Challenge Programs

A Universal Approach to Including People of All Abilities

September 1, 2002

Gary Eavey
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington

Challenge Programs enable people to take physical and emotional risks with the support and encouragement of their peers. The use of challenge courses can promote growth and independence. Participants feel a sense of achievement in completing an activity they perceived beyond their realm of success. For people with disabilities, the benefits of a challenge course experience can be a unique journey of self-awareness and personal growth-testing new abilities.

Traditionally, one of the barriers to participation in challenge programs for people with disabilities has been the design and structure of the challenge course itself and the delivery of the program. Unfortunately, lack of access to the course and staff with minimal understanding of adaptations can prevent full participation by people of all abilities in what is truly a goal-oriented program focused on personal growth. The Challenge Program at Bradford Woods Outdoor Education and Leadership Center is a model program taking an universal approach to including people of all abilities. People with disabilities are provided the same opportunities to seek adventure and personal challenge as others.

Created in 1941 through the vision of John Bradford, an Indiana entrepreneur, Bradford Woods is located on 2,400 acres in central Indiana serves as one of the premiere outdoor recreation and education centers in the United States. As part of Indiana University’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Bradford Woods strives to fulfill the original wish of John Bradford, that his land to be used “for charitable, educational, and recreational purposes.” For over a half century Bradford Woods has remained on the cutting edge of outdoor programming.

Partnered with the National Center of Accessibility and the American Camping Association, Bradford Woods provides the highest quality of outdoor programs in combination with fully accessible trails and facilities. Camp Riley, created in 1955 in collaboration with Riley Children’s Hospital and the Riley Memorial Association, serves youth with physical and cognitive disabilities. Other programs for youth and adults at Bradford Woods seek to “lead the leaders” in providing inclusive action learning environments through Professional Development, Environmental Education, Conferences and Retreats, and Challenge Programs. Bradford Woods also reaches into communities to provide opportunities of personal growth and learning for all participants.

A trademark of Challenge Programs at Bradford Woods is the use of Challenge Courses including a high and low course to promote growth and independence. The Challenge Courses are used throughout the season for programs. It is not uncommon to pass by the wooded elements and find participants of all ages being challenged in new ways, from a 76 year-old man with cerebral palsy making his way to the top of the climbing tower to a 12 year-old girl with muscular dystrophy comfortably perched in a tree 25 ft above the earth-her first climbing experience.

Low Universal Course

Bradford Woods’ Low Universal Course, built in 1997 by ABEE, Inc, is designed as a fully accessible challenge course. Its greatest benefit is that it creates opportunities for people with physical disabilities to experience team building and adventure in an inclusive atmosphere.

The Low Universal Course consists of elements that engage participants physically and mentally through the model “Challenge by Choice.” This allows group members to accept challenges at their own comfort level and in turn increases their potential for success and personal growth. Highlights of the Low Universal Course are the Wire Traverse, Grapevine Walk, All Aboard, and accessible ramps for people who use mobility devices.

The Wire Traverse and the Grapevine Walk have a unique design for supporting the needs of partially and non-ambulatory participants on a challenge course. Both have a support line above the element that participants are connected to with a full body harness, webbing and caribiners. This creates the opportunity of free movement during the challenge and allows participants to use upper body strength and support from group members to reach their goal during the activity.

The Grapevine Walk consists of a single wire connected from one platform to another. Along the Grapevine Walk there are ropes hanging from a top wire (grapevines) which enable participants to hold and balance along the adventure. These ropes are spaced apart to make the element challenging. In combination with the support line, these ropes create a unique challenge for partially and non-ambulatory participants.

The Wire Traverse is similar but does not include the hanging ropes. Carefully sequenced, the Wire Traverse challenges participants through concentrated balance and group spotting.

The Low Universal Course meets the needs of a diverse community of learners in inclusive action learning settings. It also is essential in preparing participants for greater challenges that lie ahead.

High Universal Course

Like the Low Universal Course, the High Universal is designed to be fully accessible. Moving from a low to high course participants can build on their levels of trust and confidence in themselves and their peers through high adventure and increased group challenges.

Key elements of the High Universal Course are the Matted Bridge, High Woosey, High Grapevine and the Giant’s Ladder. Each element towers 25 ft above the ground. Participants are supported through team belays, full body and seat harnesses and climbing helmets. Elbow and kneepads are provided when necessary.A unique fixture of the High Universal Course is the three-in-one pulley. This system allows participants the option of being hoisted to their challenge by group members. As they are lifted into the air they sit in a “booty bag” until they reach the platform of the adventure. All participants are given the option of climbing or using the three-in-one system.

The Matted Bridge is suspended high above the ground from one end of the course to the other. Fitted securely in a full body harness while mustering their courage and determination, participants must negotiate across the bridge while placing trust in the group members below holding their safety line. This mixture of trust and determination are critical ingredients to every challenge on the High Universal Course.

Trained leaders with expertise in challenge and inclusive action learning facilitate each activity. The combination of highly trained staff and state-of-the-art facilities provide a new venue of opportunity for those seeking to challenge themselves in exciting and demanding ways. Whether on high or low courses, all participants are guaranteed opportunities for choice, growth, learning and, most importantly, accessibility.


Bradford Woods – Indiana University’s Outdoor and Leadership Center
5040 State Road 67 North
Martinsville, IN 46151
(765) 342 – 2915

Jeff Boeke
39085 Foster Drive
Oconomowoc, WI 53966

The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT)
PO Box 255
Martin, Michigan 40970
(616) 685 0670

The citation for this article is:

Eavey, G. (2002).  Challenge programs: a universal approach to including people with disabilities. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington. Retrieved from