What helps & what doesn’t? Outdoor recreation among wheelchair users


Lay summary by Alanna Schwed

Edited by Crystal Han

This is a lay summary of the original research article by Dr. Ben Mortenson, Dr. Jaimie Borisoff, and their colleagues Ashley Menzies, Carolyn Mazan, and Johanne Mattie. Read the original article here.

Outdoor recreation activities can often involve feelings of inclusion and deep enjoyment and ultimately have a powerful influence on happiness and quality of life. However, many people with disabilities have limited opportunities to participate in informal outdoor recreation (e.g., hiking), which may impact the breadth and depth of their life experiences.

This qualitative interview study explored the experiences and impacts of participation in informal outdoor recreation activities by wheelchair users and identified perceived facilitators and barriers to participation in these activities.

Participants from within and outside of Metro Vancouver who use manual wheelchairs for at least four hours a day took part in interviews and were asked to share and discuss photos of themselves participating in outdoor activities. They were also asked to share any barriers they have encountered and other images of interest to them that were related to outdoor recreation.

Three main themes were identified from discussions with the participants: Into the Woods, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and Just Around the Riverbend: Desired Changes.

Into the Woods

Participants in this study participated in multiple activities ranging from fairly common activities such as wheeling, hand-cycling, kayaking, sit-skiing, to more unique ones such as scuba diving, horseback riding, and fishing. Participants also said they engaged in these activities with family and friends, or go through established programs such as SCI BC, or Vancouver Adaptive Snow Sports.

Outdoor recreation activities allow people to connect with family and friends. One key motivator for a wheelchair user to try new activities was the encouragement they received from their loved ones. Other motivators included various technologies such as adaptive kayaks, paddleboards, sit skis, and other equipment that allows the participant to engage in outdoor activities like able-bodied people. However, not all activities require equipment. The feeling of being “free”, of blending in, or being able to participate in the activity the same way as others without additional support or equipment, is also a large motivator for those with an SCI to engage in various activities.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough 

Many barriers were identified by wheelchair users as challenges to overcome when trying to participate in outdoor recreation activities. The overall list of barriers include: the accessibility of the man-made or natural environment, cost, transport, transfers in and out of chairs and equipment, needing assistance, health concerns, and weather.

For example, although the accessibility of buildings have improved, this is not necessarily the case in natural environments. Furthermore, individuals with disabilities often only receive funding for equipment and devices that are considered medically necessary for basic motility.

Although participation in outdoor recreation is associated with physical, mental, and emotional well-being, it is not deemed ‘medically necessary’, and any equipment required for these activities would not be funded. This results in limited accessibility to participate in outdoor recreational activities for wheelchair users, due to financial barriers.

Although participants in this study were able to overcome many of the previously listed barriers, the extensive list of challenges could likely reduce the frequency of their participation in outdoor activities, or may even prevent others’ participation entirely.

Just Around the Riverbend: Desired Changes

In order to help overcome the many barriers faced, participants identified areas for improvement that may increase participation in outdoor activities. First, there is a desire for universal access to specialized equipment with reduced cost, and options for rental, shared, and easily stored equipment in the future. Participants also expressed a desire for equipment which allows for increased levels of independence when engaging in activities. For example, participants identified the modification known as the FreeWheel as a helpful adaptation because it raises wheelchair castors to facilitate wheeling on uneven or soft terrain. An alternative mobility device, called the TrailRider, was less preferred by participants because of the lack of control, reliance on others, and absence of physical activity making users feel like they are sitting in a Laz-E-Boy.

Beyond the natural environment, participants are actively promoting, in their hometowns on their own time, accessibility in the human-made environment. Participants explained that people without disabilities often focus on one aspect, such as wheelchair access, rather than thinking larger to include other populations with a wide array of disabilities (e.g., hearing, visual, or cognitive delays). There is a call to move away from thinking about accessibility as an afterthought, but rather to embracing these ideas around universal design.


Outdoor recreation activities can increase physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. However, people with mobility difficulties continue to face obstacles that can prevent them from participating the same way as others or entirely from the activity. Technology improvements and policy changes can help facilitate universal access to outdoor recreation and help foster feelings of joy and improved quality of life for all.