Advancing equitable access to nature spaces
On any given day, especially when the weather is pleasant, the nature trails at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor are bustling with those seeking the calming effects of being outdoors. Spending time outside has been proven to promote overall well-being—and U-M medical and graduate student Kiley Adams, an avid lover of the outdoors, is helping ensure that everyone can enjoy the trails.
Adams is pursuing a dual degree from the Michigan Medical School (UMMS) and the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), where she is specializing in Sustainability and Development. Her first introduction to medical school was through a backpacking orientation trip with her fellow med students, and she realized that it wasn’t something everyone could participate in.
“I immediately realized that the trip was totally inaccessible to current and future classmates with mobility impairments, and I thought that having a mobility device that folks who have an impairment could use that makes being on trails accessible is a pretty easy fix,” she said.
A grant was secured to purchase a trailchair, which is a hybrid between a wheelchair and a mountain bike that uses thicker tires with a strong grip and a third wheel at the front for better balance. It also has a seatbelt and a lever design to help with navigating hills.
But Adams realized that having a piece of equipment to help make trails more accessible for med school students wasn’t achieving the larger goal of broadly increasing accessibility. So she developed a free, public trail wheelchair program.
“We reached out to a couple of community partners about making it available for free to the community. Matthaei Botanical Gardens was the first group that was all on board and we have housed the chair there for the last few years,” she said, after demonstrating the trailchair’s ability to navigate rough terrain by rolling past a sign that reads “Caution! Steep Trail. Not Wheelchair Accessible.”
Due to the popularity and success of the trailchair in Ann Arbor, Adams and her collaborators were able to purchase a second one, which is housed at Island Lake State Recreation Area in Brighton, Michigan.
“We’ve seen people come in from all over Michigan and other states to use the trailchairs. They are being used not only by people with mobility impairments, but also by elderly folks and college kids who tear their ACLs,” she said.
The trailchair isn’t Adams’ first time advancing efforts at the intersection of accessibility and nature. During her undergrad years at the University of Notre Dame, she traveled back and forth between Indiana and India conducting work in community-based rehabilitation, which culminated in her completing a Fulbright fellowship in India with individuals with disabilities living in rural communities.
“A lot of what I learned in India was that things that we think of as maybe being useful in just the context of India are actually really useful in the American context as well. A lot of community-based initiatives—things like having equal access to outdoor recreation and places to eat and be together as a community—are things that we can really value outside of working in a hospital,” Adams said.
“I honestly don’t know where my interest in this work first started. I’ve been lucky enough to work in everything from education to recreation to now working in the medical field and research for and with people with disabilities.”
Adams spent time in Alaska working with Southeast Alaska Independent Living as an outdoor recreation therapist/specialist to help ensure access to recreational activities. While in Alaska, she also worked with Youth Employment in the Parks, which she described as “a novel program that employs youth with disabilities to work in trail maintenance and park repair to build job skills and help bridge the employment gap that people with disabilities experience.”
Now living in southeast Michigan to attend medical school, Adams said she thinks Michiganders understand how important having equitable access to the outdoors is to the entire U-M community and beyond.
“Obviously, having a trailchair is not the only solution, but it’s a little bit of a modifiable solution—and helps us as we continue thinking about all the ways we can make the built community more accessible,” she said. “My main goal is to just hold really central that disabilities are not just a physical impairment. It’s the way we design our world that excludes certain bodies from having the ability to equally participate,” she said.
As a medical student, Adams said that it’s important to understand that there is a vast variety of diverse experiences that are fulfilling in different ways.
“Disability is experienced differently by every person,” she said, emphasizing the importance of keeping that in mind and asking individuals what their goals are for their lives. Creating a more inclusive world can come from listening and working together to find solutions. The whole community can play a role in increasing and promoting accessibility by learning what would be helpful and applying those ideas to actions that are taken.
“I tend to think a lot in the outdoor space. I don’t think as much about building design, but having community members that are using spaces and realizing it doesn’t work as well for them as it might for me, and keeping their opinions central, is ultimately what is most helpful.”
Adams is immensely pleased with the success of the trailchair, but noted that “all these ideas were co-created with the community. They didn’t just come to me. I’ve gotten to work with an innumerable number of Michigan community partners and trailchair users who have helped shape what this program looks like. It’s been really exciting to have those partnerships and see where they are going to go in the future.”
The trailchair can be reserved at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum by visiting in-person or calling ahead or at Island Lake State Recreation Area by calling ahead or visiting their Facebook page.
This story originally appeared on the U-M Public Engagement & Impact website.