Accessible Walks Scheme
The Accessible Walks Scheme is aimed at informing people with mobility issues. This covers a wide range of users and includes those with physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, learning disabilities and hidden disabilities, but can also include other users such as parents with push chairs or cyclists. People with physical disabilities may require the use of a wheelchair, a mobility scooter, a walking aid or an accompanying carer to provide stability and or physical or emotional support. People with learning disabilities may also require the use of mobility aids and an accompanying carer, to guide them around their chosen route.
Walks on WalkNI.com have been classified into grades according to the accessibility of features on each route. Each walk will attain grade 1-5, with grade 1 being the most accessible and grade 5 being the least accessible. Examples of features to be taken into consideration are path surface, path gradient and presence of obstacles on the route.
Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland set up a steering group to advise on the development of the scheme. Organisations represented on the steering group were Disability Action, Disability Sports NI, Disabled Ramblers, Local District Councils, Mencap, Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). A consultee group was also set up for the scheme, bodies on the consultee group included environmental organisations, local government and organisations who deal with people with disabilities.
Walk Accessibility Issues
There are several components that can dictate the accessibility of a route i.e. those features or issues which could severely impact somebody with mobility issues either completing the route or putting their health and safety at risk. These are discussed below:
Features affecting Walk Accessibility
Based on case studies of other grading systems currently in use in the UK as well as a pilot audit conducted by local disability organisations, Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland developed a grading system called the Accessible Walks Scheme (the grading system can be found here). The focus of the grading system would be issues with a route or features on a route that, when someone with mobility issues was faced with the route, that it would severely impact their ability to complete the route or be a significant health and safety risk. The issues taken into consideration by the Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland grading system are discussed below.
- Path surface
Path surface type is one of the most obvious features to be taken into consideration when assessing walk suitability for people with limited mobility. Path surface fragments or uneven surfaces could present a tripping hazard to those unstable on their feet or prove to be hard work for wheeled vehicles such as wheelchairs or pushchairs. Ideal path surfaces will be compact, stable, non slip and obstacle free. Suitable path surfaces include concrete, tarmac, timber, paving and mown grass. Unsuitable surfaces include sand, loose gravel and stone and woodchip. Wheelchair and walking aid users are most likely to be affected by irregular path surfaces.
- Path width
Path width is an important factor to consider with regards to those with limited mobility. The standard width of a wheelchair is 700mm, a double stick user is 950mm, a double buggy 1000mm and an adult supporting another adult 1200mm. When considering path width, the amount of useable surface should be measured, excluding encroaching vegetation. In order for a path to be fully accessible, the minimum width of the path should be 1.2 m. This will allow two people to walk side by side comfortably and support each other if necessary.
- Path gradient
Sustained slopes and steep slopes can be a barrier to those with mobility issues. For example, those using a wheelchair may be able to ascend a short steep slope easier than a prolonged length of gentle slope. Other users such as ambulant disabled people may also find steps easier to use rather than ramps. Different users may also be able to cope with differing slopes, such as a wheelchair user with a high level of fitness, compared to wheelchair user with lower upper body strength. Therefore the Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland grading system merely states the gradient as a ratio and a percentage and also provides an indicative symbol to illustrate the angle of the slope. This will allow users to make an informed decision with regards to the walk and their ability. Path gradients greater than 6o or 1:10 could prove to be a barrier to those with limited mobility. 6 degrees was arrived at after considering other grading systems as well as consulting and pilot testing with disability organisations.
- Cross Slope
The cross slope of the path is the slope measured perpendicular to the direction of travel. Cross slopes can be a barrier to those with balance and co-ordination problems who rely on a flat stable surface in order to feel comfortable when participating in outdoor recreation. A path falling away to either side of a person with limited mobility, does not provide for an accessible route given the potential for the user to become unsteady on their feet or loose control of a wheel chair, walking aid or pushchair. Cross slope with gradients greater than 6o or 1:10 could prove to be a barrier to those with limited mobility. 6 degrees was arrived at after considering other grading systems as well as consulting and pilot testing with disability organisations.
Obstacles are the most obvious barrier for people with mobility issues wishing to participate in outdoor recreation. They are physical features present on the ground that would mean that a route could be impassable for a person of limited mobility. Some obstacles present more of a barrier to some users than others, for example a parent with a pushchair may be able to negotiate some steps whereas this may be a complete barrier to a wheelchair user. Obstacles taken into consideration with regards the Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland Accessible Walks Scheme include kissing gates, wheelchair accessible kissing gates, mobility vehicle accessible kissing gates, gates wider than 81cm, gates narrower than 80cm, locked gates, steps with a ramp, steps with a handrail, steps with no handrail or ramp, stiles, cattle grids or grates.
- Surface breaks
Surface breaks do not pose a definite barrier to a person of limited mobility as an obstacle would. They may prove to be a tripping or sticking hazard for people unsteady on their feet, using a wheeled device or a walking aid. Examples of path surface breaks would be a cross drain or a gap in a timber board walk. These can cause problems for people using walking sticks, wheelchairs, walking frames or push chairs. A surface break of greater than 12mm could pose a problem to a path user of limited mobility.
- Clear Head Height
A clear head height is important for visually impaired people and people who might have problems with bending or manoeuvring. A clear head height should apply at a vertical height of 210cm across the full width of the path. Features such as overhanging vegetation or built structures such as bridges or buildings hedges could mean that a clear head height of 210cm across the entire width