Kiley Adams '17

Ensuring Equitable Access to Outdoor Spaces


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Growing up in Washington state, Kiley Adams ’17 spent a lot of time outdoors. As she enjoyed nature and outdoor recreation, Adams began to notice inequities in the access to those spaces. In the same way that those with disabilities deserve equitable access to education, housing, and transportation, Adams believes that having access to outdoor, adaptive recreation is no different.

“When you think of things always through the basic needs lens—do you have enough to eat, drink, clothe yourself, and go to school—you don’t ask the question of what makes your life meaningful, and do you have access to that?” Adams says. “There’s something about adaptive recreation that fundamentally gets at that question.”

Adams has been sharing her passion for sports with diverse bodies for many years. In high school, Adams served as a volunteer with TOPSoccer, a soccer league for kids with disabilities. While on the Notre Dame women’s soccer team, Adams and her teammates volunteered with the South Bend Special Olympics.

These experiences have enabled Adams to see firsthand how adaptive recreation can promote mental, emotional and physical well-being. But she also knows that in order to impact policy, she needs the data to back it up.  At Notre Dame, she had the chance to find it.

“I had a lot of resources and a lot of mentors at Notre Dame who gave me the opportunities to think in this space and to actually try out what I was learning,” she says.

The summer after her freshman year at Notre Dame, Adams completed an International Summer Service Learning Project in Chennai, India. During the program, Adams studied community-based rehabilitation, a model of care in which local community workers are trained to provide services, such as physical therapy, to their own neighbors, thereby making medical care more accessible to people in rural communities. Adams worked with local organizations for those with disabilities and interviewed community members to determine what services they take advantage of and why.

Her curiosity ignited, Adams returned to the community every summer during her time as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, she earned a Fulbright scholarship to continue her research.

“I tried to do a community-centric approach, because I don’t think publishing research is the answer for communities themselves. I disseminated information back to disabled people’s organizations so they could do community-level brainstorming.”

While in India, Adams also worked with Adventures Beyond Barriers, an organization specifically devoted to making outdoor recreation inclusive. The group organized adaptive cricket, scuba diving, rock climbing, and hiking for those with disabilities. With her background in adaptive soccer and her lifelong love of outdoor adventure, the project instantly resonated with Adams. She left India determined to continue exploring the space. 

Upon returning to the States, Adams moved to Alaska to volunteer with Southeast Alaska Independent Living, an organization which provides adaptive recreation to those with disabilities in Juneau, Alaska. As the head of their youth outdoor recreation programming, Adams took kids on adventures that their school’s physical education classes may not have been equipped to provide them.

“It is so fun to be skiing or hiking next to someone who either is experiencing that for the first time or who hasn’t historically had access to that space,” Adams shares.A lot of parents get to watch their kids become more confident, more social with their peers. When you do it with elementary-aged kids over time, it’s really cool how much you can watch them change their views about what their bodies can do and what they can do in a community.”

A current medical student at the University of Michigan, Adams continues to study the positive effects of adaptive recreation. After observing that the medical school’s backpacking orientation trip was not accessible for everyone, Adams helped secure a grant to purchase a trail wheelchair, a hybrid between a wheelchair and a mountain bike that enables wheelchair users or people with other mobility impairments to navigate rough terrain.

Adams quickly recognized that a tool designed to increase inclusivity should not be exclusively available to medical students, so she developed a free, public trail wheelchair program. At the time, she had no idea what an impact the program would make. “I was like, oh, maybe one or two people will use it here and there,” she recalls. “I think it was the first two or three weeks that we housed one of the trail chairs that folks from five different states were calling in to reserve the chair for free public rental.”

Wheelchair users are not the only people who have rented the trail chair. “A lot of the folks that use the trail chairs are elders in the community. Maybe they want to attend their grandkid’s birthday party, and it’s a beach that’s slightly rugged terrain that they can’t walk out to.”

Before and after someone rents the trail chair, they are prompted to answer surveys that ask questions about their experience riding the chair and whether it would increase the amount of time they spend outside, the amount of time they spend moving their bodies, and the amount of time they spend with their friends and family. Unsurprisingly, the preliminary feedback Adams has received has been overwhelmingly positive.

“A lot of people report it increases their sense of community when they have access to their trails and a greater chance of increasing their physical movement and wellbeing.”

Though Adams finds her work most rewarding when she’s outside co-recreating with diverse types of people, she recognizes the importance of building a body of literature.

“It’s important for when folks are making policy and funding decisions to say that this is not some hand wave-y, fun thing we do. This is a basic right and a fact that equitable access to outdoor recreation is important for people’s health.”

Adams knows that her trail chair initiative is only one small step toward making outdoor recreation accessible and hopes that future solutions will be driven by the users themselves. But she does believe that the visibility of the program may help with shifting an important paradigm.

“I think most folks that study disability understand that disability has nothing to do with a specific physical impairment. It has to do with how we build our societies that excludes people with certain physical impairments, both physically and socially. It impacts who we believe does or doesn’t have the ability to participate,” Adams reflects. “Seeing that folks who you might not think are hikers can be hikers is a great start. You think, ‘Oh this type of body or this type of human can exist in and enjoy this space, too.”