Photo Pat Addabbo/Oregon Adaptive Sports
Hundreds of skiers and snowboarders glide through powder on Oregon’s slopes each winter using adaptive equipment. Kayakers in Coeur d’Alene paddle the Spokane River each summer after smoothly transitioning from wheelchairs. On the Oregon Coast, 5-foot-wide plastic mats make it easy to roll wheelchairs across deep sand.
Throughout Idaho and Oregon, there are more and more accessible campgrounds and trails, as part of an effort throughout the country to make travel and recreation accessible to more people. Accessible travel is a growing priority for officials in both states. Idaho has earmarked $140 million in state and federal dollars to upgrade its parks and recreation system, improving compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the process. Oregon, meanwhile, is providing grants to local tourism organizations to enhance travel opportunities for people with disabilities.
They do this with good reason. Travel accessibility is in high demand for consumers. A study conducted by the Open Doors Organization and The Harris Poll revealed that of the 4.5 billion people who traveled domestically in 2018-2019, 27 million of them experience a disability that would benefit from accessible facilities.
More recently, an Oregon Visitor Profile survey conducted in 2022 by the Destination Analysts research firm, found one in six Oregon visitors (17%) said they had some type of accessibility need.
“We define accessible travel as ensuring that someone with a disability has as close as possible to the same experience as someone who is able bodied,” said Jake Steinman, founder and CEO of TravelAbility, a California-based resource group. “At the end of the day, all people with disabilities really want is what we all want—independence.”
That independence starts with an expectation that accommodations, destinations and attractions make it possible for everyone to get around and enjoy an experience. Travelers with disabilities need to know where they can stay the night and what activities are available. Online resources help answer many of those questions in advance.
Photo Courtesy Wheel the Road
Wheel the World is an example of one of those sources. The online booking site works in a similar format to booking sites such as Airbnb. All listed options on this website, however, have been vetted and include accessibility details such as step-free entrances, roll-in showers, door widths, bed heights and wheelchair turning space.
“Accessible travel, to us, is making travel services that are inclusive for everyone,” said company founder and CEO Alvaro Silberstein, himself a quadriplegic. He explained how they ask themselves, “How can we make services available for someone who has a disability and also wants to travel and go places and needs to find an accommodation?”
The ability to go places is personal for Silberstein. “Travel has always been close to my heart. It was something I always loved to do before my accident,” he said. “For many years, I thought I would never be able to enjoy that again, but as I gained independence and confidence in myself, I discovered it was possible that I could travel and enjoy it as I did before.”
Wheel the World helps arrange adventure destinations from an Alaskan cruise to a wheelchair-supported exploration at Peru’s Machu Picchu. There are domestic and international hotels and tours on the website, and more than 300 people are booking lodging and recreation through the site each month, according to Silberstein.
Wheel the World is now working with Oregon Coast tourism organizations to verify opportunities and increase the number of state listings in the website’s database. The effort is supported by grants from Travel Oregon, the state tourism marketing group.
“Twenty-six percent of the U.S. population—over 61 million adults—lives with a functional disability,” Todd Davidson, Travel Oregon’s CEO, said in a statement. “As part of our 10-Year Strategic Vision, Travel Oregon will focus on supporting and enabling accessibility and inclusivity in destinations across the state to ensure all visitors to Oregon feel welcome and a strong sense of belonging.”
Efforts along the coast are considered by some to be a philosophical extension of the Oregon Beach Bill, the 1967 legislation that guaranteed public access to the state’s coastline.
“We’ve come to recognize that not all residents and visitors can fully embrace this right [to use the beach] because of insufficient accessible infrastructure, insufficient trip planning information and inadequate on-site support,” said Arica Sears, deputy director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association. “Our primary objective is to foster collaboration among communities, residents and businesses, with the aim of significantly enhancing the accessibility and ease of travel.”
Coastal cities participating in accessibility efforts include the Astoria-Warrenton area, Lincoln City, Seaside, Coos Bay-North Bend-Charleston, Depoe Bay, Florence, Newport, Yachats and Waldport.
Photo Courtesy Adventures Without Limits
Oregon Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit organization based in Bend, Oregon, provides snow skiing and snowboarding programs at Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Ashland, and Hoodoo Ski Area each winter. “Our goal is to remove barriers to the outdoors and create access so individuals can participate with family and friends,” said executive director Pat Addabbo. “Our winter programs serve 400 people with unique disabilities.”
Beginners unfamiliar with adaptive snow sports can sign up for the group’s First Turns program “so they can get all the support they need to get on the mountain,” Addabbo said. The first three alpine lessons are provided at no cost and include lift tickets, an instructor, support from program volunteers, and help with the equipment.
Blue runways stretch across soft, uneven sand in Lincoln City and Seaside, making it easy to roll a wheelchair or simply walk to the water. These Mobi-Mats, paths made from recycled plastic, provide a smooth, consistent surface that can be rolled up and removed during the off-season.
Seaside placed its mat across the beach at 12th Avenue in 2023. The city also provides electric and push-style beach wheelchairs for free with a reservation, and the city’s paved, 1.5-mile promenade has made ocean views accessible since 1921.
“The feedback from residents, visitors and our own eyes watching people enjoy the beach has just been overwhelming,” said Joshua Heineman, Seaside’s director of tourism marketing.
Lincoln City, meanwhile, deployed its mats at the D-River Wayside and the SW 51st Street beach last summer and plans are being made to acquire more mats in 2024. Two beach wheelchairs also are available free of charge at the 51st Street beach with day-of-use reservations.
Back in Coeur d’Alene, Recreation Director Bill Greenwood recalls teaming with a local engineer to solve a problem. A local resident “was looking for a way to go swimming. We had to create a way to get a wheelchair into the water,” he said. The solution was a boat launch-like wheelchair ramp at Atlas Park. Users can roll their chairs down the ramp between handrails. Once buoyant in the river, they transfer to a floatation device. “No one had something like this, so we built it ourselves,” Greenwood added. “We’re a destination community, a resort town,”. “We need to make certain that everyone has accessibility.”
Similarly, kayakers visiting William M. Tugman State Park near Florence, Oregon, can access Eel Lake much as paddlers do in Coeur d’Alene. A similar launch is available at the lake’s boat ramp.
Accessibility advancements are apparent across both state parks’ systems. Some cabins and yurts comply with ADA standards and make it easier to get into the forest. Idaho’s Parks and Recreation Improvements’ Initiative incorporates ADA guidelines into each project. An upcoming paving project at Bruneau Dunes State Park, for example, will convert a trail from gravel to pavement so wheelchair-bound visitors can access the observatory and see the stars at night.
“We want to increase capacity for all users at every campground and every facility,” said Idaho Parks and Recreation spokesperson Chelsea Chambers, “so we will be focusing more and more on accessibility.” Visit wheeltheworld.com to learn more
Dan Shryock is a Salem-based journalist working with magazines and websites in California and the Pacific Northwest. His primary focus is cycle tourism and he recently explored all 17 of Oregon’s official scenic bikeways for an upcoming book.