To The Top

To The Top – designing disabled-friendly challenge courses

Don Rogers


The challenge course industry has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. There appears to be widespread acceptance of the methodology while ever increasing numbers of public and private agencies are committing the resources to this powerful tool and its accompanying programs. With this proliferation of challenge courses an inevitable question as emerged: How do we include people with disabilities in these programs? No simple answer has been found to this controversial question. This article suggests that an approach called Universal Challenge Course Design will accomplish a meaningful inclusion that extends beyond the confines of mandated accessibility.

Challenge courses have become increasingly popular across a wide range of settings in the United States and many other countries. Estimates of the number of challenge course in the U.S. range between 8,000 and 10,000, with about 250 built each year.

According to the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), a challenge course is “any program that utilizes belayed, spotted or non-spotted elements/activities which have been designed or installed as part of an experiential learning curriculum” (1998, p. 23).

Other terms used to describe a challenge course include Ropes Course, Teams Course and Initiatives Course. An adventure/challenge program might also include a climbing tower or climbing wall which usually provides multiple options for a range of climbing experiences.

A challenge course has numerous applications depending on the setting and populations being served. The types of program are identified according to four major categories based on purpose. These categories are recreation, individual/group growth, developmental and treatment (Priest, 1995). Organizations that have on-site challenge courses include camps, YMCAs, universities, schools, commercial adventure recreation programs, military bases and a range of public park and recreation programs. In addition, there was significant growth during the 1990s of the use of adventure-based methods in education settings, corporate training programs and treatment settings.

Part of the appeal of challenge courses is the capacity they have to meet a wide variety of unique program and participant needs. A challenge course has been referred to as the Swiss Army knife of the adventure field. It presents a range of challenge levels within each element that can also address a multitude of program and participant goals. Add to this the many different elements and configurations available and you have a very comprehensive tool.

Yet, just as there are many different kinds of Swiss Army knives for a variety of applications, it is important to design a course and program that will most effectively meet agency and participant needs. It will then be necessary to provide program staff (managers and facilitators) with the education and training to use that tool safely and effectively according to program and participant goals. This approach suggests that a challenge course is more frequently a means to an end than an end in itself.

Another area of growth for the challenge course industry during the 1990s was the expansion of opportunities for individuals with disabilities. While more programs discovered the potential benefits of challenge courses, the need to create options for participants with disabilities became apparent. The needs of people with disabilities gained unprecedented attention within a broad range of public and private services and programs. As a result of this growing consumer demand for inclusive options, the challenge course industry has been compelled to respond with new designs and training programs for the purpose of including people with disabilities.

In the past decade, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impacted how the needs of individuals with disabilities are addressed in the areas of recreation, education and employment. Where the ADA does not provide direction through specifically stated guidelines, it more generally mandates access to programs and services based on reasonable accommodation without resorting to segregated options. Challenge courses are no exception. Though the ADA does not provide guidelines for the design of an “accessible” challenge course, the law requires that they are usable by individuals with disabilities within the context of the programs being offered.

Residential and day camp programs that primarily serve kids and adults with disabilities have been responsible in large part for the early innovations in accessible challenge course design. Wanting an adventure component for their campers modeled after the traditional challenge course experience, camp staff and challenge course vendors experimented with many creative designs that have found their way into a variety of settings, including physical rehabilitation programs.

Professional Standards

There are two professional organizations in the adventure field that have developed standards addressing the issue of program access by individuals with disabilities. The accreditation standards for adventure programs established by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) include a section titled Universal Access Considerations (section 4). Standard 4.A.01 states “The program is itself available to all individuals, regardless of their physical abilities” (AEE, 1995, p. 9). Within this standard, an interpretation of the ADA indicates that it is not necessary to make all program areas accessible or that changes have to be made that would alter the fundamental nature of the service being offered. It does say, however, that the ADA requires programs to make “readily achievable” accommodations that do not create an “undue burden”. The standard goes on to say that “… participation in the normal activities of a program and associated group work should be fostered and barriers should be removed or accommodations provided to permit full participation whenever possible” (p. 9).

AEE standards that specifically address challenge courses (Section 13 of Technical Skills — Land) also utilize language that can be interpreted as advocating inclusion. Examples of these standards include (a) 13.A.02: “Program staff keep up-to-date on changes in technology and procedures for ropes/challenge courses”, and 13.C.01: “The goals are identified and activities are adapted to meet the needs and abilities of the participants”.

