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Habitat Resources: Designing Accessible Habitats

Wildlife Habitat Site Accessibility Guidelines

When creating a wildlife habitat site it is important to consider the needs of people as well as wildlife, including people with disabilities. At the start of the planning process, create a universal design by adding accessible elements to the habitat design that will enhance the usability of the space for all people (i.e., people with disabilities, senior citizens, parents with strollers, etc.).

Of course, the size and location of your habitat, as well as the budget will impact what is reasonable for the site. However, many of the following suggestions are low cost and easily implemented. The site design plan should include all accessible elements. If some items are not possible in the original construction due to budget constraints, make sure to start with pathways and other basics to assure immediate accessibility. Add additional accessible elements such as benches into the long range development of the wildlife habitat site.

Note: If the habitat site is developed at a public or government facility or the project funding comes from federal, state, or local government sources, the site must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The suggested guidelines below highlight overall accessibility ideas. Often, the suggestions exceed government standards to accommodate the nature of gardening as an activity and to accommodate multiple users in a given area. For example, pathways that exceed the government standard and are a minimum of 48 inches will give a person who uses a wheelchair ample space for gardening tools and easy maneuvering while allowing others to pass by. The additional room will also allow for multiple visitors with and without disabilities to enjoy the space at the same time. Please contact the United States Access Board at for the complete Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).


  • Choose a site that is largely accessible (i.e., level, easy to get to, does not flood, etc.).
  • If possible, place the habitat close to a building or home. This is useful for all individuals, providing access to a water source, tool storage, and restroom facilities.
  • Take advantage of existing paths or sidewalks for access.


  • Width: Optimal recommended width is 60 inches with a minimum recommended width of 48 inches.
  • Surface: Should be firm and stable. Recommended surface options include pavement, textured concrete, and screenings. Screenings are made from a mixture of small pieces of rock (no greater than 1/4 inch in size; typically limestone or greenstone) and dust to stabilize it. Brick and boardwalk style pathways become slick when wet and can be a safety risk. Rock, wood chip, and stepping stone paths are not recommended.
  • Slope: Recommended five percent or less running slope (grade). Recommended cross slope is two to three percent.
  • Ramps: Any time the grade of a path exceeds five percent a ramp is required. If a ramp is needed, the least amount of slope possible is recommended. A maximum acceptable slope is 1:12 (e.g., a one-inch rise for every twelve inches of distance). Ramps are required to have a level, 60-inch minimum landing immediately before and after a sloped run, and a landing must be installed for every 30 feet of sloped run.
  • Handrails: Handrails are recommended for safety purposes any time an element such as a ramp or bridge is present on a path. The gripping surface of handrails should be between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 inches wide. Recommended handrail heights for adults should be 34 to 38 inches; heights for children should be 20 to 27 inches.
  • Obstacles: Paths should be free of any obstacles such as roots, rocks, and/or steps. There should be ample head and side clearance (i.e. , from tree branches) for individuals at standing and seated levels. It is important to maintain pathways for safety.

Planting Beds and Containers:

  • Create raised planting beds or boxes to accommodate individuals who use wheelchairs, senior citizens, and other individuals with limited mobility. There are a variety of styles and heights that can be used; if possible use a mixture of heights to accommodate the greatest range of individuals.
  • Create a sensory garden in a raised bed or standing planter box for individuals with visual impairments. This allows individuals to comfortably explore and experience the plantings.
  • Use trellises to raise plants vertically to provide access to plants for a greater number of individuals.
  • Containers are an inexpensive way to create raised plantings. Whiskey barrels and other large planters are an excellent way to raise the height of plantings. In addition, you can use plant stands, existing walls, etc. to place containers at different heights.
  • If possible, create a multi-layered landscape design to increase access to all individuals.


  • A variety of adaptive gardening tools are available including long-handled tools, tools with adaptive handles, light weight and comfort grip tools. The handles of traditional gardening tools can be modified with tape/foam/or bandage material for gardeners with limited muscle strength, coordination, or dexterity of the hands. You can also use simple household items such as ice cream scoops and long handled spoons.
  • Have gardeners who have difficulty carrying items wear an apron with pockets or secure a light-weight bag or basket on their wheelchair or walker.
  • If possible, provide a tool storage shed in or near the habitat.
  • To increase comfort, have gardeners who have difficulty bending or have joint pain use kneelers, knee pads, or a small stool.
  • Use tools with brightly colored handles or paint or tape the handles in a contrasting color to provide contrast for gardeners with low vision.


  • Interpretive signs should not be text heavy; text should be in large, no-glare block letters. When possible, utilize pictures and/or symbols.
  • Make Braille plant labels for raised bed sensory gardens.
  • For larger public gardens, incorporate an auditory interpretation system into signage.


  • Add benches for people to rest. Benches should have back supports and an arm rest on at least one end for safety purposes. If possible, place benches in shade. Recommended spacing for benches is no greater than 100 feet, depending on the size of the habitat.
  • Choose plants for scent and tactile recognition for gardeners and visitors with visual impairments.
  • Use sound producing elements such as wind chimes, a waterfall, or a fountain to help provide orientation in the habitat for gardeners and visitors with visual impairments.

Resources Books:

Adil, Janeen. Accessible Gardening for People With Physical Disabilities: A Guide to Methods, Tools, and Plants. Bethseda, MD: Woodbine House, Inc., 1994.

Rothert, Gene. The Enabling Garden : Creating Barrier-Free Gardens. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing, 1994.

Woy, Joann. Accessible Gardening: tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.

Yeomans, Kathleen. The Able Gardener. Pownal, VT: Storey Communications, 1992.


The American Horticulture Therapy Association
909 York Street
Denver, CO 80206-3799
(303) 331-3862

The Access Board Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)


A. M. Leonard, Inc. - (800)543-8955
Access to Recreation, Inc. - (800)634-4351
AdaptAbility - (800)288-9941
Gardeners Supply Co. - (800)444-6417
Kinsman Company - (800)733-4146
Lagenbach - (800)362-1991



Habitat Resources