Challenge Course Operations for Including People with Disabilities

 by Don Rogers, Ph.D., CTRS

 Operating a challenge course program has features similar to any other recreation service delivery operation. There are administrators who must plan and make decisions, marketing and public relations efforts, supervisors directing front-lines operations, and program delivery staff who have direct contact with participants.

Spread across these functions are responsibilities for risk management, staff training, environmental concerns, and program quality. In the delivery of challenge course programming that includes people with disabilities, it is necessary to evaluate the operation in its entirety to determine an agency’s readiness to begin serving these populations.
The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) has established standards for the operations of a challenge course program. These standards are comprehensive, yet lack specific language that would be considered guidelines for including people with disabilities. Instead, general phrases such as “for the populations served” and “varying abilities/differences” are used to suggest that these standards apply to participants with disabilities.
Within ACCT is the Universal and Accessible Design (UAD) committee. Established in 1997, the UAD is primarily responsible for researching and reporting on topics that impact the use of challenge courses by persons with disabilities and making recommendations to the standard setting committees.

Given the vague nature of standards in this field with regard to accessibility and the general incompatibility of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines with the challenge course environment, there is a need for specific information on how to design, manage and deliver safe, effective challenge course-based programming that includes participants with disabilities.

This monograph is reporting on research that was done by the UAD in 2003-2004. Findings from this research will hopefully aid challenge course managers and facilitators in their efforts to include participants with disabilities.

Overview of the study

In a previous study of ACCT members, three questions were asked about the participation of people with disabilities on challenge courses. When asked if their courses were designed to provide opportunities for people with disabilities, 48% said yes, and 52% said no (n=276). Next they were asked if the courses designed with opportunities for people with disabilities are effective at accomplishing this goal.
On this question, 31.6% agreed, 18 % were not sure and the remainder disagreed or felt it did not apply (n=221), which would be the case for those without access to their courses. The third question asked if it is important to continue researching, advocating and reporting challenge course designs that provide opportunities for people with disabilities. A resounding 83.8% of respondents (n=259) agreed that this line of development within ACCT was important.
The responses to these questions helped validate and give direction to the work of the UAD. These results also guided our follow-up study. In summary, the results of the first study were: a) only roughly half of the courses surveyed were providing services to people with disabilities, b) there were concerns about program effectiveness, and c) most respondents want more information on this topic.

It was determined that the follow-up instrument would utilize the content of the ACCT Operational Standards as a basis for item development. The reasoning for this was that ACCT members were expected to adhere to these standards and we needed to know if they were providing the guidance necessary to include participants with disabilities.

The Survey Instrument

Items from the ACCT Operational Standards, 5 th Ed., were converted into statements that directly identified accessibility, disability and/or inclusion concerns. For example, one standard states that the challenge course manager will provide services consistent with stated program mission and ethical practices.
This standard was converted to a survey item that read, “The program philosophy addresses the inclusion of participants with disabilities.” Respondents were given four possible responses to each question, NA= not applicable, NI= Not Implemented, PI= Partially Implemented, and FI= Fully Implemented.
Content validity was determined after a review of the instrument by a survey scholar, members of the ACCT Board, the ACCT Executive Director and all members of the UAD. Internal reliability of the instrument was measured using the Cronbach's Alpha statistic and found to be acceptable at A=.96.


Subjects in this study were identified as those responding in the first membership study as having a program that serves people with disabilities. It was the intention of the original study to follow-up with these respondents for the UAD study.
Confidentiality was maintained in this study and verified through human subjects review from the Indiana State University , College of Health and Human Performance human subjects review board. The survey was mailed to 137 subjects with 38 usable surveys returned for a 28% return rate.
This low return was disappointing, but we felt the results were still relevant given the likelihood of this being representative of challenge course programs that serve participants with disabilities. In fact, given that all these respondents are active members of ACCT and apparently concerned about the area of accessible challenge courses, these results could reflect what is better than average performance among all challenge course programs providing some level of service to participants with disabilities.

Findings of the study 

This monograph is not intended to provide a detailed breakdown of the research data and findings of this study. The emphasis is on providing useful information in the areas of inclusive challenge course operations. Therefore, findings will be presented based on mean scores in an operations section, area or a single item.
These comparisons will provide an indication of strengths and weaknesses of the programs in the study. Graphs are provided that display item means organized by question number. The actual items will be identified in the text with corresponding graph question number.

