Preferred Natural Environments and People with Disabilities

by Terry J. Brown, Rachel Kaplan & Gail Quaderer

This is an edited version of the article: Brown, Terry J., Kaplan, Rachel, & Quaderer, Gail. (1999). Beyond accessibility: preference for natural areas. Therapeutic Recreation Journal , 33(3), 209-221.


Making natural settings accessible is vitally important. At the same time, however, attention must be paid to the choice of settings that are made accessible. The purpose of the study was to ascertain the perceptions and preferences of individuals with mobility limitations as well as their companions or caregivers with respect to parks and nature places. The results (based on 197 surveys) provide strong support for similarities in preferences regardless of degree of limitation. Forested scenes were far preferred over open field scenes, regardless of ease of negotiating the area. Within these two landscape types, however, scenes with paths were favored. While the results show substantial consistency, they also point to variations. To increase the likelihood that there is a strong match between accessibility and satisfying destinations, it is essential to gain the participation of the intended users.


ADA--American with Disabilities Act; Mobility limitations; Universal Design; Natural areas; Landscape design and planning; Environmental preferences; Public participation

Beyond Accessibility:

Preference for Natural Areas Access is essential to experiencing a setting. For that reason, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) constitutes landmark legislation in its guarantee of access to public buildings, sites, and programs for persons with physical disabilities (Public Law 101-336; U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1991).

Since passage of the ADA, there has been considerable effort to establish accessibility guidelines that address the physical constraints imposed by various kinds of settings, most often indoor, built environments. The focus of this study is on outdoor, natural areas. The many challenges posed by outdoor settings have been the subject of publications on universal access (e.g., PLAE, 1993; U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, 1994). Nonetheless accessibility guidelines for park settings or other natural environments are not yet officially standardized (Crawford & Crabtree, 1998; Mulick, 1993).

The study discussed here examines the experiences with outdoor settings of people with mobility limitations, specifically their preferences for different types of regionally common natural environments. The benefits of leisure and recreation for people with disabilities have received some empirical attention. Anderson, Schleien, McAvoy, Lais, and Seligmann (1997) reported positive changes in relationship development, recreation skills, and quality of life in a longitudinal study of people with and without disabilities who participated in an integrated outdoor adventure program. Cimprich (1993) found that even short outings to nearby natural places had profound benefits for individuals recovering from cancer; improvements were found both in the capacity to focus attention and in the choice of activities these individuals were willing to undertake. In reviewing a wide range of therapeutic recreation research related to the leisure experiences, Shank, Coyle, Boyd, and Kinney (1996) concluded that there is a "substantive basis for believing that play, recreation and leisure can assist individuals to improve and maintain physical and psychological health and well being" (p. 190). Despite such benefits, and the work on the general population showing the importance of the natural environment to well-being (e.g., Hartig & Evans, 1993; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995), natural settings are often not readily accessible to people with disabilities.

There are a variety of reasons for this lack of access. Caldwell and Gilbert (1990) found that persons with disability are confronted with both external and internal barriers to recreation participation. The external barriers might be caused by lack of adequate transportation or problems of universal design; the internal barriers, by contrast, include personal motivation, social skills, and perceptions of one's competence. Moore, Dattilo, and Devine (1996) pointed out that access may also be reduced by lack of information or by misinformation leading to ignorance about places that are, in fact, accessible. Many of the settings included in the present study might fall in this category - places that are not specifically noted as accessible, though usable by people with mobility limitations.
It is important to acknowledge the significance of ADA in the long struggle to make inclusion a reality; changing attitudes, universal design, and accessibility guidelines will also help to make places more available to those with disability. Important as these are, however, they are not sufficient if the experience is to be satisfying. It is essential to have information about the settings that are to be made available. For example, a trail that is readily available from a parking lot and is easily negotiated by someone in a wheelchair is a great asset, but where the trail goes and what one will be able to see from it are issues that must also be addressed. In other words, although it has not been tested directly, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that individuals with disabilities care not only about accessibility, but also about the environment that is made accessible. If this is indeed the case, then the emphases on program accessibility and physical accessibility should be joined by an equal concern for the experiences afforded by the physical settings.

Environmental Preference

The purpose of the study reported here is to take a broad look at outdoor settings that contribute positively to people's leisure experience and to ascertain the preferences of people with mobility limitations for such settings. The study builds upon a considerable empirical literature on outdoor recreation (Francis, 1989, Pigram, 1993), with a particular emphasis on the research that addresses people's preferences for natural settings. Despite the extensive work in this area, very little of it has included people with limited mobility. The study by Moore et al. (1996) is a welcome exception. However, the total sample included relatively few people with disabilities and of these only 10 had mobility limitations.

