Funding and philosophy play key roles, but several other states offer greater wheelchair access to public lands.
Heidi Conn was an avid outdoorswoman who had hiked New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and many trails in Maine until a series of events six years ago left her paralyzed from the waist down and in need of a wheelchair.
Today, Conn uses a handcycle for outdoor adventures, but her options are limited. She misses the joy of exploring Maine’s state parks and state-owned lands.
“I would love to connect with the earth again,” said Conn, 62, who summers in Turner. “I would just be grateful for a walkway down to the water’s edge. What would it take to spend money on a bit of lumber for a ramp to the ocean so that I could roll down there?”
In many states, officials are helping people with physical disabilities to get outdoors by offering trails, cabins and fishing platforms that are accessible by wheelchair. Some routinely hold events to help those with physical disabilities to kayak, fish or bicycle.
Funding and commitment to provide these amenities and services vary widely from state to state, even in New England.
Maine is not among the leaders, despite promoting itself as a scenic outdoor playground and generating $500 million annually in recreational tourism. Until last year, the state’s budget had never included funds toward improving access at state parks for those with physical disabilities.
Ten of 48 state parks and historic sites in Maine are fully accessible by wheelchair. Trying to find what accessible outdoor areas exist can be difficult when searching state websites.
Sixteen percent of Maine residents – 206,000 people, according to U.S. Census data – have a physical disability, compared to 12 percent of Americans nationwide. And more than 17 percent of the Maine’s residents are 65 or older, placing the state second only to Florida.
No national organization or federal agency collects data on access for the physically disabled on state lands. The Maine Sunday Telegram contacted officials throughout New England and in several other states to see how Maine compares:
• Maine offers nine wheelchair-accessible trails at its state parks, more than Vermont (4) or New Hampshire (3), but fewer than Massachusetts (23) or Connecticut (15).
• Maine doesn’t offer any wheelchair-accessible cabins or yurts on state lands, compared to 11 in Vermont, 25 in Massachusetts and 10 in Connecticut.
• Maine has 10 state parks with beach wheelchairs, more than New Hampshire (1) and Connecticut (5), but fewer than Rhode Island (13) and Massachusetts (49).
• Massachusetts offers hundreds of outdoors events annually for people with disabilities and Vermont holds at least four every year. Maine does not offer any.
• Maine has more wheelchair-accessible boat launches than any New England state with 50 – amounting to 17 percent of the 287 inland boat launches in the state.
FUNDING, PHILOSOPHY ARE CRITICAL
Funding plays a critical role in what states have to offer. Over the past four years, Massachusetts spent $4 million to upgrade outdoor facilities and services for the disabled, and Minnesota spent more than $3.8 million from 2010 to 2015 through special sales tax revenue.
“Maine has to think differently about how they do anything. Those states have a lot of resources that they expend,” said Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In 2016, the department received $250,000 over two years in the state budget to improve universal access at state parks.
Ron Hunt, director of operations for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said it was the first time accessible outdoor facilities were funded through the state budget instead of from bond measures or federal grants.
But just as important as funding is a state’s philosophy around outdoor recreation. In some states, officials ensure people with disabilities can access state parks and lands.
For more than 15 years, state governments in Massachusetts, New York and Illinois have employed a director of universal outdoor access who works exclusively on creating greater access to the outdoors for people with disabilities. Maine has no state employee working full time in a similar role.
Officials elsewhere who work to help people with disabilities say the demand for adaptive outdoor recreation is growing.
Carol Fraser, the director of universal outdoor access in the state of New York, said there has been a shift from people with disabilities wanting access to public buildings and restaurants to asking for wheelchair-accessible paths and ramps to lakes, forests and beaches. Fraser first noticed the shift a few years ago at outreach fairs when her brochures were cleaned out.
“I remember a woman who came up; she was a recent amputee,” Fraser said. “She wheeled up, and I asked, ‘How come so many more people are interested in this?’ And she said, ‘We’re tired of going to the mall and the library.’ ”
WHAT MAINE HAS TO OFFER
Don Simoneau was paralyzed in 1982 but has continued to hunt and fish near his home outside Augusta. He does neither on state land, though. He said there is little fishing opportunity in Maine for someone in a wheelchair, and no access to hunting grounds on Maine’s Wildlife Management Areas and Public Reserve Lands.
