Access for All


As opportunities continue to expand in aerial adventure parks, zip line tours, and traditional challenge course programming, we should broaden the scope of populations that we serve. Including people of a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and abilities is key to capturing a growing market of diverse outdoor participants. It’s time to build spaces where all feel engaged and able to participate. It’s time, in other words, for universal design.

The inclusion of any individual who chooses to participate in the experience, at whatever level they desire, touches the heart of universal accessibility. Creating a sense of welcome, training all staff to be comfortable working with all participants, providing the necessary equipment for adaptations, and maintaining a facility that is accessible to all are central to the concept.


At the time challenge courses were first developed, little thought was given to creating opportunities for all abilities. (Neither were sidewalks built with curb cuts at intersections, nor public bathrooms designed to accommodate a wheelchair.) Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1992, though, much has changed for individuals with disabilities.

Time for change. Inclusion is becoming more the norm than the exception when it comes to recreation. Individuals with disabilities are demanding adaptations that allow them to paddle, ski, cycle, rock climb, and more. Opportunities are expanding across the recreational spectrum.

However, the challenge course, aerial adventure park, and zip line industry has been slow to adapt. And, in cases where accessible elements have been designed and built, they are not necessarily challenging for all. 

It need not be so. The adapted sports world offers specialized equipment and equity in access. The canopy zip line industry even has supportive harnesses and rigging systems naturally designed for people with disabilities, although they may not be labeled as such. 

It’s time to move forward on universal access in the climbing world, particularly on challenge courses and in aerial adventure parks. The information is out there, the desire to climb is present.

Some have already started down this road by designing specialty training, redesigning courses, or building new courses with access and inclusion in mind.


Universal design implies products and environments usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. In a universal approach, all individuals are offered a range of equipment and means of access. Participants can choose their gear and path.

There are seven principles of universal design, as defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. You can use them to determine how your organization stacks up—and identify ways to start changing.

1. Equitable use: design is identical or equivalent for use by all.

2. Flexibility in use: provides for a range of preferences and abilities.

3. Simple and intuitive use: easy for participants to understand.

4. Perceptible information: communicates information effectively for clear understanding.

5. Tolerance for error: minimizes consequences of a mistake or accident.

6. Low physical effort: provides for efficient use.

7. Size and space for approach and use: room to maneuver regardless of size or mobility.

Adopt a universal mindset. A universal approach considers everything and everyone in all aspects of an operation, from the design of a facility to staff training, program development, and implementation. Though an existing facility may not be entirely accessible, planning ahead will enable an organization to move toward that goal. To guide your planning, ask, “What are we doing to recognize and plan for the abilities, needs, and interests of all participants in our facility design, staff training, and program implementation?” Ask this repeatedly as you work toward change.

A climber in a specialized climbing harness utilizes an ascender bar for course access at Illinois State University.


Challenge course and zip line operators typically create an atmosphere that is inviting and welcoming. To extend this atmosphere across facility design, programs, and staff training, ask:

1. In what ways are we intentionally inviting to all?

2. How does our facility create a sense of welcome?

3. Do we have the necessary equipment to allow everyone who arrives to participate fully?

4. Is our staff trained to provide a welcoming and rich experience for all participants?

Inventory the ways in which your operation is or is not meeting these needs. For example, has your staff been trained to use person first language? It’s a key aspect of being welcoming to all.

Person first language. How to best describe someone with a disability? Some identify a person by their disability, such as “Caleb is autistic.” A “person first” approach emphasizes the person before the disability: “Caleb has autism.”

The main premise with person first language is to communicate respectfully with a goal of providing equal access and opportunity to everyone. This is often the most respectful method of communicating with anyone. However, the decision on how to identify should always be up to the individual.

Element Design. One of the foundational aspects of challenge course design is that it provides options for a variety of strengths, while still helping participants to meet their goals for the activity. When designing for universal access, this means, for example, creating walkways that allow a wheelchair to roll smoothly and have defined edges that help a participant with a visual impairment stay on the path. Providing a wheelchair accessible bathroom and signage that is in different languages, including Braille, is also key.

On challenge courses, universal access may include ramp systems that lead to a platform, or hydraulic lifts that raise or lower a zip line. Wider platforms allow for easier movement when using an assistive device like a wheelchair or crutches. Climbing options might include a wider variety of handholds, textures, and colors. Packed trail surfaces make for easier maneuvering. UD also has implications for signs, parking, restrooms, equipment, and more.  

Designers and builders should consult ADA guidelines in this process, but they can go further. Ask these questions: 

How many options are there for someone to participate in this activity?

• Have we considered all the possibilities for inclusion? 

In what ways will this element/activity be exciting and challenging regardless of ability? 

Design elements that allow for a variety of choices for participation while still maintaining the integrity of the challenge and the safety guidelines. For example, a Nitro crossing rope swing activity with the option of a removable rolling trolley can be accessed by a participant who uses a wheelchair as well as those who do not. A giant swing that can be lowered so a participant can be attached before raising up avoids the need to climb a ladder. The adaptations may have larger up-front costs, but offer a greater long-term return since more patrons are able to participate.

Staff Training. The staff we employ bring a variety of backgrounds, understandings, and even judgments, so training that includes diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility helps to create a more welcoming and inclusive program. 

It begins with disability awareness. Depending on your activity’s design, develop training exercises to build a solid skill set tuned to your facility. Staff should fully grasp the process for inclusion at your site, too. How should they respond when someone with a disability needing specific gear or adaptations arrives unexpectedly? Give them a plan. 


Becoming more welcoming and accessible to all may seem like a challenge in itself, but it can be accomplished with some key steps:

1. Consider how you will create a more universal course and program.

2. Conduct a course and program assessment using the design principles outlined earlier. 

3. Develop a plan to make simple adjustments to your course and program. 

4. Include staff training components as necessary.

5. Re-evaluate frequently.

Let’s come together as an industry—including participants—to assess, design, and create a welcoming environment with opportunities for all. 


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