The September afternoon was sunny and warm, which was lucky because Maria Schmidt had spent weeks planning and traveled almost 100 miles to do something she'd been wanting to do all her life: explore a park.
Schmidt and two friends drove two hours from their homes in Willmar, Minn., to Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield so Schmidt could try out one of the park's new all-terrain wheelchairs. Available free to the public, the chairs give visitors with physical disabilities access to the park's mostly unpaved trails.
Schmidt, 45, has cerebral palsy. She can't traverse rough surfaces on her regular wheelchair without somebody pushing it. Now, as sunlight flickered between the trees, Schmidt rolled along the crushed limestone on her own steam.
"I'm kind of stubborn — I like to do things myself," Schmidt said cheerfully, pushing the levers that operate the chair's chain-drive system and mountain-bike-style wheels. "There's so much that people with physical disabilities need help with that we hunger for independence."
This spring, Wood Lake acquired two all-terrain chairs — one for adults, one for kids — for about $10,000 combined. The money was raised via the city of Richfield's "round-up" program, in which customers at municipal liquor stores can voluntarily round up purchases to the next dollar, donating the difference to a civic project.
"We're working as a city and as a park district to make nature and our parks more accessible to everyone," said Brianna Rodgers, a Wood Lake interpretive naturalist who arranged the chairs' purchase. Visitors can call ahead and reserve them during regular park hours.
Schmidt found that the chair took some practice and strength to operate — the levers could be tough to move, especially in turns — but she was determined. Part of her motivation was letting other people with disabilities know the chairs are available to be used.
"I want to get the word out," she said. "Everybody should be able to enjoy nature."
Too often, Schmidt said, public funds go to things like sports stadiums. "I feel like sometimes things for physically challenged children and adults get pushed to the side."
Wood Lake isn't the only area park offering adaptive equipment for public use. Three Rivers Park District offers all-terrain wheelchairs at four of its 20 parks. A couple of Three Rivers parks also offer beach wheelchairs that can be used in sand or water, and others offer adapted snow sleds, sit skis and other equipment for people with disabilities.
The Department of Natural Resources offers all-terrain wheelchairs at six of the 66 state parks. Theirs are motorized "track wheelchairs," with treads resembling those on a military tank. The DNR also offers an adapted beach chair at McCarthy Beach State Park, and this summer opened accessible features in four locations, including a newly paved 4.5-mile segment of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along the North Shore. Three state park tours — Blue Mounds Prairie and Bison Tours, Soudan Underground Mine Tours and Forestville Mystery Cave Tours — are structured for accessibility.
State parks attract, on average, nearly 10 million visitors a year. The park system of city, county and regional parks tracked by the Metropolitan Council — which includes 56 regional parks and park reserves — drew nearly 65 million visitors last year, including Three Rivers' 13.7 million.
"One of our requirements for park and trail master planning is to ensure our system is accessible to people of all abilities," said Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge. "Also, we manage a number of grant programs to help transform the parts of our aging parks and trails system that need to be brought up to a modern standard."
While many park systems provide some accessible features at some sites, they rarely offer everything everywhere. Even within a single site, a parking lot and picnic shelter might be accessible, for example, but playground and trails not.
Federal regulations require new construction or renovation at parks and recreation facilities to comply with standards set by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. In parks built before the ADA took effect, "local governments usually must devise ways to make the programs and activities in those parks and facilities accessible to people with disabilities," instructs a Justice Department report, but the cost tends to present an obstacle.
In Minnesota's state parks, all new construction or renovation complies with ADA standards, said Rachel Hopper, the DNR's visitor services and outreach manager. Improving accessibility in decades-old sites "is an ongoing effort" but "a long process." Public parks rely on state or local governments to allocate funding, but it's rarely provided for a complete overhaul.
Meeting ADA standards in parks is complicated for at least two reasons — there are many different kinds of parks and many different kinds of disabilities, said David Allen Larson, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Park geographies present diverse challenges, Larson said. Meanwhile, "the breadth of impairments pretty much ensures that people are going to have different needs and priorities." People with hearing impairments, for example, could need completely different features than those with mobility limitations.
On the bright side, Larson said, in recent years ADA compliance has begun benefiting from growing public interest in equity and inclusion. "It's not just owners of facilities worried about legal liability, it's about our society and community wanting to be inclusive."
Schmidt remembers the pain of being left out, as a child, from school and family activities she wasn't able to do.
"It was a really sad time for me, back in the '80s," she said. "I had to stay indoors — it was the norm. ... It's a lonely place, especially when you're a young child."
A new destination playground in Schmidt's hometown of Willmar is made accessible with features such as poured-rubber flooring and a wheelchair swing, said Parks Director Rob Baumgarn.
At Wood Lake Nature Center, the availability of the kid-size all-terrain wheelchair means students with disabilities needn't miss any of the action on class field trips, naturalist Rodgers said. The park has heard from at least one teacher with a student excited about the chance to be included.
"Everybody should be included," Schmidt said. "That's all I've ever wanted."