The second professional organization, The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), was the first to develop challenge course installation standards. These installation standards have become the definitive reference for challenge course construction in the U.S. As part of their complete challenge course standards manual, the ACCT includes Technical Standards for Challenge Course Operations which address generally the issue of inclusion (ACCT, 1998). Most notable are the following three standards:

* B7.1: “Challenge course manager will be knowledgeable of and provide, whenever possible and/or mandated, challenge course programs that are inclusive of all people regardless of physical ability”

* B7.2: “Challenge course manager will practice policies that are non-discriminatory on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, religion, or socio-economic class”

* C3.3: “Challenge course facilitator will be knowledgeable of, and provide whenever possible, challenge course activities that are inclusive of participants. (varying abilities/differences, learning styles, cultural practices)” (ACCT, 1998, pp. 26, 27). In addition to these standards, the ACCT established an Accessible and Universal Design (AUD) Committee in February 1997, during the first national workshop focusing on this topic. At the time of this writing the organization, through the AUD committee, is also reviewing a draft of what will become its position statement on accessible and universal challenge course design. The ACCT and the AEE can be found on the web at and respectively.

Accessible and Universal

There are many complexities bearing on the issue of inclusive challenge course design. A leading topic of discussion continues to be the distinction between the terms accessible and universal. It is not unusual to hear these two terms used interchangeably, when in fact they each have separate meanings. “Accessible” has a popular meaning that suggests something is made usable or available through some type of adaptation for individuals with disabilities. It also has well developed legal meaning in the context of the ADA and prior accessibility related legislation that dates back to 1968 with the Architectural Barriers Act.

Consider the situation where a ramp does not meet code. Some people would say that the ramp provides access as long it did not appear too steep. Others who have knowledge of the ADA might reference the ADA Accessibility Guidelines indicating the need for an “accessible” ramp to be no steeper than 1:12. Generally, there is little to debate when it comes to ramps and other components covered by the guidelines. Interpretation becomes more clouded, however, when discussing things that are covered by the ADA with no developed guidelines for reference, such as with challenge courses.

The second term, “universal” design, moves beyond tee idea of accessible. Accessible design juxtaposes accessible components with typical construction in order to eliminate or minimize environmental barriers for people with disabilities. Universal design creates a broadly inclusive environment that effectively blends a variety of design concepts, including accessible, into a range of meaningful options for all users. In a universally designed program it is not evident that modifications have been made for a specific person or group.

Regarding adventure programs and universal design, the AEE speaks in terms of transcending disability rather than compensating for the lack of ability (standard 4.A.02). This approach to inclusion is solution oriented, ability focused, with emphasis on socially meaningful roles.

Including Participants with Disabilities

Just as there are many different types of disabilities, there are also numerous design possibilities for a challenge course that will include participants with disabilities. For participants with vision or hearing impairments the concerns are related more to communication and program procedures than to the actual design of the course. A similar statement could be made about any population that is ambulatory and cognitively intact. It will always be necessary to consider participant abilities related to such things as understanding instructions, the use of the equipment, perceptions of risk, current health/medication concerns, and the ability to function in a group. Most of the design work for including people with sensory, psychological, intellectual, or developmental impairments and/or delays, will occur at the program and implementation level. This places a large responsibility on facilitators to craft a conceptually and technically sound experience based on the needs of the group. These populations are able to utilize most traditional challenge course elements, though some consideration may need to be given to the amount of actual physical risk and problem-solving difficulty built into the course. As previously mentioned, the natural flexibility of challenge courses makes these kinds of fundamental concerns relatively easy to address.

Many programs with challenge courses struggle when they encounter a participant who has a significant physical disability, particularly one that requires the person to use some type of adaptive equipment, such as a wheelchair. It is possible for a person that uses a wheelchair to negotiate some traditional challenge course elements. While some elements are more difficult than others, it is important to not overlook this option (Havens, 1992). The experience of this author, however, suggests that the unusual effort and/or support required to negotiate most traditional elements cuts both ways in terms of benefits. Some concerns include the compromise of dignity, jeopardizing the participant’s safety, and the degree to which the experience departs from a group-centered process and shifts to one focused on the needs and/or efforts, even the performance of the person with the disability. Inclusion suggests a social dynamic of equitable exchange exists within a group. There is nothing wrong with uniqueness and extra individual effort. The question is, are these adding value to the group development experience? Or is the net effect a reinforcement of the differences between individual participants?

