What's important about accessibility in Vermont's natural spaces?

A Survey of Accessibility Needs in the Great Outdoors

Research Study Findings | August 2023


We wanted to know:

"What kind of accessibility features are most important to people when they visit Vermont's outdoor natural spaces?"


And in a survey of 23 people, we found that the most important accessibility feature was accessible trip planning materials, shortly followed by having benches along the trail, and making the trail fully accessible.




This survey and outreach effort grew out of a conversation between Ariana Cano-Gomez and Bridget Butler on the CDCI podcast. 

Butler, aka "The Bird Diva", specializes in the art of "slow birding", or approaching birding in a way that prioritizes slowing down. In the episode, they talked about how Butler's slow birding ideas touch on disability, race, and access to and love for Vermont's wild places.

"Like something as simple as bathrooms: oh my gosh! I thought this place would be fine because it had a building and all of that. But it wasn’t: the doorways were too narrow, and the path from the parking to the main trail? There was like a big muddy dip! And I thought, ‘There’s no way that someone using a wheelchair could really navigate this.’ It just kind of blew my mind.” — Bridget Butler

A full transcript and downloadable audio of the episode is available here.


From there, we pulled together a nine-question survey in Qualtrics, and sent it out via CDCI and The Nature Conservancy Vermont's social media channels. 

The questions we asked were:

  1. What does a natural space feel like to you when it's inclusive, accessible, and safe?
  2. Can you think of a place you wish to visit but you have been limited to because of specific barriers? If yes, what was the place? What were the barriers?
  3. When thinking of visiting a natural area, how important are accessible bathrooms to you?
  4. How important are benches along the trail?
  5. How important is detailed accessibility for trip planning?
  6. How important is a fully accessible trail?
  7. How important is a parking lot with designated accessible parking spaces?
  8. How important is a parking lot with lots of lighting?
  9. How important is inclusive signage?

We also asked people who responded to tell us about their age, race, gender, disability identity. And finally we asked them which state they lived in, what language they primarily speak, and whether they travel with a service animal.


Most Important Accessibility Features of Natural Spaces

The accessibility feature that the most people ranked as Extremely Important was having detailed, accessible trip planning information available before their trips. Sixteen people marked that as Extremely Important. 

Two accessibility features tied for second in popularity. Both "having accessible benches along the trail" and a "fully accessible trail" were voted as Extremely Important by 15 of the 23 people who filled out our survey.

Here's how people ranked the importance of accessibility features in natural areas. We judged the ranking by counting the number of people who voted each feature as "Extremely Important."

1stAccessible Trip Planning Materials16
2ndFully Accessible Trails15
2ndBenches on Trails15
3rdDesignated Disabled Parking13
4thAccessible Restrooms12
4thInclusive Signage12
5thWell-Lit Parking Area9


QUALITATIVE RESULTS: Describe an inclusive, accessible, safe natural space.

As part of our survey, we asked the question, "What does a natural space feel like to you when it's inclusive, accessible, and safe?"

Here are the answers we received.

  • "It's a sense of belonging within communities. That we love and cherish about."
  • "Sacred - like I can get in touch with nature again after my accident. I use a wheelchair and access to natural and wild spaces is so limited. It's such a gift to find a place I can access (for instance, the handicap accessible platform at Thundering Falls). It's more memorable to me because I think able-bodied people may take access to nature for granted. It's sacred and special."
  • "Lots of space, good lighting, shade trees, flat areas, gentle inclines instead of stairs, nearby parking options."
  • "Peaceful"
  • "Quiet, easily walked or hiked, cell phone connection in case of emergency"
  • "A fully accessible space would mean: several handicapped parking spots that allow extra room for a side ramp, full ramping without any bumps or stoops or a lift to areas that have hills or steps, a family restroom for all sexes that allows room for a wheelchair, transferable toilet and an adult-sized changing mat, paths to all areas that are paved or smooth, beaches that have a large ramped dock to allow for wheelchair fishing or boat launching, a sandy beach that either has a smooth path all the way to the water or a free-to-use wheelchair with balloon wheels."
  • "I feel I can breathe. Restore my energies."
  • "Feels like the outdoors with nature around you."
  • "Trails that can be accessed by a number of mobility devices and viewing areas (rivers, streams, views) that can be accessed by the same. Displays that are tactile for blind and low vision users. Benches that allow people with other mobility or disability issues to rest."
  • "Unsure if I've ever been to one. Ensuring as much as possible there are enough seating areas in the shade if possible. Access to some carbohydrates at the beginning of the area/maybe in a parking lot-for low blood sugar/food in case anyone needs it."
  • "Welcoming, peaceful, connected to earth"
  • "Easy to find on a map, which doesn't yet exist"
  • "the org.Regularly 'maintained pathways' clear of rocks, branches, etc. Would be wonderful to have able bodied hikers  take care of what they encouter or report to"
  • "I dont think about inclusion in a natural space. I just enjoy the space."
  • "Home"
  • "no hunters"
  • "I think an inclusive, accessible, and safe natural space would have an accessible trail with even and wide terrain to accommodate a wide variety of mobility devices and levels, railings and benches to stop and rest, an abundance of gender neutral, family, and accessible restrooms, simple English language in any place where language descriptions are required and multiple language translations, images to replace language when appropriate, and an abundance of safety surveillance measures such as security cameras and park security staff to address safety concerns(NOT connected to the police)"
  • "Maple Street Park, Mt. Philo, North Beach, Sand Bar, Burlington bike path, Oakledge Park, Some parts of Shelburne Bay Park, some parts of Shelburne Farms"
  • "A welcoming place to rejuvenate!"
  • "Very welcoming and energy inducing"
  • "I see multigenerations from strollers to wheelchairs . People ages from 8 months to 80+ years ."
  • "Compromised. I dislike natural areas that are turned into parks."
  • "Open well defined w signage"

