Disability Awareness in Rock Climbing
Making climbing available to disabled or disadvantaged people is of fantastic value, as natural climbing venues found outdoors are often difficult to access. The exhiliration that disabled users of climbing facilities feel upon facing and overcoming the challenges presented to them, far exceeds that felt by others.
The design of a climbing facility should ensure that access to the facility is open and unrestricted for disabled visitors. This requirement is often pre-determined by current building regulations.
The range of climbing activities that disabled users partake in can be as extensive as able bodied users. What differs is the severity of the activity and the level of support required.
Abseiling in a wheelchair
Safe access should be arranged to the top and the bottom of the abseiling site for the wheelchair user. Abseiling, or being lowered whilst in a wheelchair, requires angled slab lowering surfaces that ensure the wheelchair cannot overturn during the descent. The surface should have only very small undulations and the facility design should ensure that the wheelchair cannot escape from its designated course eg. side walls or concave shape to the slab. The lower and upper parts of the slab should gradually change in gradient so that there is not a sharp interface between the platform of floor and the slope.
It is generally not recommended that disabled people abseil on free hanging descents with their wheelchairs.
Abseiling without a wheelchair
At the top of the abseil zone there should be a ledge suitable for an instructor, a belayer and the abseiler, as applicable. The abseil rope fixing points should be set away from the ledge lip and there should be no projections to ensure there is no friction point that the abseil rope passes over. It is recommended that there are two independant belay points for the abseil rope and for each of the people that are likely to be upon the ledge.
The abseiling descent route should be in free space. If the descent route is against or near a wall there should be no projections (eg bolt-on holds) on the wall.
Physically disabled users often find slabs particularly rewarding as they are less strenuous or intimidating than vertical or overhanging climbing lines. It is often possible to include platforms and ledges that offer different challenges and resting points. If using projecting bolt-on holds they should be to the left and right of the body line so that the disabled user is not pulling his / her body over the bolt-on holds.
The descent route needs to be carefully considered. If lowering back down over the slab zone, there should be no projections or ledges. The lowering zone should ideally be free hanging or be down a smooth surface. if lowering down the climbing slope, then it is recommended that the climbing holds are pockets or inset holds, as opposed to protruding bolt-on holds.
Vertical and Overhanging Climbing
Disabled climbers with good upper body strength can often overshadow their able bodied colleagues on vertical and overhanging walls. It is very difficult for disabled users to rest or place leader protection, so it is recommended more leader placement points - to be used for resting on lanyards, are included on vertical and overhanging walls.
For vertical walls, it is recommended that the top belay station or belay bar is set 500mm in front of the wall surface to allow a free hanging descent.
Pulleys and mechanical lifting devices can be used to aid the hauling, lowering and lifting of disabled climbers. It is important that fixing points and products are fully checked for their suitability if abnormal loads or actions are likely to be imposed.
Provision for an instructors route to one or both sides, adjacent to the abseil or climbing route, should be included. The instructors routes should have abseiling and belaying anchor points at the top. Leader placement points should also be included so that the instructor can hang from a lanyard.
Bouldering and Traverse Walls
As the protection system for these kinds of facilities lies with the safety surfaces and not with a secured rope system, it is recommended that potential fall heights are considerably less than on conventional facilities. A maximum climbing height of 2.5 metres with substantial crash matting is recommended. Full supervision and attentive 'spotting' is essential.
With the possible exception of a wheelchair abseiling ramp, all facilities can also be suitable for able bodied users, usually as confidence building sections for novices or adapted to offer different challenges for higher level climbers (eg. climbing slabs without using hands or climbing whilst blindfolded).