A great deal of the research on environmental preference is based on the use of photographs. Results of dozens of studies, carried out in several countries and using scenes of natural settings that are quite ordinary as well as some that are of distant, awesome places have shown some remarkable consistencies (e.g., Brown, 1994; Herzog, 1984, 1989; Hull & Harvey, 1989; Schroeder, 1989). Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) provided summaries of many such studies as well as a conceptual framework, the Preference Matrix, that puts the preference research in the context of basic human needs. They suggested that people prefer settings that support the needs to understand their surrounding and, simultaneously, the need for exploration. The Preference Matrix incorporates a variety of environmental qualities (such as complexity and coherence) that enable people to interpret the likelihood that a setting would facilitate their safe and comfortable functioning.

It might well be the case that these needs are no different for people with or without mobility impairments. It might also be possible that despite a broad similarity in preference, the environmental indicators that support understanding and exploration would not be the same for different populations, thus leading to differences in preference. The main objective of our study is to explore the perceptions and preferences for outdoor natural areas of a sample of people with mobility limitations and their companions/caretakers. It is useful to determine whether and to what degree prior findings are applicable to individuals with special needs. It is particularly important to gain such insights through the direct involvement of those who would be most directly impacted by the design and management of outdoor areas. All too often assumptions are made about people's preferences and needs, rather than permitting them to speak for themselves. The need for such participation by people with disabilities has been articulated in various contexts (e.g., Reynolds, 1993, with respect to programs and service, and Crawford & Crabtree, 1998, with respect to guidelines). In research on environmental preferences, however, such input has been sorely lacking.


Participants and Sample Characteristics

The National Center on Accessibility (NCA), Martinsville, IN, provided access to its database of individuals with disabilities who have expressed willingness to participate in studies conducted by NCA or organizations associated with NCA. Mispagel (1998) indicated that NCA has recruited these individuals in a variety of ways including: ads in disability organization newsletters and magazines, postings on "disability list serves" or the NCA internet site, and "mailing lists of people who belonged to support groups or disability organizations."

Our primary criterion for selection in the study was the "mobility" designation in this database (n=210). This designation was based either on NCA research staff categorization using the volunteers' indication of their specific disability, diagnosis, and type of assistive devices, or on the individual's own indication of their impairments as "mobility."

Each participant was sent two sets of surveys with the request that the second survey be completed by a companion (someone with whom they would be likely to go on an outing to a natural area). Thirty sets of surveys were unusable because they were returned with no forwarding address or were received too late.

The results are based on 197 usable surveys of which 116 were completed by the person from the NCA database and 81 by companions. These surveys consisted of 76 matched sets (i.e., addressed person and companion). The return rate for the target group (those with mobility limitation) was 45%. As there is no way to ascertain how many individuals asked a companion to complete the survey, it is inappropriate to calculate an overall return rate.

The target and companion samples were similar in age distribution with 40 % and 42 %, respectively, over age 50, and the remaining participants equally divided between those under 40 and in their 40's. There were five and six participants, respectively, over age 70, three individuals in each sample under age 20, and three and four individuals, respectively, who did not respond to the age question. While women were the majority of respondents in both samples, there were relatively more women in the companion sample (71%) than in the other group (56%). The companion group included spouses (43%), other relatives (25%), friends or associates from work (26%), and paid caregivers (6%).

The participants with mobility limitation indicated use of a variety of walking aids, with the vast majority (74%) dependent on motorized or manual wheelchairs. The others were about equally divided between those who use canes or walkers (and wheelchairs on occasion) and those who only used walking aids on occasion.

Survey Instruments

Photo-questionnaire. Using a procedure that has been employed in many prior studies (see Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, Appendix A for overview of method and Appendix B for summary of 32 studies), the survey included 24 black and white photographs of natural areas. The scenes were photographed in Michigan and Ohio, at national, state, or city/county parks. Several of these locations had designated handicap-accessible trails and facilities. Scenes were selected to represent the kinds of places one might be able to see on a nature outing, with a focus on forested and relatively open scenes. The forested scenes represented a range of tree density and varied in the smoothness of the ground cover. None of the scenes included water or any people. Paths were evident in some of the scenes, including boardwalks, paved paths, and compacted soil. Each of the three photo pages consisted of a representative sample of all the scenes (i.e., some with paths, some open, some forested).

Participants were asked to view these scenes from the perspective of being on a nature outing and to assume that the setting would pose no particular accessibility problems. The focus of the task was to indicate how much they would like to be in the setting, using a five-point rating scale (5 = very much). Both subsamples were asked to complete these ratings.

