America the Beautiful—and Accessible

Reprinted from PN July 2008

Stay "unimpaired"—or become accessible? Despite the challenges of these dual goals, many of this country's national parks, with their universal-design features, are sparkling jewels among our nation's myriad treasures.

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Roxanne Patin's excited middle-school students touch the bark of a giant sequoia tree, marvel at fresh mountain snow, and are challenged to create a rope circle large enough to hold the entire class. They are spending the week as residential campers at the Yosemite Institute, in Yosemite National Park in northern California. But 30 years ago such a trip would have been nearly impossible for these youngsters who have physical and learning disabilities.

When planning facilities and programming for people with disabilities, the National Park Service (NPS) is getting better at providing access for people with disabilities, but more work still needs to be done.

When completed, the Grand Canyon's Greenway project will provide 73 miles of new trails on the South and North rims of Grand Canyon National Park. This will reportedly be the longest wheelchair-accessible trail in the National Park System.
"Programmatically, we have barely scratched the surface," says Ray Bloomer, director of technical assistance and education for the National Center on Accessibility and an NPS accessibility specialist.

Moving Forward

Much of the progress in recent decades was spurred by three important pieces of legislation: the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The Architectural Barriers Act requires buildings be made accessible for people with mobility limitations. Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mandates programs for people with disabilities but doesn't stipulate how they are to be conducted. ADA goes a step further: Any state, local, or federal project that receives federal dollars must be accessible.

Recent park planning is guided by the principle of universal design, which seeks to increase accessibility for all visitors. For example, a bronze sculpture of Yosemite Falls serves people with visual impairments but also gives everyone a tactile experience. Yosemite's rangers frequently pour a cup of water on this sculpture to demonstrate how water moves over the glaciated landscape.

Though NPS has shown interest in improving accessibility, a recent panel of park visitors with disabilities gave critical testimony before the Resources Subcommittee on National Parks. One witness said her daughter, who has a hearing loss, was unable to obtain audio aids at any of the national parks they visited. Another reported people with physical disabilities were prohibited from using Segways at the Jefferson Memorial and Zion National Park because they were considered motorized vehicles.

According to Karl Pierce, chief interpretive ranger at Cabrillo National Monument near San Diego, Calif., the greatest challenges to making parks more accessible are adequate funding, staffing, time, and technological limitations. Another challenge is the tension between the NPS mandate to leave park resources "unimpaired for future generations" and its obligation to make them accessible. These dual goals can create hard choices for managing historic and natural resources in the national parks.

Changes to Independence Hall in Philadelphia are a good example of the challenge that sometimes occurs between accessibility and historic preservation. NPS had hoped to make the building's first level accessible from the rear, but was faced with a problem. Should workers raise the land around the original staircase to provide access to the first level—or should they maintain this historic landmark's character? They finally opted for a creative solution, building a ramp to the first level and preserving the original staircase.

Programming is another way to extend the park experience for people with disabilities. "Not every single area within a national park will be made accessible," says Bloomer.

For example, it might be impossible to make tide pools or cliff dwellings at the bottom of a steep canyon accessible to people with limited mobility. One solution would be to display a model of an Anasazi village or to show a film about tide pools in an accessible visitors center. Tactile exhibits, models, virtual tours, and films with audio descriptions are examples of accessible programming that can help people with disabilities gain better access to park resources.

Read more about what officials at National Park Service locations are doing to make the experience at their locations more enjoyable for people with disabilities.


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America the Beautiful—and Accessible


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