This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.
Casey Somerville, a Livingston County resident whose son Owen is a powerchair user, is familiar with the limitations many outdoor recreation areas pose for people with disabilities. So are her son's friends, who already understand that his mobility device won't be accommodated at all playgrounds.
"His friends say, 'Can we go somewhere where we can play with Owen?'" Somerville says.
However, in Southeast Michigan, parks systems, nonprofits, and other advocates are all working to make outdoor recreation more accessible to people of all abilities. When John Waterman founded the nonprofit Programs to Educate All Cyclists
(PEAC) in 1988, two years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, he says the idea of teaching people with disabilities to ride bicycles was regarded as "a bit over the edge." He says there still isn't enough of a focus on making outdoor recreation accessible to people with disabilities, but that's beginning to change.
Waterman was originally called to action when a special education student at the school where he taught in Battle Creek was severely harmed by a car while riding his bike.
"Out of that tragedy came the focus: we need to ride together," he recalls.
In 1992, Waterman and PEAC relocated to Ypsilanti, where he has been teaching people of all abilities to ride cycles ever since. In that time, he's also coached Paralympic athletes and advised numerous organizations on ways to make their services more inclusive.
"I started with the commitment that everyone can ride," he says. "That's been the mission."
Making bike share accessible to all
When the MoGo
bike-share service launched in Metro Detroit in 2017, Waterman pressed MoGo founder and former Executive Director Lisa Nuszkowski on how she was going to serve people with disabilities. PBSC Urban Solutions, the Montreal-based company that MoGo purchased its equipment from, made only standard bicycles and docking stations designed to house them.
"Adaptive cycles are all shapes and sizes — some have two wheels in the front, some have four," says Rory Lincoln, MoGo's director of programming and operations. "Even if we were to try to make a station-based model, for people who have more severe physical disabilities and needs, or a wheelchair or mobility device, there would be no place to put those when they went out on a ride."
PEAC students Conor Waterman, Amanda Salinas, Owen Conley, Shawn Kohsmann, Tiara Sims, and PEAC founder John Waterman with MoGo adaptive cycles on the Detroit Riverwalk.
Rather than let the obstacles of storage and supply hinder them, PEAC and MoGo partnered to launch Adaptive MoGo in 2018. They turned to Jack's Bicycle and Fitness
, a bike shop in Dearborn that had long been making adaptive cycling products, for equipment. Now MoGo offers 13 different styles of adaptive cycles for rent — including recumbent tricycles, tandem bikes, and cargo bikes. They lease storage space for the adaptive cycles along the Detroit Riverwalk. Users can book reservations online. Upon arrival at the Riverwalk rental site, PEAC and MoGo staff fit and train riders on the appropriate cycle before they head out.
PEAC student Conor Waterman on a MoGo handcycle.
"It gives a personal touch to be able to teach people how to use [the cycles] based on their abilities, whether it be a physical or cognitive disability," says Lincoln. "Our staff and PEAC's staff work together to make sure we are familiar with how to speak in ADA-appropriate language with people based on their disability and what they need from the particular cycling options we have."
FAIR Play in the Metroparks
Park planners in Southeast Michigan are also rethinking their facilities to better serve users of all abilities. Back in 1990, when the ADA was passed, public agencies were required to develop ADA transition plans to make their facilities accessible. But the act has since been revised, and Nina Kelly, chief of planning and development for Huron-Clinton Metroparks
, says the agency thought it was "timely" to update its ADA plan.
"For the most part, we had to start from scratch, because so many different things have happened since the mid-'90s in our parks," she says.
Kelly says Metroparks staff undertook a "long process" of evaluating the parks' golf facilities, boating facilities, and everything in between, looking for areas that needed accessibility improvements.
"There's a lot of data that's involved with the plan. Ultimately what we did is develop a list of proposed improvements, and prioritized them on a ranking system," says Kelly.
As the Metroparks receive grant funding from organizations including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
and the Land and Water Conservation Fund
, they're able to implement improvements.
Accessible boat launches are currently being added at Hudson Mills, Kensington, Delhi, and Lake St. Clair Metroparks. Nature trails are being adapted in Oakwoods, Lake Erie, and Stony Creek Metroparks. Picnic areas are being updated with accessible pathways, tables that a person can roll a wheelchair up to, and accessible grills. And at Stony Creek Metropark, a handcycle-accessible mountain bike loop is under construction.
"It's a different experience for folks to actually get in the woods and experience mountain biking instead of just having to be on paved trails," says Kelly.
In tandem with adapting facilities, the Metroparks are also updating equipment. Handcycles, an adaptive sit ski, and accessible golf carts are available for rent at various sites throughout the park system. The accessibility page
on the Metroparks' website has a full list of rental equipment, information on various activities, contact information to request accommodations, and links to the system's ADA transition plan.
To help guide this work, the Metroparks convened a community advisory group comprised of disability advocates, people with disabilities, and parents of children with disabilities. The FAIR (Fun Accessible Inclusive Recreation) Play Coalition reviews plans, advises on the purchase of equipment, and offers guidance on the parks' development when it comes to accessibility.
"The ADA is a minimum, but we are seeking universal design in a lot of the projects that we are looking at," says Kelly. "The FAIR Play Coalition really helps us do that, because they are able to look at a project more from a user perspective and give us insight that we might not, ourselves, have."
Somerville, a member of the FAIR Play Coalition, began pursuing inclusive playground efforts when Owen was 18 months old.
"He became a powerchair user when he was two," says Somerville. "I knew I had to do my part to educate myself and research how we could make these play opportunities more accessible to everyone in our community."
Somerville has been most excited about advising on the redesign of the Maple Beach Playground in Kensington Metropark, which opened this spring as a universally accessible play site. It includes ramping on large play structures that enable a person in a wheelchair to access different decks, as well as a We-Go-Round, a merry-go-round that can be operated independently by a person in a mobility device. Kelly notes that this independence helps to build confidence. The We-Go-Round is Owen's favorite piece of inclusive equipment. Soon, Lower Huron Metropark will include one as well.
"One of the things that was brought to my attention through this process was how caregivers with disabilities have a hard time taking their kiddos to certain play opportunities because they don't have that same access," says Somerville. "That was at the forefront of my mind: Are we making it accessible across a generational perspective?"
Kelly notes that Metroparks staff are also looking at making sites accessible for a range of abilities, considering cognitive and other disabilities as well as physical. Somerville says those conversations will only improve the park experience for all users.
PEAC students ride MoGo adaptive cycles on the Detroit Riverwalk.
"Inclusivity gives to everyone, and takes from no one," says Somerville. "If we just make these small adjustments, these small considerations, it can make a world of difference for the people in the world around us. It's a gift that gives to everybody."
Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.
PEAC photos by Doug Coombe.