Simoneau, 65, hunts on his neighbor’s land. Last year he built a wheelchair-accessible blind, where he can be hidden from wildlife and have protection from the cold in a tent. He wheeled it in, piece by piece.
“The neighbors looked at me like I’m nuts,” Simoneau said. “But you can’t roll over and play dead. I refuse to.”
Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offers 25 moose permits to those with disabilities, but only to veterans, and only for moose hunts that take place in agricultural fields.
Perhaps the most notable accessible outdoor facilities offered by DIF&W are shooting ranges that were created or upgraded since 2012 with a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal grant stipulated the shooting ranges must be made fully accessible; as much as $634,000 was used for that purpose.
Whitcomb points to sites in Maine that offer wheelchair-accessible trails and outdoor ramps – including two fully accessible state parks: Range Pond in Poland and Saco’s Ferry Beach.
“I’m certainly willing to admit there is a long list of improvements that need to be made. What is practical and affordable to reach these goals?” Whitcomb said. “Obviously, it’s a constant improvement process.”
Simoneau said if the state can’t find money in the budget it should look to public-private partnerships, which are pursued aggressively by some other states.
“Instead of throwing our hands up, we need to start a dialogue about how we can do these things,” he said.
Whitcomb, however, points to an accessible fishing pier built in 2016 on the Songo River in Sebago Lake State Park as an example of a private-public partnership achieved by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. The $137,665 pier was paid for with a $60,000 donation by the Mollyockett Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a $60,000 federal grant and $17,665 from the Maine bureau. But Whitcomb said the project took a lot of time and resources the bureau doesn’t have, and can’t always afford in the future.
Carol Brunjes Weaver, who grew up in Wiscasset and summers near the Belgrade Lakes, has mild spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, and her left leg has been amputated below the knee. But Weaver still snowboards, kayaks and hikes.
These outdoor activities are possible with help from her husband and nonprofit organizations such as Maine Adaptive and Pine Tree Society, which runs a camp in Kennebec County serving people with disabilities.
Weaver said outdoor access in Maine is lacking in many areas. She’s seen wheelchair-accessible picnic tables that lack an accessible trail to them.
“It is sometimes obvious an attempt was made to make a location accessible; however, it is clear a disabled person was not involved in the planning,” she said. “I certainly would not want to take away the beauty and rigor of hiking by making all trails flat or paved, but it would be nice to have a few for those who have limited mobility.”
EFFORTS IN OTHER STATES
In 1995 Tom McCarthy was a landscape architect doing work for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation when he realized the accessible paths and piers he was designing on state land were of little use without a guide or equipment to assist people with disabilities. So McCarthy proposed the state’s Universal Access Program, and became its first director.
Today he directs a $1 million bureau with a staff of seven that grows to 13 in the summer. They help people with all kinds of disabilities hike, canoe, bike, and sail on state land around Massachusetts.
“I pitched this idea to really meet the spirit of the law in terms of equal access for everyone,” McCarthy said. “I think we were probably the very first state to set aside a line-item budget to develop programs that created outdoor recreation experiences for people with disabilities.”
The activities, all guided by state employees or guides hired by the state, take place several times a week during warmer months and many times in winter. They are free or cost as little as $5. McCarthy said they sometimes have to turn participants away, the demand is so great.
Some call it a national model.
“The universal access program to mirror is what they’re doing in Massachusetts,” said Fraser in New York. “Their program goes above and beyond any other state. They have got a religion, so to speak, around universal outdoor recreation.”
ILLINOIS’ ’10-DAY RULE’
Other states make a concerted effort to get those with disabilities outdoors.
Connecticut has no dedicated funds to add accessible outdoor sites, according to Diane Chisnall-Joy, a public outreach director in the state’s Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.
“But we want to get people outside,” she said. “We make accommodations.”
Chisnall-Joy said Connecticut offers seven wildlife management areas with accessible trails for hunting, most a half-mile in length, but one that spans 3 miles along a forest. Connecticut also provides two wheelchair-accessible waterfowl blinds, small tents that allow hunters to hide in a marsh from ducks. Maine has neither amenity.
