Universal Challenge

Making challenge courses accessible and usable for all

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This is a photo of a young man pushing his wheelchair up an incline beam to a platform.  The young man has a person on each side of his wheelchair and one person walking behind his chair; all are working as safety spotters.
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Universal Challenge Programming


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Universal Design for Challenge Course Programming

Unlike the built environment, challenge courses are often constructed in undeveloped outdoor areas and are designed to present participants with physical‚ cognitive and social challenges. Each challenge course element is designed for a type of experience with a range of outcomes. Challenges associated with the experience can be categorized into primary‚ secondary and neutral (if any) parts of the process. Primary challenges (i.e.‚ getting through/across an element) are the most important to retain as a common experience for all participants. Secondary challenges (i.e.‚ transitioning onto an element) are less critical in the process and therefore can be highly individualized to meet a participant’s needs. Neutral challenges (i.e.‚ moving between elements on the ground) have little if any relevance to the purpose of the program and can be “neutralized” by making them comfortable for all participants.

The following design principles apply specifically to challenge course programming and were authored by Don Rogers‚ Ph.D, CTRS, Professor at Indiana State University.

Principle 1: Equitable Experience

Course and program designs provide usable elements and meaningful experiences for each participant.

  • Guidelines:
    • Options are available to all participants during each event that are safe‚ usable and have relevant meaning/value in the context of the program.
    • Provide options that maintain dignity and respect for each participant.
    • No participants are discounted because of ability levels.

Principle 2: Goodness of Fit

Elements are adjustable and program designs are flexible in order to meet the specific needs of individuals and groups.

  • Guidelines:
    • Individual elements have mechanical and/or other methods available in order to adjust the way a participant uses/experiences the element.
    • Program components and process are gauged by the functioning levels and needs of each individual.
    • Seek participant input about adjustments.

Principle 3: Engagement in the Process

The design encourages active involvement‚ reciprocity and investment in the experience.

  • Guidelines:
    • Activities are designed to be comprehensive‚ involving options for physical‚ intellectual‚ emotional‚ and social areas of participant functioning.
    • Challenge by choice is combined with seeking permission from each participant to provide encouragement.
    • Participant strengths/abilities are assets they can use to engage in the process.
    • Any level or type (physical or verbal) of engagement is an acceptable starting place.
    • Provide individual participants with specific feedback (reflective‚ constructive‚ critical‚ supportive‚ coaching‚ etc.) that will facilitate engagement and learning.

Principle 4: Experience Perceptions

Participants interact with the design and experience in perceptible ways using all/any available senses and sensory processes.

  • Guidelines:
    • Use materials with a variety of sensory properties (texture‚ smell‚ color‚ shape‚ etc.).
    • For persons with sensory impairments‚ consistency of sensory oriented designs should be applied in safety identification situations.
    • Where there is inconsistency or a mix of sensory applications‚ a means of feedback/identification may need to be available for persons with sensory impairments.
    • Use of familiar components or situations may help a person with an intellectual or emotional impairment make a relevant connection within the activity.
    • Use sequenced experiences to prepare people for higher levels of challenge and perceived risk.
    • Use multiple methods of communicating with a group in order to meet the needs of persons with hearing, vision‚ and intellectual impairments (eg.‚ verbal descriptions‚ pictures‚ demonstrations‚ partnering‚ sounds‚ rope tugs‚ allow for exploring of the event/space).

Principle 5: Scope of Safety and Risk

Each experience is designed with a range of risk options and safety features.

  • Guidelines:
    • Keep actual risk very low by understanding the health and safety needs (physical and cognitive functioning limitations) of all participants.
    • Explain risks involved for each activity and have a discussion if necessary about options available to experience‚ minimize or avoid the risks.
    • Allow individuals to take risks that have assessed the risk and have a sound strategy for achieving a safe outcome (within acceptable safe practices).
    • Have a thorough understanding of the dynamics and forces involved with each element‚ how those will effect each participant‚ and what needs to be done to keep everyone safe.
    • Understand that individual participants will experience a range of physical‚ psychological‚ emotional and social risks within a given activity.
    • Do not expose others to extra risk as a means to protect an individual.
    • Do not rely on participants to follow instructions as a means to avoid substantial hazards.

Principle 6: Economy and Equity of Effort

Over the course of a program, no one individual is expected to expend substantially more effort than others in order to complete the experience.

  • Guidelines:
    • Schedule sufficient rest and water breaks.
    • Minimize travel/hiking time when mobility is a challenge for any participant‚ particularly in environments with difficult terrain‚ during extreme weather conditions‚ and when the program is otherwise physically demanding.
    • Design elements that distribute physical effort within a group or can be done with minimal effort by an individual if necessary (using group support‚ a mechanical device or a design feature that minimizes the effort required).
    • Activities scheduled within a time frame should proceed at a reasonable pace for all members of the group (i.e.‚ avoid creating an urgent pace in order to complete a predetermined set of activities within the time allotted).

Principle 7: Dimensions and Intended Use

Designs are sized and scaled to facilitate intended processes and outcomes for all participants.

  • Guidelines:
    • Provide multiple means of access and exit to elements that range in level of difficulty‚ or in the case of a single access/exit design‚ reduce the difficulty at that point.
    • Challenge levels can be adjusted through some manipulation of the element (i.e.‚ increasing or decreasing the amount of movement‚ providing a belay/haul system where there usually is not one‚ and installing a lowering device on a zip line event).
    • When a component of the element is not a critical part (secondary or neutral) of the experience‚ such as with an access ramp up to a platform‚ follow existing accessibility standards (ADA Accessibility Guidelines).
    • Include options that consider a broad range of functional abilities‚ including grip strength‚ reach ranges‚ endurance‚ body position‚ body shape‚ balance‚ vision and hearing‚ transfer height differences‚ and cognitive processes.

Principle 8: Agency Commitment

Agency applies universal design principles and practices to all aspects of the program.

  • Guidelines:
    • Marketing and public relations communicate the universal nature of the program.
    • Information about the program is available in alternative formats to accommodate people with hearing or vision impairments.
    • View populations of people with disabilities and other differences as viable markets for expanding services.
    • Assessments/evaluations are done of all participants in order to plan programs that meet their specific needs.
    • All staff with direct and indirect customer contact are trained to work safely and effectively with all populations served in the program‚ and understand how their responsibilities may impact customer experience.
    • All support and complimentary facilities used as part of‚ or in conjunction with the challenge course program are designed for universal usage. These include restrooms‚ camp fire area‚ camping areas‚ debrief areas‚ recreation areas‚ meal facilities‚ inclement weather sites‚ etc.


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