JAN 5 2023    
Are Parks Becoming More Accessible to People With Disabilities?
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Are Parks Becoming More Accessible to People With Disabilities?

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One may be surprised to learn that worldwide, people with disabilities represent a large group on par with the size of ChinaApproximately 54 million Americans have at least one disability, making them the largest minority group in the nation at an estimated 20 percent of the American population. With baby boomers aging and veterans coming back from service, that number is expected to double within the next 20 years.

Over the decades, US state and national parks have recognized the number of people with disabilities making trips to parks, and have made a point to make them more accessible so people of all abilities can enjoy the beauty of nature.

In 1979, the National Park Service announced their intention to approach accessibility issues on a national level. Since then, the initiative has continued. Today the NPS has continued to improve its accessibility features, as well as create innovative opportunities for participation and inclusion.

The NPS and Accessibility Over the Last 10 Years

In 2015 an Accessibility Task Force was formed to ensure “that all members of our visiting public are afforded access to our significant sites and the stories within.” Although the National Park Service has been striving toward making beautiful sites accessible to all since the 1960’s, the work is never done. 

If you asked individuals with differing disabilities what accessibility for all looked like, each would more than likely have a different response. No one person can define what ultimate accessibility should look like, which means that the work for accessibility is wide and long, especially given all of the NPS land and sites in the US.

Some improvements to sites in the US can be credited to legislation meant to improve accessibility, like the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, which mandates that buildings be accessible to people with disabilities, and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which requires that federally funded programs can be enjoyed equally by those with disabilities. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 and has been a catalyst for change over the last decade within national parks, provides standards for accessible design, including the width and steepness of walkways. But still, work needs to be done.

The NPS Accessibility Task Force, which began their five-year plan in 2015, dedicated their focus to addressing the lack of accessible restrooms, entrances, parking lots, and water fountains in many park visitor centers, and to removing additional accessibility challenges at trails, campgrounds, and beaches in national parks. This task was no easy feat, but has been a game changer when it comes to accessibility. 

State Parks and Accessibility 

Many state parks have done much work toward accessibility over the years thanks to much of the legislation mentioned above. It’s exciting to see what is happening within many states and their parks all for the sake of inclusion.

Florida state parks have made many strides toward accessibility with the addition of an accessible glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, wheelchair-accessible electric trams within multiple parks in the state, multiple floating wheelchairs provided at seven coastal state parks, and even a new ADA-compliant fishing pier at Oscar Scherer State Park that features areas of lowered rails so that seated visitors have unobstructed views and can cast fishing lines.

Georgia state parks are leading the way with the addition of all terrain wheelchairs that will be free with reservation at 11 state parks and historic sites in Georgia. Joining Georgia on this inclusion quest are a few other states including Florida who has Eight all-terrain wheelchairs at various parks throughout the state and 52 beach accessible wheelchairs delivered to all coastal state parks, along with Minnesota and Michigan who provide these all-terrain wheelchairs free of charge. 

In Conclusion

The quest to make nature accessible for everyone is an important one. If we believe nature is as beneficial to mental and physical health as we say, all generations should continue to strive for nature inclusion for all abilities. 

It is exciting to see the steps our parks on the state and national levels continue to take toward inclusion, but there is always more work to be done. If you would like to be a part of making nature accessible to everyone, become a part of the quest through joining organizations like the National Recreation and Park Association.

If you are a person with disabilities, be encouraged by the work happening and consider making a trip to a park near you. Time in nature is truly a healing experience for all!

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