lot fewer miles on a battery charge.
Distance is not necessarily a problem, and a trail should not be
disqualified on that count. Most power chairs sold today are rated
to travel "up to" 35 miles, whatever that means, on a single
battery charge, and if the trail is well graded and not too steep,
many can do it at six or more miles an hour. As for manual chair users,
think of Mark Wellman. Some are amazing athletes (and some travel
with willing, very fit assistants).
A trail judged potentially accessible by the above standards may
not be useable and/or appealing for most wheelchair users, but this
should be their decision. Information should be available so that
they can decide for themselves. --Ann Sieck