Outdoor recreation participation among manual wheelchair users


Lay Summary by Rona Herzog

This is a summary of research conducted by Ashley Menzies (UBC), Carolyn Mazan (UBC), Johanne Mattie (BCIT) and ICORD PIs Dr. Ben Mortenson and Dr. Jamie Borisoff. Click here to access the original research paper.

Participation in outdoor recreation activities is associated with mental, emotional, and physical health benefits. However, individuals with mobility impairments often face barriers when trying to access outdoor recreation. These include environmental (e.g. transportation), physical (e.g. aging/overuse injuries), and social (e.g. support) barriers that individuals often have to overcome.

When examining participation in outdoor recreation, it is important to differentiate between formal and informal recreation activities. Informal recreation activities for manual wheelchair users frequently allow more spontaneous access to outdoor environments.. This differs from formal outdoor recreation activities that do not allow for spontaneous participation and include relatively small numbers of participants. To date, there is very little research on informal outdoor recreation activities for individuals with mobility impairments.

What was the purpose of this study?

The overall purpose for this study was to try to expand our understanding of equipment needs, program availability, and funding that would be required for informal outdoor recreation participation for manual wheelchair users.

There were two main objectives:

  1. To explore individual experiences of wheelchair users participating in outdoor recreation with an emphasis on informal activities.
  2. To identify individual factors that are perceived barriers and/or facilitators to participate in outdoor recreation activities.

How was this research conducted?

For this study, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews. The use of semi-structured interviews allows researchers to ask follow-up questions, giving participants a greater ability to expand on their answers. Participants were able to share photos to help further the discussion, including photos of themselves participating in outdoor recreation activities, potential barriers that they have faced, and images of outdoor recreation activities in which they are interested in participating.

What did researchers find?

Through their thematic analysis, researchers identified three main themes in participant interviews.

Into the woods: Researchers found that participants’ current experiences with outdoor recreation echoed similar findings from other studies showing that manual wheelchair users enjoy participating in outdoor recreation. This enjoyment is believed to be based on physical and psychological improvements related to being in an outdoor environment. The findings demonstrated variation in participants’ current outdoor recreation experiences. Some participants wanted to return to activities in which they had previously engaged, while others hoped to challenge themselves with new activities. They also found that the feeling individuals had of being “free” from their wheelchairs, as well as participating in similar activities to the able-bodied community, was often a shared motivator for continued participation in specific outdoor recreation activities, including sea kayaking and swimming.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Individual barriers that were discussed often revolved around the cost of specialized outdoor recreation equipment, accessibility to the built and natural environments, and personal health (e.g., overuse injuries in the shoulders). Researchers also found that along with barriers related to the cost of specialized equipment were challenges surrounding difficulty storing their equipment, season-dependent activities/equipment, and a lack of local programs. Social challenges were also discussed, with many participants feeling frustrated by the congratulatory reactions they often received from able-bodied individuals while they were out participating in their chosen activities.

Just Around the Riverbend: Specific changes identified by participants would primarily decrease barriers associated with the second theme (Ain’t No Mountain High Enough). These changes are centred around universal access to outdoor recreation equipment. This can include having adapted equipment available at local bike shops and other outdoor rental facilities, which would enable more spontaneous activity, help decrease the overall cost, eliminate the reliance on transporting equipment, and increase independence for participants. Solutions to make these changes financially sustainable could include crowdfunding for businesses. Other desires that were discussed included new adaptations, increased independence, and changes in policy allowing for outdoor recreation participation for wheelchair users to be normalized.

What do these findings mean for individuals with mobility impairments/wheelchair users?

These findings are important as they identified current experiences, current barriers, and desires for the future of manual wheelchair users participating in informal recreation activities (Gobio). By working with wheelchair users, and understanding their diverse experiences with informal outdoor recreation, researchers and participants have the ability to influence the ways in which individuals will be able to access informal outdoor recreation in the future.

It is important to note that many of the participants in this study were able to work through some of the challenges they faced while accessing outdoor recreation activities; however, the frequency of their participation will still most likely be decreased by some barriers.


Thematic Analysis: Refers to the process of reviewing/analyzing the transcribed interviews; and identifying shared themes. This study used the Braun and Clarke six-step method of thematic analysis.

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