Gary Robb to Retire from Indiana University After Successful Career as Advocate for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities

Gary Robb at Muir Woods

I have always believed and felt that whatever contributions that I have made have been mostly because of the people that I have been fortunate to surround myself with. Success, however that is measured, is not due to my brilliance or intelligence, but is due to my ability to get people to believe in me, my passion for my work and in the greater societal outcomes that we will eventually achieve. Nelson Henderson once wrote, "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit."  I at least feel like that is what I have tried to do. To put it another way (and I don't know who said this)--- You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within. That is what I believe I have been all about.
-Gary Robb, reflecting on his career

After more than three decades as a leader in the fields of therapeutic recreation and accessibility, Gary Robb, Director of the National Center on Accessibility, former Director of Bradford Woods, and Associate Professor at Indiana University, is retiring at the end of May, 2008. His career and “jobs” are best summarized as passionate advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities in outdoor recreation. His leadership, nationally and internationally, has resulted in immeasurable contributions to the field of inclusive recreation. Through his work as a camp director, administrator, center founder, researcher and educator, coupled with various roles on national boards and committees, he has created a greater awareness of the need for accessible recreation that has led to an outgrowth of new opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate and enjoy the benefits of recreation. 

Through his career, he has built Bradford Woods as an international model of outdoor leadership, environmental education and programming for children with disabilities. He is the founding director of the National Center on Accessibility (NCA), one of the premiere resource centers promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in parks and recreation. In addition, he is a founding board member and served as the first president of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, a collaboration of the golf industry, advocates and golfers with disabilities, striving to make the recreational pursuit more accessible to people with disabilities. Gary has served on both the U.S. Access Board’s Recreation Access Advisory Committee and Regulatory Negotiating Committee on Outdoor Developed Areas. Over the years, he has served as president of the National Therapeutic Recreation Society (NTRS) and trustee to the National Recreation and Park Association. He has received distinguished service awards and citations from NTRS including commendations for NCA and Camp Allen, along with founding and coordinating the International Symposium on Therapeutic Recreation. Gary has edited and written more than 50 textbooks and articles. He has made professional presentations to hundreds of organizations and, in the last 10 years alone, he has directed more than $10 million in contracts and grants.

Gary earned his Bachelor of Science in Therapeutic Recreation and a Master of Science in Recreation and Park Administration from the University of Utah. A well-guarded secret, Gary attended Utah on a baseball scholarship, playing left field for the collegiate team. Prior to that, he earned junior college All American mention at the College of Eastern Utah. His batting average his sophomore year was over .600. He was later drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies but decided a job in parks and recreation may be a little more dependable than working his way up to the majors from the Phillies’ farm team. In Salt Lake City, Gary was a recreation therapist and later chief at the Children's Psychiatric Center of the Primary Children's Hospital. In 1970, he began his first stint in teaching as an instructor in the Department of Leisure Studies and Services at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and then as an assistant professor in the Department of Leisure Studies at the University of Illinois. Shortly thereafter, he was named the executive director for Camp Allen in Bedford, New Hampshire.

It wasn’t until 1979 when he was appointed as the executive director of Bradford Woods by Dr Ted Deppe, Chairperson of the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Indiana University, that Gary was truly able to merge his interests in therapeutic recreation with his love for the outdoors. Nestled on 2,400 acres halfway between Bloomington and Indianapolis, Bradford Woods had been a quiet treasure gifted to Indiana University by John Bradford at the urging of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. In the late 1950s, Dr. Reynold Carlson of the University's Recreation Department, a pioneer in the outdoor recreation field, began developing this area into an outdoor teaching lab for students in the IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Gary was appointed by the Chair to see to it that Bradford Woods grow to its great potential as an outdoor learning lab.

Under Gary’s leadership and over the next three decades, Bradford Woods emerged as an international model in camp programming for children with disabilities and environmental education for elementary age students. Gary worked extensively with the Indianapolis-based Riley Children’s Hospital to make Camp Riley a model of progressive outdoor programming for children with severe and profound disabilities. The Bradford Woods model has been studied internationally and has served as a conceptual foundation for other specialty camps developed throughout the United States. In addition, Gary facilitated the development of programming to utilize the 2,400 acre outdoor center of Indiana University year round for environmental, experiential and challenge education, coupled with service learning, leadership, team building and professional development programming. Thousands of Indiana fifth graders have participated in the residential environmental education program at Bradford Woods. Hoosier parents throughout Indiana proudly send their fifth graders off for the week of environmental education while recalling their own experiences of nature hikes and star gazing.  Full story >>

When he became the director at Bradford Woods, there was a deficit and a small budget. By the time he moved from the position, Bradford Woods had become a major and highly successful component of the department, the school and the university. While programmers throughout the United States and abroad have studied the Bradford Woods program model, architects and designers have noted three exemplar projects in historic preservation, universal design and sustainability. In 1994, Gary had oversight for the complete restoration of the Manor House, the former Bradford family residence. Gary and the Bradford Woods staff worked closely with historians and preservation specialists to ensure the renovation would result in a completely accessible facility that retained the historic integrity of the time period for which is was built. The restoration included textiles, furnishings and fixtures reminiscent of the era; renovation to eight sleeping rooms that included bathrooms with roll-in showers; a dining room, training room, several lounging areas and access to all four levels by elevator.