Survey for subsample with mobility limitation. A two-page structured survey included the following topics: Types of walking aids and frequency of their use, travel options (how likely to use own car, another person's car, public transportation, special private service equipped for wheel chair), accuracy of accessibility information, helpfulness of trail information, and general health and well-being.

Questions for companions. A one-page survey inquired about the relationship of the companion to the person with the disability, frequency of going on outings together, and the companion's role in selecting where they might go.

Survey for all participants. Both subsamples were asked about perceived barriers to going on nature outings (e.g., distance, parking, accessibility, knowing about good places), the importance to them of nature outings, and their enjoyment of outings to particular settings (sports events, shopping mall, movies, and natural areas) as well as their age and gender. In addition to the structured items on the survey pages, participants were encouraged to add any comments. Many individuals did so, often with expressions of gratitude for just being asked their opinion.

Procedure. Each set of material included a cover letter, 3-page photo booklet, survey, and prepaid return envelope. The cover letter identified the study's relationship to NCA and explained the study's purpose, namely, to look at preferences for different natural settings by people with disabilities and their companions.


Forested Scenes. The scenes with a predominance of trees (forested scenes) were far preferred to those with few if any trees (open fields). Of the forested scenes, all but two of the most favored settings had a visible path. The two exceptions provide easy visual access by the abundant light filtering through the mature trees (see above photos). Thus for the seven most preferred scenes (mean rating of 4.1), the lack of shrub layer, amount of light, or the presence of a path contributed to clear sightlines into and through these forested areas.

The remaining nine forested scenes are characterized by less mature trees, lower light levels, and absence of paths. Several of these scenes could be called "woodlawn," trees spaced apart and smooth ground cover (above two photos).

In other cases visual access -- the ability to see through the scene -- was more limited (above two photos). Though less preferred than the top-seven, these scenes nonetheless received relatively high ratings (all greater than 3.5).

Open Field Scenes. The six least preferred scenes (with a mean of 3.2) all depicted field settings (pictured below). All but one of these scenes suggested that traversing through the area would not be difficult either because they included paths (four scenes) or a grassy ground plane (one scene). Two of the scenes included an isolated tree within the open field portion; none of them, however, would offer shade or protection from exposure to sun, wind, and rain.

Role of paths. Although participants were instructed to assume no accessibility problems in indicating their preferences for the scenes, the visual presence of a path was a stronger signal than the instruction. It is hardly surprising that preference was greater for scenes that included a path. Paths make moving through an environment much easier for people with mobility limitations, but they are also important for those without such challenges.

There is evidence that people's evaluation of a scene, even when viewed very briefly, is based on an intuitive and unconscious assessment of what it would be like to be in the setting (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, chapter 1). The presence of a path suggests that access to information is facilitated, both in making locomotion easier and in providing a specific route to follow. Paths provide both passage and guidance.

Nonetheless, the preference for paths was secondary to the preference for types of settings. While both forested and open field scenes with paths received higher preference ratings than those without, the photographs of open fields were less favored than those depicting forests. In other words, forests lacking a path were more highly rated than open scenes that included a path. This pattern was equally true for individuals who rely on wheelchairs for locomotion as for those who generally use canes or walkers, or those who indicated that they do not use walking aids on a regular basis.

Relation of photo preference to preferred settings. Participants were asked how much they enjoyed outings to "natural areas that are mostly wooded" and "natural areas that are fairly open." Responses to these items were similar for the two subsamples, with the former receiving much higher endorsement than the latter (means of 4.1 and 3.6, on a 5-point scale, respectively). They were also asked about the importance to them of nature outings. This item received a mean of 4.0. Individuals who indicated that nature outings were particularly important very much preferred both the forested and the open field scenes.


The results of this study show both striking consistency in the pattern of preferences as well as important individual differences in the desire for natural settings among individuals with mobility disabilities. Both of these themes -- consistency and variation -- are important to consider with respect to gaining input from diverse user groups as well as in the design and management of natural areas that meet the needs of all visitors.

Moore et al. (1996) found similarities between individuals with or without disabilities in terms of their motivations to visit national parks. Our findings also show strong similarities in preferences for the scenes regardless of degree of mobility impairment. The implications of these findings are important. They suggest that a substantial body of empirical work on environmental preference is applicable in the context of accessibility as well. In other words, individuals with mobility limitations are no different than any one else in the kinds of settings they would like to experience. For all of us, certain features of the environment foster comfort and confidence and these characteristics are important to consider when deciding on accessibility as well.

