By Ciara McEneany | Community News Service
Vermonters with disabilities could soon have an easier time on the trails if a new bill is passed.
The bill, H.85, would make 10% of each newly constructed trail on state lands accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. The same would apply to trails built using state funds.
Rep. Elizabeth Burrows, D/P-West Windsor, introduced the bill in the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry in late January.
The idea for the bill came from Burrows’ experience advocating to make her local trail on Mt. Ascutney in Windsor County accessible to everyone. But regional planning commissioners did nothing, she said.
“I kept pushing harder and harder, and then I got elected to office,” Burrows said. “The first bill that I put in was creating accessible trails, either on state lands or using state funds, so that everybody can enjoy them.”
For Burrows, the bill is driven in part by her own personal struggles with inaccessible trails.
“I am a person who can’t get around very easily, and for all of my life I’ve had to adapt to pretending that I can get around on trails when, really, I’m not getting the same experience,” Burrows said. “Because I’m having to pay attention to where every footstep lands.”
Currently, there are no regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act for outdoor activities. The bill would use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines — standards used by national parks — a feature recommended to Burrows by the New England ADA Center.
There are fewer than 10 state trails and lands in Vermont that are fully accessible to those with physical disabilities, Burrows said.
Nationally, a number of organizations are looking to make trails more accessible for everyone, including the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which creates accessible multi-use public trails out of former railroad corridors.
“We often think of trails as these spaces where people can come together, work out and be healthy, and that is true for everybody, including those with disabilities,” said Yvonne Mwangi, trail resources and planning manager for Rails-to-Trails. “That’s why it’s important that trails are fully accessible.”
Another important part of this bill, for Burrows, is giving everyone access to the health benefits of the outdoors, especially those older in age.
“I learned in researching this bill that outdoor physical activity and outdoor exercise for people who are over 65 — who didn’t even start exercising until later in life — saves approximately $2,000 a year in medical costs,” said Burrows. “And so, I dug further in there and found that as a result outdoor exercise can help with diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses and mental health.”
Making it easier for people to experience benefits like that is the priority for both Burrows and reps from Rails-to-Trails.
“I think COVID showed us that we really needed these outdoor spaces. We need them more than we realize we do,” Mwangi said. “So that’s why it’s important that our parks, trails and outdoor spaces are accessible to everybody.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.