Universal Challenge Courses

For the past few years, the ACCT has emphasized the concept of “universal” design over “accessible” design for the purpose of including participants with diverse needs in challenge course experiences, which includes individuals with disabilities. Accessibility will continue to be an important concern in our field, particularly when challenge courses are scrutinized for compliance with the ADA. Though if we move forward with universal design, which incorporates accessibility, our industry and those with universal courses should find themselves on the front of the access and inclusion curve.

A common perception of challenge courses continues to be the physically demanding nature of the experience, though often this is more perception than reality and a matter of how it is facilitated. It is partly because of this that low teams/initiative courses and field-based initiatives and games have become increasingly popular with many kinds of groups, particularly those interested in group development goals. Universal design addresses this concern of physicality by creating additional options within individual high and low elements that extend the range of challenge to include those participants who may need or want a lower level of “difficulty” in order to engage in the experience with the group.

This concept is consistent with the theory of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) which seeks to match the challenge level of the activity with the skill level of the participant in order to create a situation with the best potential for optimal experience. Sometimes this also requires a redesign of how the event is facilitated, which may include changing the rules, consequences and metaphors. Universal design is particularly useful when the goal of a program is to focus on group process. Whatever value individuals have to contribute to the process; whether it be physical, cognitive or social, a universal course should provide the context for their expression.

At the ACCT Accessible and Universal Design pre-conference workshop in 1997, universally-designed challenge courses were identified as the next generation of challenge courses. They have, as a tool, the potential to make programs much more effective at engaging the whole group in the growth process while providing a powerful metaphor for how to include everyone within the context of a diverse community. This exemplifies the idea of transcending differences for the purpose of creating a new vision around inclusion.

Technical Aspects of Universal and Accessible Design

There are numerous factors to consider when designing a universal course. Initially, it will be necessary to have some sense of the primary populations that will be using the course and what they expect from the experience. This should not, however, preclude the consideration of making the course usable by a wider range of groups. The idea of having design criteria based on the needs of known and potential users is an important point to emphasize. A challenge course, whether it is universal or not, should be made to fit the needs of the program and not the other way around. Simply, an effective design is based on a known and anticipated set of needs, abilities, and desired outcomes. Given the technical nature of the standards, sensitive liability issues, and the complex array of program-related variables that shape the design, it is highly recommended that a qualified challenge course designer/builder be involved in the process from the beginning. The ACCT web site contains a list of experienced, professional builders that meet the organization’s criteria for voting member status.

Although there are standards for specific applications of challenge course design and installation, there are few boundaries to what a course may ultimately become. This is especially true of a universal course because this concept is still being developed and encourages creativity. The following components are part of the developing guidelines for universal and accessible courses as identified by the ACCT Universal and Accessible Design committee.

* Independent access to each element, transitions from element to element and to all support components of the program, such as restrooms, equipment sheds and dining facilities

* A range of experience choices within each element that provide for meaningful participation within the group

* A range of adjustable challenge levels within each element

* The availability and use of extra safety features, such as body padding, mats, full-body harnesses, and static belays on low elements.

Typical approaches to including a person with a physical disability on a challenge course have been to utilize various types of clip-on equipment that would be incorporated into the existing technical systems. A popular option is the fashioning of some sort of seating system that can be hauled up or down an element or traversed across a cable on a pulley. Another approach is the use of mechanical advantage systems, such as a set of 4:1 pulleys that make it four times easier for a person with upper body functioning to haul himself or herself up an element. One other adaptation that has been used on high courses and climbing towers is a counter-balance system that uses a counter-weight and pulley positioned well above the climber to assist with an ascent. These ideas have been somewhat effective in creating usable options for participants with disabilities. At the same time it is not unusual to see them used in ways that clearly compromise the principles of universal design. For example, having staff haul a person up an element in a confining seat system while this person could, if given the option and resources, independently negotiate the element. The only choice given the person in this case may be whether he or she wants to “go to the top” or not. Once hauled to the top, there is jubilation at what he or she has accomplished. When options for individually and socially meaningful and universal participation do not exist, the risk is high for experiences that are contrived, ineffective, and undignified.