It is useful to discuss some of these salient features. The importance of paths is undeniable. It is hardly surprising that individuals with mobility limitations would be concerned about the availability of paths and about the ease of traveling on these paths. Paths, however, were also favored by those without mobility limitations. While this may be due to their concerns for their friends with disability, other studies (e.g., Hull & Harvey, 1989; Ryan, 1997) have also shown that, on average, the general public rated scenes with paths as more preferred than those without.

Paths, however, are only part of the story. Several other factors play an important role in preference for natural settings. Results indicated that forests were far better liked than open settings. Furthermore, the forests that were most appreciated offered not only substantial trees and relatively little undergrowth, but also abundant light filtering through the trees, making it possible to see through the forest. At the same time, open areas, offering less shade, and scenes that suggest that locomotion could be difficult were less likely to be preferred. Kaplan, Kaplan and Brown (1989) reported very similar pattern of results based on entirely different photographs and a sample of college students with no known disabilities.

While it is useful to look at the patterns of preferences in terms of the features in the environment (e.g., tree density, light through the trees), it is also helpful to understand the results in terms of how people might perceive their opportunities for being in these settings. The results of this study parallel a great deal of previous work that has shown that when people look at scenes, without realizing it they interpret them in terms of locomotion and visual access. This, in turn, can provide reassurance with respect to safety and way-finding (Kaplan, Kaplan & Ryan, 1998). Thus the features in the environment and the arrangement of the spaces help people determine whether they would feel confident and comfortable in the setting, thereby supporting their needs to understand and explore their surroundings.

At the same time, however, it is important to remember that consistency in preferences does not preclude variation as well (Kaplan, 1984). The strong preferences for forest scenes and considerably lower preference for open areas was the dominant pattern in the results of this study. Notable among the variations found in the study is the pattern of preferring open areas shown by some participants. This was expressed both in the kinds of settings this subgroup preferred for nature outings and in their preference ratings for the scenes. Further, there was substantial range (2.2 to 4.2) in the mean preferences for the scenes depicting open areas, indicating considerable difference in the degree of appreciation of these photographs. Our data do not permit explanation for these differences; future research might address this issue. Such research might consider factors that explain individual differences as well as examine a wider variety of natural areas and their special features.


The Recommendations for Accessibility Guidelines (U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, 1994) wisely recognize that access routes in outdoor settings often serve as recreational activities in their own right. In other words, rather than serving as a means to get from one place to another, the use of these trails is itself recreational. The results of this study suggest that in addition to factors that have been recognized as critical to the design of trails (e.g., trail width, gradients, and surface materials), other qualities also need to be considered. The experience of the natural setting is strongly impacted by the vegetation and its foliage density, smoothness of the ground plane, and the ability to see and yet not to see everything at once. These are qualities that foster understanding and exploration (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, et al., 1998).

The ADA is a tool for social change. Its mandate to create equal opportunity and access for people with disabilities in all facets of life, work, and play is inspired by a philosophy of inclusion for all. With its focus on abilities rather than disabilities and its recognition of the design implications of the process of change throughout life, Universal Design accommodates people with disabilities in a way that is not stigmatizing and directly reflects the inclusive spirit of ADA. As part of a research and demonstration project to further the development of Universal Design, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Center for Universal Design identified seven principles that apply to the design of environments, products, and communications. As the Center states in the development of these principles, "It is important to understand that these principles of universal design in no way comprise all criteria for good design, only universally usable design. Other factors such as aesthetics, cost, safety, gender and cultural appropriateness must also be taken into consideration" (Story, 1997, p. 1). It seems to us that the ongoing development of these Universal Design principles would benefit from research that extends them to a variety of natural settings that are readily available, yet not now accessible.

While design guidelines and principles are essential for action, the study also speaks to the importance of inclusion in the design process itself. Perhaps accessible places can be designed without input if the main concerns are to provide negotiable paths and accessible facilities. For such issues guidelines may be sufficient. The purpose of the nature outing, however, is to experience preferred places. To increase the likelihood that there is a strong match between accessibility and satisfying destinations, it is essential to invite input from the intended users.

This study provides an effective methodology for such participation as well as highlighting some key issues on which user input is likely to be useful. Central to this methodology is the use of visual images. Such images might also play another important role, namely, to increase awareness about natural areas that are accessible though not widely known to be so. If indeed there are people with disabilities for whom nature outings are important, it is vital that such places are not only accessible but aesthetically satisfying as well.


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The citation for this article is:

 Brown, TJ., Kaplan, R., & Quaderer, G. (1999) Preferred natural environments and people with disabilities. Indiana University-Bloomington: National Center on Accessibility. Retrieved from