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Breaking Down Barriers

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    Kate Stephens (kneeling in the orange shirt), poses for a photo with members of one of the UCC's inclusive crews at Tony Grove Lake in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest..

Southwestern graduate earns national recognition for involving disabled persons in the work of the Utah Conservation Corps

Working on trails in the rugged backcountry of Utah is not something one would think people in wheelchairs could do, but Kate Stephens has shown otherwise.

Stephens, a 1992 Southwestern graduate who serves as program director for the Utah Conservation Corps (UCC), has received national recognition for her efforts to involve disabled persons in the work the Corps does.

Stephens said she was prompted to think about how disabled persons could become involved with the UCC after a UCC crew leader named Andy Zimmer was involved in a bike accident in 2005 that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

“After rehabilitation, Andy wanted to return to the conservation corps and complete his term of service, but at that time, there were no opportunities for him to serve in a field-based conservation corps − anywhere,” Stephens said. “Although Andy was no longer able to swing an axe, he had many other strengths and abilities. He motivated me to start thinking outside the box.”

Stephens has been interested in working with people with disabilities ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. After graduating from Southwestern with a double major in psychology and sociology, she moved to Logan, Utah, to serve as a VISTA volunteer with Options for Independence, a nonresidential independent living center where people with disabilities can learn skills to gain more control and independence over their lives.

In 1993, Stephens founded a nonprofit organization called Common Ground Outdoor Adventures that provides adaptive equipment to help make outdoor activities more available to people with disabilities. In 1998, she earned a master’s degree in environmental education from Prescott College with an emphasis on adaptive outdoor education.

What Stephens created for the UCC was the organization’s first “inclusive crew,” which 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. Zimmer returned to the UCC and served as the leader of the first inclusive crew.

“I knew what the crew experience meant to our members, and I wanted to give people with disabilities that same experience,” said Stephens, who has worked for the UCC since 2002. 

One project the inclusive crew has been involved with is doing accessibility surveys and transition plans for the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. Transition plans are plans for bringing facilities and programs that are not accessible into compliance with accessibility standards.

“Every Forest Service unit in the nation is required by law to have transition plans in place, but many do not,” Stephens said. “The UCC inclusive crew has proved to be an effective partner in addressing this federal mandate and making developed areas on federal lands accessible to users of all abilities.”

Since the inception of the inclusive crew project, 20 trails and more than 100 campgrounds in the Uinta-Wasatch Cache and Manti-LaSal National Forests as well as Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks have been surveyed for ADA compliance.

The UCC inclusive crew also has helped the U.S. Forest Service develop a new national accessibility information database that provides the public with information on accessible campsites, facilities and services. 

Stephens said people with a variety of disabilities have served on inclusive crew teams, including those with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, blindness, deafness, and multiple sclerosis.

She said all those who have participated on inclusive crew teams have said the program increased their awareness and understanding of disability issues and opened their minds to new educational and career possibilities. She said the disabled persons who have served as crew leaders have turned out to be excellent crew leaders and role models.

Stephens has received several awards for her work with the Inclusive Crew Project. In 2008, she won The Corps Network’s Project of the Year Award and in 2010 she was given the Utah State University Diversity Award. In 2011, the project won the Inclusion Champion Award from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, which was one of the sponsors of the project.

In June 2012, Stephens was named a U.S. Forest Service National Honoree for Accessibility Accomplishments – the only non-Forest Service employee to earn this honor.

“Kate’s creative thinking, understanding of accessibility and the need for accurate information about recreation sites, combined with her abilities to create teams and dedicated follow-through, is resulting in a positive difference for our national forests and visitors, and opening new opportunities for young people for years to come,” said Janet Zeller, national accessibility program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

Stephens said she hopes her UCC inclusive crew will serve as a model for other conservation corps across the country. She has made a tool kit and video available online that gives other corps the information and resources necessary to develop similar inclusive programs.