Preferred Natural Environments and People with Disabilities
by Terry J. Brown, Rachel Kaplan & Gail Quaderer
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.
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.
Participants and Sample Characteristics
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 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%).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.ncaonline.org.