In 1997, it was time to renovate the outdoor amphitheater. Centrally located within the property, it was the place after dinner for campers to gather and sing many a campfire song. Gary, Ed Hamilton, Bradford Woods Assistant Director at the time, and Tom Begley, the BW property manager, envisioned a new design where every single seat in the amphitheater would be accessible. Campers using wheelchairs would no longer be relegated to the top or bottom rows, instead they could sit anywhere, but most importantly, anywhere with their cabin mates. The design, literally, was drawn on a paper napkin, as the story is told. In 1998, the Bradford Woods amphitheater was awarded as an exemplar in universal design at the 21st Century International Conference on Universal Design and as a result has inspired designs for a dozen similar facilities throughout the United States.

When Gary arrived on the property in 1979, one of his first correspondences was to then-Indiana University President John Ryan, describing the need to replace the aging waste management system used on the property. No one ever claimed that action in a university could happen fast. You see, Bradford Woods was expected to be a self-supportive operation under Gary’s tenure. Campus infrastructure was priority and any capital improvements for the outdoor center, located 25 miles from Bloomington, were expected to be covered by program revenues. Likely, it is one of the projects he has had to campaign and champion for the longest in his IU career, but finally, in August 2007, a $1.2 million constructed wetlands was dedicated on the property. The project coupled the wastewater treatment needs of Bradford Woods with environmentally sound and sustainable design that is respectful of the outdoor center. The project came to fruition through a partnership involving Riley Children's Foundation, Indiana University and a private donor. It now serves as a best practice to be studied, not only by Indiana fifth graders visiting Bradford Woods as part of their environmental studies, but also by IU students in outdoor recreation, applied health science, and environmental affairs.

As if there could be any more hours in the day for an associate professor and executive director of a major outdoor center, through the 1990s and 2000, Gary worked tirelessly to broaden recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. In 1989, Gary sparked a collaborative effort with the National Park Service on Project ACCESS. The training programs were designed to educate recreation land management professionals on the rationale, legislative mandates, procedures and methods of providing facilities and programs that were inclusive of people with disabilities. Shortly after the training programs were instituted, Gary was able to garner support from Dr. Herbert Brantley, the Chair of the Department, and HPER Dean Tony Mobley. Together with Professor of therapeutic recreation, Dr. Edward Hamilton, they proposed the concept of expanding Project ACCESS to include research and technical assistance for federal, state and local park and recreation professionals. Through his vision, the National Center on Accessibility was founded in 1992. The unique partnership brought together the National Park Service, the largest federal agency charged with protecting our natural resources and the oldest nationwide university program dedicated to the study of recreation as a major contributor to health and wellness. Gary envisioned a center where practitioners could draw from the research and teaching resources of a research university to remove barriers and, therefore, create more accessible recreation opportunities, ultimately leading to improved quality of life for more than 53 million Americans with disabilities. Over the last 16 years, NCA staff has been able to provide training, technical assistance, consultation and research to thousands of park and recreation practitioners, consumers and advocates who, with new knowledge, have been able to influence inclusion in their own communities.

It’s no secret, Gary has a love for the game of golf. Well handicapped, he has always felt that the benefits of the game could contribute to an improved quality of life for people with disabilities. But how do you make the game, known for its attitudinal and physical barriers, more accessible? Gary conducted research with golf course owners and operators that led to the publication of “From the Bag Drop to the 19th Hole: Tips for Making Individuals with Disabilities Feel Welcome at Your Golf Course” by the USGA in 2000. He co-hosted six national forums on accessible golf to bring the issue to the forefront amongst the leaders in the golf industry. Through those efforts, the National Alliance for Accessible Golf was formed and has since initiated research to develop a community model that is more welcoming of people with disabilities.

Often referred to as one of the legends in the field of therapeutic recreation, Gary will be one of the first to humbly admit that no accomplishment was a single individual’s effort. Throughout his career, he has been known for surrounding himself with good people. His approach to leadership is one where staff is empowered to think outside of the box and see challenges as opportunities. More often than not, past and present staff will describe him as a mentor.

It goes without saying, Gary’s professional success pales in comparison to his personal success. He has been married to Vickie, for 42 years, has three children (Ryyan, Lisa and Chris), and six grandchildren (Kadee, Koby, Lauren, Piper, Camden and Savanah). Gary’s plans for retirement include an Alaskan cruise in July and, maybe, a little accessibility consulting on the side.