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;
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).
|Accessible trail through the woods.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U. S. C. A. (ADA). Pub. L.
No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1991).
Anderson, L., Schleien, S. J., McAvoy, L, Lais, G, & Seligmann, D. (1997).
Creating positive change through an integrated outdoor adventure
program. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 31(4), 214-229.
Brown, T. J. (1994). Conceptualizing smoothness and density as landscape
elements in visual resource management. Landscape and Urban Planning,
Caldwell, L. L., & Gilbert, A. A. (1990). Leisure, health, and disability:
A review and discussion. Canadian Journal of Community Mental
Health, 9(2), 111-122.
Cimprich, B. (1993). Development of an intervention to restore attention
in cancer patients. Cancer Nursing, 16(2), 83-92.
Crawford, P., & Crabtree, J. (1998). A pattern language with an attitude:
The Americans with Disabilities Act and outdoor recreation in Missouri's
State Parks. In J. Sanford & B. R. Connell (Eds.), People, places
and public policy (pp. 38-46). Edmond, OK: Environmental Design
Francis, M. (1989). Control as a dimension of public space quality. In
I. Altman & E. H. Zube (Eds.), Public places and spaces (pp.
147-172). New York: Plenum.
Hartig, T., & Evans, G. W. (1993). Psychological foundations of nature
experience. In T. Gärling & R. G. Golledge (Eds.), Behavior and
environment: Psychological and geographical approaches (pp.
427-457). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Herzog, T. R. (1984). A cognitive analysis of field-and-forest environments.
Landscape Research, 9, 10-16.
Herzog, T. R. (1989). A cognitive analysis of preference for urban nature.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9, 27-43.
Back to top