During the month of July, we celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At Interior, we observe and honor this important civil rights law that works to ensure all people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
To celebrate this significant occasion, we wanted to share some amazing public lands experiences from Maggie Redden and Abe Waugh, who are well versed in trips, travels, and nature excursions. Their love of photography, travel, and being disability advocates has taken them to some amazing public lands spots.
A love for adaptive sports is how they met when they were just kids. Maggie continued her sports journey, eventually competing as a member of the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Team. Married in 2016, the couple has since taken on a love for sharing their travel photography, visiting public lands sites, and discussing their experiences of wheelchair accessibility.
Prior to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, most of our public lands treasures weren’t accessible to a large segment of citizens. Iconic national park locations like Yosemite and Yellowstone weren’t set up for wheelchairs or for those who were blind, deaf, or lived with other disabilities.
Our public lands are so much more than just the national parks. They consist of U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, Bureau of Reclamation water projects, U.S. Forest Service national forests, historic and cultural sites, large swaths of Bureau of Land Management land, and state and local parks. All of these amazing areas were also largely inaccessible to the disability community prior to the 1990s.
We’ve come a long way since the early days of the ADA 31 years ago, but we still have work to do. To get a better sense of accessibility adventures on public lands, we talked with Maggie and Abe about their experiences and travels in nature, as well as to find out some of their favorite public lands moments and ways we can create better and more accessible spaces.
What are some public lands and national park sites that you have visited?
Maggie and Abe: Living in the greater Washington D.C. area, we’ve visited most of the National Mall and Memorial Park sites. You can often find us at the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve or Great Falls Park along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Maggie grew up in New Jersey, and we’ve both been to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Individually, as kids, we’ve been to numerous other places, including Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and Rocky Mountains National Parks...to name a few!
What has been your favorite public lands, national park, or nature area you have visited?
Maggie and Abe: We frequent Shenandoah National Park and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge! We love that they are so close to our home base. We’re spontaneous with those visits and often make day trips out of them.
What is it like to recreate outdoors with a disability? What are some challenges you face while recreating or visiting public lands sites?
Maggie and Abe: Absolutely amazing! If you have the opportunity and are able, you should take the opportunity to visit YOUR national parks and public lands. With our National Park Access Pass, which is part of the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series, we can visit sites managed by various federal agencies free of charge.
That being said, visits aren’t always without frustration. ADA accessible trails are still in short quantity. We totally understand the challenge of keeping nature...well, natural, while creating accessible options which often require man-made structures.
Efforts have been made to make parks more accessible to wheelchairs. A perfect example is Assateague National Seashore where beach wheelchairs are available for public use. However, there are a limited number and can only be used during normal business hours. We visited the beach at sunrise and had to traipse through the sand to get to the water.
What are you looking for in accessible trails and facilities?
Maggie and Abe: One thing we have noticed is that on raised trails and boardwalks there is often a barrier, that from a wheelchair tends to be at eye level making it difficult to take in the scenery. Some locations, such as Great Falls Park in Virginia, have found a solution to this by having a clear plexiglass section to make easy viewing possible.
In general, we are looking for access to more trails that take us to destinations that make you say “wow.” Places like backcountry waterfalls or mountaintops. Oftentimes, accessible trails tend to touch the highlights but leave us wanting to explore more.
How do you plan for your travels? What’s your process or research you do before you visit?
Maggie and Abe: Based on our needs and experiences, our process starts by picking a destination, typically between April-November when we won’t be dealing with snow in our area. We also research the weather at our destination. Then, we decide on activities and points of interest we want to see and/or visit. Next, we check the accessibility of those activities and locations via their website and Google Maps. Finally, we search for accommodations and transportation near our destination that are wheelchair accessible.
If we’re traveling by air, things can get a little more complicated. When possible, we book direct flights but depending on destinations, that’s not always possible. If not, we try to leave plenty of time between flights (since boarding and getting off the plane with wheelchairs can take some time). We’re mindful of selecting seats on the plane near restrooms to make getting to them as easy as possible.
No matter what, when we gate check our wheelchairs, after making sure they are “ready” to fly by taking off extra bags, cushions, and securing as much as possible, we keep the gate check ticket in a safe place. Should anything happen to our wheelchairs, including being lost or damaged, that ticket will help start the claims process. Knock on wood that doesn’t happen to us in the future. So far, we’ve been lucky traveling with our wheelchairs, but we know other travelers with disabilities that haven’t been so lucky. Our wheelchairs = our freedom!
Do you have any favorite moments at these sites? Something that left you in awe or speechless?
Maggie and Abe: Watching the sunrise from Assateague Island National Seashore was breathtaking (once we managed to get through the sand). Coffee in hand, crabs scurrying around, various birds darting across the beach, and then the sun casting majestic colors over the entire scene. We could’ve sat there for hours. We highly recommend getting up with the sun. It’s worth it!
We’ve experienced something similar, but at sunset in Shenandoah National Park. Being out in nature puts things into perspective and makes you forget about life for a little while.
There was also another occasion at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge where we watched a bald eagle miscalculate catching a fish. It landed in the water and couldn’t get out. We sat there watching it struggle. It managed to swim to shore, but it was one of those scenarios where we weren’t sure what was going to happen, and we had to let nature be nature. Not that we could’ve done anything, but it was fascinating to watch, and tense!
Public lands are for everyone, regardless of ability. For decades, Interior and its bureaus have worked to improve access to public lands, as well as create new and innovative ways for participation and inclusion. Our work is far from over and we will continue to move forward with giving adventurists like Maggie and Abe access to those “wow” moments.
For more information on accessibility in these treasured landscapes, read the National Park Service’s Disability History Series, learn about accessible features in parks, or get an America The Beautiful Federal Lands Access Pass.