Professor helps establish Japan's first universal challenge course

June 24, 2009

An Indiana State University professor is taking his innovative work with recreation, team building and people with disabilities to the next level.

Don Rogers, associate professor of recreation and sport management, worked as a consultant and trainer with Project Adventure Japan to help establish the country's first universal challenge course.

Rogers has been an innovator in universal challenge course design and training for many years. Initially associated with military team building exercises, challenge courses have become mainstream individual and group development tools. They are made up of a series of problem-based activities designed to increase personal confidence and foster teamwork among groups. Often referred to as ropes courses, they are comprised of both high and low elements.

Rogers, who was partially paralyzed from the waist down following a motorcycle accident, uses a wheelchair to get around. After seeing his first challenge course on an Outward Bound program, he realized how much more could be possible if more of the courses were accessible to people with disabilities. He eventually came up with the idea for a "universal" course that could be used by all people, including those with disabilities.

"Universal challenge courses are tailored for any group to use," he said. "It creates meaningful options for everyone so the group can work together on all elements of the course to accomplish their goals."

That concept resonated with officials from Project Adventure Japan, located in Tokyo. The organization is part of Project Adventure, Inc., an international non-profit organization that provides schools, agencies and corporations with tools needed to implement effective experiential programs.

Rogers met Toshio Hayashi and other officials from Project Adventure Japan at a conference where he discussed universal challenge courses. The PAJ staff members were intrigued with the idea and asked Rogers if he would work with them on creating a unique design for a course in Japan.

"They (Project Adventure Japan) really felt the universal challenge course and that kind of approach to organizational team building would be an important segment of their marketing efforts," Rogers said.

Mr. Hayashi came to Indiana State last summer for three days of planning and design work with Rogers. They drew up plans for the course based on Rogers' designs from previous universal and accessible challenge courses. Once Mr. Hayashi returned to Japan and started building the course, he created a Web site that allowed Rogers to see the progress being made and make suggestions as the work progressed.

In addition to the typical telephone poles, cable and treated lumber, the final course made extensive use of stainless steel hardware and copper sheeting. Project Adventure Japan typically incorporates these materials to withstand the acidic soil and proximity to saltwater. These materials along with expert craftsmanship made for a very professional final product.

"They are very good builders. The course has a really clean look," Rogers said. "They took a lot of pride in the course and I was very impressed with what they did."

Rogers traveled to Chichibu, in the Saitama Prefecture where the course was built, to attend the opening ceremony of the course where he delivered a keynote address. The following day he conducted an all-day workshop for community leaders and programmers on the topic of Universal Design and investigating how they could integrate the course into their organizations. He also hosted a three-day training session for Project Adventure staff members focusing on program design and marketing, as well as actual use of the course in terms of modifications, safety and how to best work with different groups and people of varying abilities.

don rogers

"The staff training piece is extremely important," Rogers said. "While it is necessary for the course to be usable by everyone, it can't do the work for you."

The course will be used by a variety of groups and organizations. The Japanese version of a universal challenge course differs little from its counterparts in the United States.

"These courses are primarily used for team development, which is a very important notion both in the U.S. and Japan," Rogers said.

Rogers has continued to work closely with Project Adventure since his return to the U.S. and said the organization is looking at the possibility of adding more courses throughout the country.

During his time in Japan, Rogers was struck by how well-equipped the country is to accommodate those with disabilities.

"What I was really impressed with was the level of compassion," Rogers said. "People with disabilities are not segregated in Japan."

That theme of meaningful inclusion is what led Rogers to develop the universal challenge course in the first place.

"It's crucial to include people with disabilities," he said. "And not just as passive players, but in ways that genuinely contribute to the goals of the group and keep the activities group centered. This idea is at the core of a successful universal design."

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Contact: Don Rogers, associate professor of recreation and sport management, Indiana State University, 812-237-2183 or derogers@indstate.edu

Writer: Emily Taylor, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or etaylor16@indstate.edu

Top photo: Rogers spoke about universal challenge courses with the help of a translator during the opening of the first course in Japan.

Bottom photo: Rogers helped staff members at Project Adventure Japan design and implement this universal challenge course. (Submitted photos)