Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

A New Way of Doing Conservation Work:
The Utah Conservation Corps Inclusive Crews

In 2005, Andy Zimmer, a crew leader with the Utah Conservation Corps (UCC), was in a bike accident that resulted in quadriplegia. After rehabilitation, he wanted to return to the conservation corps and complete his term of service. At that time, there were no opportunities for him to serve in a field-based conservation corps...anywhere. Although Andy was no longer able to swing an axe, he had many other strengths and abilities. Andy motivated me to start thinking outside the box.

Prior to working for the UCC, I founded a non-profit that provides adaptive outdoor recreation opportunities for people of all abilities. Although I had experience with adaptive programs and getting people with disabilities outside, I had not yet found a way to include people with disabilities in the UCC, a program that requires its members to be tough, rugged, and physically strong. I knew what the “crew experience” meant to our members, and I wanted to give crew members with disabilities that same experience. Living in a tent, spending every day outside, working on conservation projects, and being part of a close-knit team…this is what the crew experience is all about. This is the life that Andy had come to love and wanted to return to. He also wanted share this experience with other people with disabilities.

Thanks to the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, The Corps Network, the Utah Commission on Volunteers, the Utah State University Center for Persons with Disabilities, and many others, this dream became a reality in the summer of 2007. Andy returned to the UCC and served as a crew leader of our first inclusive crew. In many ways, his position was similar to what he had done two years prior. The UCC simply broadened what we were already doing and created new projects that were more physically accessible and required fewer physical skills to get the job done.

The UCC inclusive crew model enables crew members with physical disabilities to engage in conservation service projects alongside their counterparts without disabilities through the use of adaptive equipment and accessible programming. Fifty percent of the crew self-identifies as having a physical disability. Disabilities among UCC members have included quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, blindness, deafness, and multiple sclerosis. Upon completion of their service, all crew members participating in these inclusive crews during the past several years have reported that the program increased their awareness and understanding of disability issues and opened their minds to new educational and career possibilities.

Inclusive crew projects are carefully developed to include crew members with disabilities in a significant and meaningful way. We did not want to create a situation where crew members with disabilities were sitting on the sidelines while those without disabilities completed project tasks. Instead, crew members with disabilities are actively involved in all phases of projects, adding a valuable perspective.

The UCC inclusive crews have so far focused on two main project areas: (1) accessibility surveys and transition plans for the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, and (2) development of an accessible community garden. Accessibility surveys are a critical first step in the development of transition plans, which are plans for bringing facilities and programs that are not accessible into compliance with accessibility standards. During the survey, each portion of a structure is compared to accessibility standards or guidelines, and compliance and deficiencies are recorded. Every Forest Service unit in the nation is required by law to have transition plans in place; however, many do not. The UCC inclusive crew has demonstrated itself to be an effective partner in addressing this federal mandate and making developed areas on federal lands accessible to users of all abilities.

In 2009, the UCC inclusive crew assisted the U.S. Forest Service in the development of a new national accessibility information database that will provide the public with information on accessible campsites, facilities, and services. The accessibility information gathered and entered into the database by inclusive crews automatically feeds Forest Service District Web portals that are accessed by the public. Conservation Corps throughout the country will now be able to enter accessibility information into this new database in a consistent manner, making the inclusive crew program model easily replicable by other corps.

Inclusive crews not only survey what is out there, they are also a part of the solution to removing barriers. All UCC crews are trained in trail maintenance and construction and can remove some barriers while the crew is on site. For example, sections of trail can be widened, rocks can be removed, and vegetation can be pruned.

The accessible community garden, designed and constructed by the UCC inclusive crew, is another project that’s been undertaken. It is fully accessible to all community members. The UCC partnered with the Cache Valley Community Garden project to turn this dream into a reality. The garden includes raised beds, table top planters, hardened pathways, and adapted gardening tools.

Involving people with disabilities, such as Andy, in positions of leadership is also a program priority. Andy and Quintin, who is blind, have served as excellent crew leaders and role models. By placing people with disabilities in positions of leadership, outdated, limiting stereotypes are shattered and attitudes evolve and change.

The UCC inclusive crews are hopefully the start of a new movement within the corps world. In 2010, an inclusion toolkit was made available to corps throughout the country. This toolkit and a video about the UCC disability inclusion program can be found on the Utah Conservation Corps Web site . In Utah, plans are in process to have inclusive crews doing accessibility surveys for the U.S. Forest Service again in 2013.