Site Accessibility 

The first section of the survey was Site Accessibility (see Accessibility Means graph). The first item, Games and field initiatives areas are accessible (Q1) was the rated highest in this section. The program areas associated with specific teams course elements are accessible (Q3), and the program areas associated with specific high course elements are accessible (Q7) items scored the lowest in site accessibility.
This information suggests that these programs tended to have accessible games and field initiative areas, but were lacking in specific teams course and high course program area accessibility. With all remaining scores hovering around the ‘partially implemented' response, site accessibility appears to be an area that needs attention.
Graph: Accessibility Means

Management and Operations 

The next areas were listed under Management and Operations and include assessment, risk management, operations, and training. Referring to the Management and Operations Means graph, areas of strength were: Participants with disabilities are identified with our health information form (Q8), Course manager and facilitators are aware of any additional risk that may arise for participants with disabilities due to their disability (Q11), and The program philosophy addresses the inclusion of participants with disabilities (Q13).
Graph: Management and Operations Means
The following items related to training and evaluation all averaged below the level of ‘partially implemented': Staff credentials include documentation of training for including participants with disabilities- technical/hard skills (Q14), Staff credentials include documentation of training for participants with disabilities- soft/facilitation skills (Q15), Evaluation criteria exists that identifies safe operations procedures regarding participants with disabilities (Q16), and Ongoing staff training occurs that addresses the needs of participants with disabilities (Q17).
These low averages in training and evaluation are cause for concern. Even when a challenge course is designed to accommodate participants with disabilities, it is critical that the staff have sufficient training to keep participants safe while continually improving program quality based on evaluation data.
It is interesting to note the incongruence of having limited training, yet still expressing confidence in the ability to determine disability related risk on the challenge course (Q11). Perhaps this is an area that was specifically covered in the training that was received, or it may reflect a lack of awareness on the manager's part of how their operations might actually be performing in the area. As we see in the next section, facilitators may not be prepared to accommodate the unique risks associated with participants with disabilities.

Challenge Course Facilitator Competencies 

The staff member in the field that directly provides the challenge course service/program is typically called a Facilitator. This section of the survey corresponding to the standards is titled Facilitator Competencies, and includes general facilitator competencies, general inclusive activity management, non-belayed activities, and belayed activities (see Facilitator Competencies Means, items 19-40).
Graph: Facilitator Competencies Means
Items 19 through 26 deal with general facilitator competencies working with participants with disabilities. Applying program safety and operational practices, philosophy, ethical guidelines, and safe applications of equipment (Q19-22) with participants with disabilities could be considered facilitator strengths for these programs.
Areas of comparatively low competency include: Use of effective warm-up activities that prepare participants with disabilities for the physiological requirements of the program (Q24), and Assessments of participants with disabilities are performed in order to design programs and activities that appropriately sequence participants toward identified goals (Q25).
The first of these lower scoring competencies presents concerns about physical safety and the second one calls into question a number of concerns about how prepared programs are to serve participants with disabilities.

Inclusive Activity Management 

General inclusive activity management items (Q27-29) is a phrase introduced in this survey to set apart specific judgement skills. The first item in this area: Facilitators understand the unique risks involved in each activity for participants with disabilities (Q27), was markedly lower than the other two items. These items were: Facilitators can determine when situations require modifications or other means for safely spotting or belaying participants with disabilities consistent with program policy and procedures (Q28), and Appropriate staff to participant ratios are maintained, as indicated by the needs of participants with disabilities, in order to safely and effectively include some participants (Q29).
Again, there appears to be conflicting results. Perhaps item Q27 was seen as knowledge that a facilitator might have about specific disabling conditions, whereas the other two items were more judgement or intuitive based, with the facilitator erring on the side of caution. From my own experience, I think facilitators lean toward being safer than riskier with any population, particularly when there is doubt about the capabilities/needs of the group.

Non-belayed and Belayed Activities 

The remaining items in this section, Q30-40, were divided between non-belayed and belayed activity competencies. In the non-belayed area the emphasis is on the facilitator's ability to determine between the need for spotting or a belay, and how that will be done safely. The belayed activities area asks if participants with disabilities are allowed to belay, and if belaying policies and procedures are applied to participants with disabilities.
None of these items presented as being a significant weakness. The lowest scoring item is in the belayed activities area, Facilitators are able to assess participants with disabilities for individual belay technique adaptations on an activity-specific basis (Q36). This again suggests that training about the needs/safety concerns of specific disabilities is an area for improvement.