Challenge courses that rely primarily on clip-on means of inclusion are limited in terms of creating universal experiences. They are also sending a message that options for inclusion were an after-thought. Some equipment-based access options will work as part of a universal course, as long as they are part of a larger set of options. In order to create a universal challenge course, it will be necessary to design individual elements that incorporate the above mentioned guidelines. These can be modifications of traditional designs or completely new ideas. Some specific universal design applications include:

* A belay cable over elements like the team wall initiative or a variety of low traverses. This allows for counter balancing, assisted hauling, help with balance, or an added measure of safety. It also provides a lower level of challenge that can be left out of the next attempt

* Make the height of horizontal elements adjustable. This shifts the emphasis from a physical up-and-over task or height-related challenge to some other team work component

* Multiple access routes to high elements. Make two or three options that range from less to more difficult and let participants choose. They may try the upper events again using a more difficult access route the next time

* Incorporate parallel components that anyone can use. A traverse element may have a log and a cable that run next to each other and participants choose how they want to negotiate it, or there may be very large climbing holds that constitute a route up a climbing wall with smaller ones next to them. This approach allows for exciting two person teams experiences on a variety of elements

* Design elements with dynamic characteristics in such a way that any movement of the element can be adjusted, compensated for, or completely eliminated. This can be done with large pins that secure the element, ropes/bungee that limit movement, handlines for balance, and adjustable stops that control the amount of travel

* Create clear options for goal-setting that occurs at various stages of the element. These could be in the form of extra exit/entrance points, extra platforms, or junctions with other elements. These allow for partial participation and diminish the idea that going all the way through or up an element is the only way to succeed.

The Future

There appears to be support for continued development of universal and accessible challenge course design. Builders within ACCT have been asked to continue experimenting with new ideas in this area. Since the 1997 workshop, their efforts have resulted in many creative approaches to universal design. Each annual ACCT conference includes presentations on this subject with builders sharing their designs. Universal challenge courses have also been represented at the annual NRPA Congress. More impetuous for this movement could be consumers requesting that challenge courses be designed to include people with disabilities and provide for universal experiences.

Even with access to a universal course, inclusion in challenge course experiences will continue to rely heavily on the knowledge, efforts, and attitudes of the facilitators who design and implement the programs (Havens, 1992). This indicates the importance of the training component that accompanies a universal challenge course product. The development of training curricula related to universal program design and the inclusion of participants with disabilities needs to become a priority for vendors so they can incorporate it into their training packages. This then becomes part of a complete challenge course package that includes a universal course, universal program design training, universal technical skills training, and training facilitators for universal inclusion.


Association for Challenge Course Technology (1998). Challenge course standards: Installation, operational, ethical Second Edition. ACCT

Association for Experiential Education (1995). Manual of accreditation standards for adventure programs. Boulder, CO: AEE.

Havens, M. (1992). Bridges to accessibility: A primer for including persons with disabilities in adventure curricula. Project Adventure, Inc.

Priest, S. (1995). Challenge course facilitator competence: A consensus. The Journal of Experiential Education, (18), n. 3, pp. 158-160.

Sable, J. (1995). Efficacy of physical integration, disability awareness, and adolescent programming on adolescents’ acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, (24), n. 3, pp. 206-217.

Schleien, S., McAvoy, L., Lais, G., & Rynders, J. (1993). Integrated outdoor education and adventure programs. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Smith, T., Roland, C., Havens, M., & Hoyt, J. (1992). The theory and practice of challenge education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

What will the future hold for challenge courses? By creating standardized options–while retaining creativity–courses are becoming more and more accessible to person with disabilities. The old universally-design courses are being taken over by the new design for accessibility. “Estimates of the number of challenge courses in the U.S. range between 8,000 and 10,000 with about 250 being built each year,” explains Don Rogers, assistant professor of Recreation and Sports Management at Indiana State University.

“Residential and day camping programs that primarily serve kids and adults with disabilities have been responsible in large part for the early innovations in accessible challenge course design.” Rogers takes us through the standards set and accomplishments of course designers.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group