How biomimicry may help people with disabilities enjoy the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

by Arrye Rosser, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

About an hour into my conversation with Colleen Unsworth, it dawned on me that we are approaching the same challenge using an entirely different set of skills. Our common interest is in helping people with disabilities experience nature as independently as possible. We both have science backgrounds but have gravitated toward an interdisciplinary field with opportunities for creativity and practical problem-solving. 

Beyond that, our points of view diverge.

I’m a communicator. When COVID-19 does not have Ohio homebound, my office is in a small historic building that looks out on floodplain forest and the scenic railroad. My duties at Cuyahoga Valley National Park include serving as the accessibility coordinator. I’ve been wrestling with how to ensure that the most important park experiences and stories are available to all visitors, regardless of ability. Recently this work has included editing an audio description script, developing tactile exhibits, inspecting assistive listening devices, setting up a dual-screen communication device at a new visitor center, supervising interns in gathering trail accessibility data, distributing a new Braille brochure and writing alt text for website images. 

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Colleen usually works in a laboratory in the heart of the University of Akron. Strange, unfamiliar objects are scattered about. She is a Ph.D. candidate in biology researching biomechanics and biomimicry with bio-inspired robotics expert Dr. Henry Astley

Colleen is particularly interested in how “elongate” (that is, worm-shaped) animals move over uneven surfaces and “how animal feet support load under dynamic conditions.” This research is informing new designs for all-terrain mobility aids. (My imagination quickly goes to seniors slithering through boulder fields in superhero-like snake suits. No.) 

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During the next two years, Colleen’s team plans to prototype a chair, a walker and a cane that can handle the obstacles of everyday life. This includes curbs, ramps, narrow spaces and surfaces such as sand and dirt. Along a park trail, these obstacles could be rocks and tree roots as tall as about eight inches.

This passion stems from Colleen’s experiences as a counselor and caretaker at a camp for adults and children with disabilities. Both of her parents have disabilities. “I want to help people in need, specifically people who have limited access to resources and opportunities that many of us take for granted each day,” she says.

Colleen patiently explains that biomechanics is essentially the physics of biological systems, a topic I’ve never considered. The biomimicry part is about applying design solutions found in nature to address human problems. 

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“I knew I wanted to study biomimicry when I learned how directly it drives scientific research toward innovation. I’m a really hands-on person who likes to build and design… [and] I have an intense desire to help people,” Colleen says. 

To help explain her prototype, Colleen shows me a close-up video of a large, spotted snake and chunky brown millipede moving through a research chamber. The legless reptile and “thousand-footed” invertebrate are on distant branches of the family tree, but they have similar shapes. 

One of the appeals of biomimicry is that evolution favors stripped-down, efficient solutions. Traditional engineering tends to add bells and whistles. In a mobility aid, that can mean extra weight, bulk, rigidity, and cost. Most only work well on firm, even surfaces. Colleen, on the other hand, plans to create sleek devices that are cheaper and more sustainable because they use fewer materials and are more energy-efficient. She is looking for the right balance between rigidity for support and shock absorbance for comfort.

But she cannot tell me too much — or name her study animal — until copyright protections are in place. 

In the fall, Colleen’s start-up was registered as an Ohio limited liability company. It is called Natraverse, combining “nature” and “traverse.” Natraverse is on track to file its first provisional patent and is looking for funding and partners to fabricate its prototypes. (It is at this point that I must add that the National Park Service does not endorse particular products or businesses.)

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There are alternatives already on the market. A park volunteer recently suggested that I look into an accessibility device provided by a sister park in Michigan. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, people with limited mobility can reserve a track chair to climb the unpaved Bay View Trail to a scenic overlook. This heavy-duty chair has caterpillar treads and is operated by a joystick. A volunteer host explains the controls and hikes along as a safety precaution. 

Jeanne Esch and Kathy Tuckerman, who manage the program for the Sleeping Bear Dunes park friends’ group, served more than 70 children and adults in their first season. Because of the demand, they just announced the purchase of a second track chair. This equipment requires a locked trailer and electricity at the trailhead to recharge its batteries between uses. A one-chair set up costs about $18,000 to $20,000, plus staff time. 

The National Park Service cannot charge a fee for any accessibility aids that we provide, so we typically apply for grants to support this type of service.

Not all mobility aids are allowed in national parks, however. For example, you cannot use a Segway, because Segways are considered motorized vehicles.. In September, Cuyahoga Valley hosted the Department of Interior’s announcement of a policy change: E-bikes, which require pedaling, are not considered motorized vehicles. Park superintendents can approve the use of class I and II models on trails that allow traditional bicycles. At Cuyahoga Valley, you can e-bike on the Towpath and the Bike & Hike trails, but not on mountain bike trails (per Ohio law).

At heart, accessibility is a civil rights issue. In the big picture, these collective efforts result in more personal choice, more independence and more equity. This impacts many individuals and their loved ones. Exploring the boundaries—and the future—of this field is an adventure in itself.

Are you or a loved one unsure about visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park because of a mental or physical condition? Ranger Arrye Rosser, the park’s accessibility coordinator, can help you plan a great trip. Contact her at arrye_rosser@nps.gov for advice tailored to your interests.

Photos: used with permission of the National Park Service/Arrye Rosser, and Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes

*Photo 1: Videotape of a snake and millipede slithering through a clear study chamber, now empty behind the laptop.
*Photo 2: Trying out a hand-operated ebike at a National Park Service event in Peninsula.

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