Risk Management and Related Safety

In the final section of the survey that addresses operational standards, items were under the heading of Risk Management and Related Safety. A graph of those items is included.
Graph: Risk Man
The first three items in this section: Screening is done for medical and safety concerns related to specific participant disabilities (Q41), Participants are screened on their ability to understand the risk involved in the activities (Q42), and Facilitators are able to manage behaviors associated with specific cognitive and emotional disabilities to minimize risk (Q43), are each above the ‘partially implemented' level.
The next three items: Program has emergency action plan policy and procedures that apply specifically to the rescue and aid of participants with disabilities (Q44), Facilitators are knowledgeable of orthodic and medical equipment that participants use, such as wheelchairs, colostomies, urinary catheters and leg bags (Q45), and Facilitators are able to adapt equipment usage (e.g. harnesses) with participants using orthodic and/or medical equipment (Q47), are at or below the ‘partially implemented' level.
This seems to suggest that while screening is being done, there is a lack of understanding about the information collected and then how it might impact the individual's participation in the program. Once again, this comes back to training.
Item Q43 from the preceding paragraph was an interesting piece of datum. It is only one of two items that identified a specific disability. Item Q43 refers to cognitive and emotional disabilities, while an earlier item mentions communication impairment, both of which had relatively high averages. There is evidence in the literature that programs have the most difficulty including participants with physical disabilities. The physical movements involved with most challenge course designs continue to be a barrier to inclusion.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The physical accessibility of the challenge course itself was not addressed in this study. This is an area that 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 about trail accessibility see

A strength of these programs was their philosophy of including participants with disabilities. This was expected because these subjects were selected for the study based on their existing practice to include 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 kind of full body harness, for the participant. Are these participants sitting out on that event, or asked to be involved 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 harms way. Unfortunately, this results in a compromised experience for the participant and the group.

Pre-screening all participants for health and medical related concerns is standard practice in the challenge course industry. Asking questions about a disability that would have an impact on the experience is becoming common practice and usually happens on the same health information form.
A brief narrative about the nature of the disability and how it will effect participation is often requested. In order for the person to describe how his or her disability might be a factor in the experience, it would be helpful to include a brief description of the physical and mental tasks involved either on the form or as part of an information packet. For more information about screening tools and practices, contact ACCT at .

Once the agency has this prescreen information about a person's disability, they need 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 impact their experience, and those certainly should be valued, but they are not the expert 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 one that is 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 on-going training is necessary to improve areas of operational weakness and provide growth opportunities for staff.

In closing, I am including a list of challenge course staff training topics when working with participants with disabilities. There may be other material to include depending on the type of program, length of program, environmental features, and other specific disability related needs. Research into these topics will be necessary to provide full content during the training.
  • Philosophy of inclusion and participation in adventure activities by people with disabilities.
  • Attitudes and Appropriate Terminology
  • Inclusive Adventure Programming
    • Definition
    • Techniques
    • Activities
  • Program Design Skills
  • Assessment: includes knowledge of disabilities and their implications for participation; plus individual health and safety issues, current physical and cognitive functioning, communication, ADL, and support needs.
  • Activity Analysis
  • Activity Adaptation
  • Sequencing of experiences
  • Implementation Skills
    • American Sign Language
    • Transferring & mobility techniques
    • Knowledge of disabling conditions: particularly unique safety concerns on the course, and also functional abilities and health implications
    • Adapting equipment & activities
    • Universal initiatives
    • Modeling inclusion
  • Benefits (Goals)
  • Potential Debriefing Topics

About this Monograph 

These materials were developed by the National Center on Accessibility for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability under sponsorship of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About the Author 

Don Rogers received his Masters and Ph.D. from Indiana University in Recreation Therapy with outdoor and counseling emphases respectively. He is currently on faculty at Indiana State University and is director of the R.T. and Challenge Course programs. During Don's Masters at IU he worked on the Access Indiana grant which was the precursor to the National Center on Accessibility. He has researched and written extensively about making challenge courses usable by people with disabilities. He is Co-Chair of the Universal and Accessible Design Committee of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, starting that committee in 1997. Don has consulted and presented workshops on this topic in Australia , Taiwan , Canada and across the US .

The citation for this article is:

Rogers, D.  (Spring 2005).  Challenge course operations for including people with disabilities. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington.  Retrieved from