In Illinois, a law called the “10-day rule” requires that if a person with a disability asks for access to state land, officials have 10 days to make it happen. And when Jay Williams, the state’s disabled outdoor opportunities director, gets a request, he understands. Williams is a paraplegic.
“In 1973 I was in a dirt bike accident,” he said. “I know the point-of-view of someone in a wheelchair. If I can do it, they can do it. I don’t tell them that right away. But if I have to, I will go there. I’ve got a passion and I really am here to help. The state knows that.”
Williams and officials in other states often rely on fundraising and public-private partnerships.
“How can you be against this program? It doesn’t matter if the state is rich or broke,” Williams said. “You just raise the money.”
That makes sense to John LeMieux, president of the Amputee Association of Maine. After his left leg was removed in 2012 because of cancer, LeMieux, 58, has continued to golf and hike. He wants to kayak and hunt, but doesn’t know of any resources available to help him.
“It sounds like other states have attacked this in a much more direct way than Maine has,” LeMieux said. “I would love to have the Amputee Association of Maine’s website linking to a state office that helped people with disabilities recreate, and a Maine state universal outdoor access website. How sweet would that be?”
NATIONAL PARKS TAKE THE LEAD
The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require states to make outdoor trails accessible to the disabled – but that may change soon.
In 2014 the United States Access Board required the National Park Service to go beyond making buildings, boat ramps and parking lots accessible – by making trails and undeveloped areas accessible, too. In the past three years, the National Park Service has stepped up ADA-standard accessible outdoor features at its more than 400 sites.
At Acadia National Park, ADA-accessible paths exist to many of the most popular places, such as the wheelchair-accessible path halfway down to Thunder Hole, a path to Jordan Pond, and a boardwalk and accessible dock at Echo Lake.
“Acadia has a history of leadership in accessibility,” said Jeremy Buzzell, the chief of the National Accessibility Branch of the National Park Service. “They are constantly reporting new things they are doing to make them more accessible.”
Don Simoneau went to Acadia with his wife, Roberta, in August for the first time in 20 years. He was in awe, but not necessarily because of the stunning views. The trails are designed for someone in a wheelchair.
“I rolled right onto the trail overlooking the bay on Cadillac Mountain,” said Simoneau, who has limited use of his legs because of spinal cord damage and must use a wheelchair. “I could get around. That made me feel good because someone took the time so that I could.”
‘WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING MORE OF’
Acadia spokeswoman Christie Anastasia said universal access is always considered when the park reviews projects needing repair.
“Our policy is above and beyond some of the things that are minimally required by law,” she said.
The standards governing national parks do not apply to states, but they will, Buzzell said.
“I bet the standards will be similar,” he said. “States should get ahead of the curve.”
In Maine, officials say a lack of funds makes it hard.
“If we had attempted to make every single item compliant, it would have cost tens of millions of dollars. That’s more than we’ve had available,” said Hunt from the Bureau of Parks and Lands. “The budget is very tight. That’s the best way to put it. We’re trying to prioritize.”
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said in his 13 years in the Maine Legislature he had not heard discussions of establishing ADA standards to outdoor areas on state land. That changed after Saviello made a trip two years ago to Yosemite National Park.
“All the walkways going to the major sites were paved,” he said. “At first I thought, this is not a wilderness. But then I saw a person in a wheelchair and it struck me: the elderly, the handicapped, they can get to the waterfalls here. Now that’s what we should be doing more of in Maine.”
This spring, Saviello sponsored a bill that included a small sum for ADA facilities on Maine’s more than 500,000 acres of Public Reserve Lands, which are undeveloped wild lands. The bill passed and set aside $50,000 for the Bureau of Parks and Lands to use for ADA projects for the 33 reserved lands. Saviello hopes it’s a start.
“I’m 67 years old. I like to go into the woods,” he said. “If I can’t get there over time because my legs are older, I still want to. Maine is an aging population. We need to make it accessible for all people to enjoy the forest. Everybody should have the chance to recharge there.”