1 May, 2024

How Educational Tools and Inclusion Initiatives Help Connect the Trail Sector to Its Users

Q&A with Trisha Kaplan, Director, Trail Inclusion Initiatives at Trans Canada Trail

We recently completed the creation of All Persons Trail Guidelines. These guidelines are geared towards trail groups, volunteers or anyone interested in trail design and engagement along trails. We sat down with Trisha Kaplan, Trans Canada Trail’s Director, Trail Inclusion Initiatives, to discuss the project’s successes and challenges, and how educational tools like the All Persons Trail Guidelines help connect the trail sector to its users.

About All Persons Trails

An adult in a wheelchair on a section of the trail in Salt Marsh Trail, Nova Scotia

Please describe the All Persons Trail Guidelines project: What are All Persons Trails?

TK: All Persons Trails welcome everyone by providing inclusive outdoor experiences for all. This means that they often go beyond accessibility standards and have qualities and features that meet the needs of a wide range of users.

What elements are covered when upgrading or designing an All Persons Trail?

TK: Groups can include several elements to make their trail accessible for everyone. The trail must be accessible from a mobility perspective, which means wide, hard-packed trails with minimal grade changes. But there should also be a navigational tool for those who are blind or have low vision. This may be a navigational app, like Blindsquare, or an audio tour or another tool.

There are many ways to design a trail to increase accessibility, for example, considering users who identify as neurodiverse, and including sensory experiences like tactile interpretation or raised sensory gardens.

How can trail groups use the guidelines?

The guidelines are intended to provide ideas for trail groups. Of course, they don’t replace any standards or legal obligations. But even when trails comply with standards, they may not be accessible to users in a meaningful way, nor to the range of users interested in the trail. We hope these guidelines inspire groups to go beyond compliance to include more trail users.

About the project’s process

A person in a wheelchair happily gives two thumbs up while at an accessible picnic table.

What was your process when creating these guidelines?

TK: It was a long process! I’ve been working in the trail world for many years, and I have formal training in accessibility, and specifically accessibility in recreation. Over time, I saw and learned interesting examples of trail accessibility. I thought it would be fantastic to have these ideas and examples collected in one place as a resource for trail managers.

Based on my experience, we were able to start with an outline of the subjects to be covered and the key elements that make each trail feature accessible. We included examples of trails that we knew had creative solutions for increasing accessibility. We also conducted research to find new trails that had implemented interesting elements.

Who did you consult with when creating these guidelines, and why?

TK: Once we had the draft version complete, we hired several individuals with lived experience of disability to review the draft and provide ideas and feedback.

Of course, what is accessible to one person may not be accessible to another, so we were sure to engage people with diverse personal experiences with accessibility, and several of the people we hired were experts in the field. We also made sure to capture representation from several regions across the country, as well as both Indigenous and settler perspectives. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to engage those in a project who are most impacted by it. Regardless of how much we learn, we can’t truly understand how someone will experience a trail unless we share their perspective.

Our contributors reviewed every part of the draft and provided valuable feedback and ideas that we integrated into the final version. For example, one reviewer shared the importance of tactile maps to trail users who are blind or have low vision – which you can now find in the resource. Once we had the text complete, and all the photos selected, our colleagues translated and designed the version that you see today!

What can people with lived experiences of disability bring to the process?

TK: People with lived experiences of disability bring a breadth of experience and knowledge to your project. Even if a trail is compliant with accessibility standards, it may not be accessible for the range of users who want to use the trail. Engaging those you serve in the planning process will identify issues before you go public, and solutions will be more easily identified.

Engaging people with lived experience in the planning process also ensures meaningful accessibility. Meaningful accessibility considers the entire site, rather than each component of the site, as well as the experiences of many. Meaningful accessibility ensures that a trail won’t have an accessible footbridge with an inaccessible trailhead. Or steps to an accessible washroom. By engaging those with a wide range of lived experiences, this risk is decreased.

About the impact of All Persons Trails on the trail sector

a wheelchair user exploring the all persons trail at the habitat education center in belmont

Why do All Persons Trails matter to trail users, trail groups and others in the sector?

TK: There are so many benefits to using trails, to getting outside and being active. There is an incredible diversity of people who want to enjoy these benefits, and some people will be able to do so, while others will face barriers that can be difficult to fully appreciate without having that lived experience. The new national data has just been released on disability in Canada, and in 2022, 8 million people identified as living with a disability. This is a 5 per cent increase from 2017. This percentage increased in every province and territory, and every type of disability saw an increase. Almost 20 per cent of Canada’s population is 65 years old or older, and this is increasing. So, creating accessible public spaces should matter to all of us.

All Persons Trails allow more people to access trails safely and confidently, and Trans Canada Trail is able to bring more inclusion to a sector that often includes barriers. We’re able to open up possibilities for community groups, seniors’ centres, and more people overall, to experience nature and benefit from its positive impacts.

Ultimately, All Persons Trails are about ensuring that everyone who wants to benefit from using trails can do so as safely and as independently as possible. And they can do so with their friends and their families!

Our hope with these guidelines is that they will help trail groups – and the general public – see trails in a new way and be inspired to make them more inclusive for everyone.

How have these guidelines been used, or how will they be used within the trail sector in Canada?

TK: I can’t speak to how these guidelines have been used, exactly, because they’re brand new. But we do have many accessibility projects that we support across the country. Some examples include the following:

We just funded Saskatchewan Parks to purchase two adaptive sleds so people with mobility difficulties can skate on the Trans Canada Trail on a water route in winter. And they’ve been a big hit!

Through our Accessibility Mapping Program, our mappers identified barriers that needed removal in Wakefield, Quebec, so we are funding those improvements now.

What challenges come with implementing All Persons Trails, if any, and do you have suggestions or tips for members of the trail sector facing these challenges?

TK: Good question! There may be challenges, as with building any trail. Sometimes the landscape or multiple priorities force you to be extra creative when finding ways to make a trail accessible for everyone. But it is so rewarding when people who couldn’t otherwise do so are using the trail. It may cost less than people expect to turn an accessible trail into an All Persons Trail. It really does benefit the whole community, and community members can be involved in the project and create it together. One piece of advice: always engage those you are serving early in your process. It will save money, time and confusion when changes need to be made to reverse an initial design that wasn’t accessible.

The intersection of trails, tourism, art and nature is one of the key themes of the World Trails Conference, taking place in Ottawa from September 30 to October 3, 2024. Trail enthusiasts, sector leaders, outdoors professionals, academics and trail groups hoping to explore trails and their connection to inclusion and education are welcome to attend. Learn more about the conference, or register now.

Find our All Persons Trails guidelines here.