QUALITATIVE RESULTS: Describe a natural space where you encountered a barrier to accessibility.

As part of our survey, we asked, "Can you think of a place you wish to visit but you have been limited to because of specific barriers? If yes, what was the place? What were the barriers?"

Here are the answers.

  • "Transportation Services Coverage Statewide. Not. Getting. Transportation Services. That. I. Need. To. Participate."
  • "The Zen Garden in Hubbardton. It's beautiful but to get to the Zen garden portion there are steep, wobbly stone steps with no handrails. My mother and I were able to get down and back but only just barely"
  • "No bathrooms"
  • "Several state parks or areas along bodies of water do not have access to reach the water by means mentioned above i.e. Burlington waterfront, Lake Carmi, St. Albans parks etc."
  • "Flynn Center has no elevator to the balcony.  If it isn't flat, I am probably not going to be safe and I don't want to hold back others."
  • "Smugglers notch trail to silver lake.  The hill is too steep to climb and the parking too far from the trail."
  • "places that have stone/slate/uneven surfaces due to foot neuropathy/foot pain"
  • "Most hiking areas, Philon for example, or Niquettr Bay, or Colchester Pond"
  • "Many, many places where trails are too rugged, too slippery, or seem to be tick-havens."
  • "Geprags Park, Hinesburg, but hunters"
  • "I don't think a lot about visiting natural areas because I always assume that they may not be accessible.  I have somewhat limited mobility and chronic pain and I worry that I won't be able to easily and safely stop and rest or exit if needed."
  • "Most beaches (you have to have a pass or pay to get in), Charlotte Wildlife refuge (getting to the paths that are accessible are far away), Shelburne Farms (getting into the wagons to go to the barns), most public parks and playgrounds don't have accessible paths and equipment"
  • "The Catherine Valley trail.  I don't have transportation to get there."
  • "Steep eroded sloppy areas that could benefit from some steps"
  • "Lanlocked parcels of public land."



23 people answered our survey. 


  • 10 people said they had a permanent disability.
  • 3 people said they had a temporary disability.
  • 10 people said they were not disabled.


  • 9% of people said they were age 19-25 years old.
  • 17.4% of people said they were age 26-35 years old.
  • 9% of people said they were 36-45 years old.
  • 13% said they were 46-55 years old.
  • 17.4% said they were age 55-64.
  • 30.4% who answered the survey indicated their age as 65+.


  • 87% identified as Caucasian or white.
  • 13% identified as either Black/African American, White/Hispanic, or "Mixed". One person did not indicate their race.


  • 22 out of 23 people indicated they live in Vermont. The other person said they live in New York.




Why is this research important?

Attitudes about accessibility shape what we spend money on.

As the organizations that manage Vermont's natural outdoor spaces think about accessibility, we need to know specifically how to make them accessible. We need to know what's important to the people who visit -- or want to visit -- those spaces. But the more people tell those organizations about accessibility being Extremely Important, the more accessibility will be prioritized.

And without studies like these, organizations might guess about how to make spaces more accessible -- and they might guess wrong.

People with disabilities must be part of all conversations on accessibility.

It's one thing to look at numbers about accessibility, but it's quite different to read or hear about people with disabilities describing their lived experiences. 

This is why it's important to ask questions about the demographics -- age, gender, ability -- so that we know people with disabilities are being included in collecting this sort of data.

Remember: nothing about us, without us.


Icon of a clipboard and pencil. Text: CDCI Research

Download the poster

Thumbnail of a research poster titled "How important is accessibility in Vermont's natural outdoor spaces?"

Download a poster of this study in .pdf format.


Contact the Authors

Audrey Homan: a white non-binary person in their forties, dark hair pulled into a braid over one shoulder, and wearing large, heavy-framed glasses, staring directly into the camera in front of a sunny evergreen.

Audrey Homan(They/Them)

Accessibility, Web, & Communications

Ariana Cano Gomez: A mid-thirties Latina, hair pulled into a braid at one side, standing wearing a jacket in the outdoors and smiling happily at the camera.

Ariana Cano Gomez, PhD(She/Her)

marketing & outreach coordinator, The Nature Conservancy Vermont



Bridget Butler(She/Her)

birding enthusiast