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America the beautiful--and accessible: 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 flesh 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.

"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.

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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 fide 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.

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Greater Access

On the West Coast, Yosemite National Park placed its accessibility guide on its Web site. The online guide highlights accessible park facilities and services including information about parking, food service, shuttle buses, environmental education, trails, campsites, and service animals. Additionally, many of the new renovations in the Yosemite Valley will be accessible. A recent park survey shows that 66% of Yosemite's visitors rate access for people with disabilities as extremely important.

Rangers at the visitors centers provide temporary disability placards to those who request them, with few questions asked. The signs permit drivers to use service roads not available to most tourists.

Patin brings her students to the Yosemite Institute and has found the placards invaluable. A bone disease limits her mobility, so a service dog frequently accompanies her.

"I can drive and get just 40 yards away from Mirror Lake," she says. "Otherwise, I'd be walking a mile and a half on a steep grade."

Yosemite's new fleet of comfortable hybrid buses is designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and universal design is guiding renovations in the Yosemite Valley. The east side of the Yosemite Falls Trail is accessible, as are some of the bathrooms and picnic areas. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks are being constructed in the Yosemite Valley meadows. The new facilities are designed not only for people with disabilities but also to accommodate people of various ages.

Nanette Oswald, a seasonal ranger at Yosemite and the deaf-services coordinator, provides signing interpretation for visitors who are deaf or have hearing loss. She has conducted programs in various park locations.

"Families with hearing-impaired children are thrilled to have an interpreter who signs," says Oswald.

When she's not working in the park, Oswald conducts public outreach, encouraging members of the deaf community to visit Yosemite.

Farther South

Hundreds of miles away at the southern tip of California lies Cabrillo National Monument, winner of the 2005 National Design Project Achievement Merit Award. Cabrillo also received the 2006 National Park Service Accessibility Award in the category of Design Project Achievement for its Lighthouses of Point Loma exhibit. The monument celebrates the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a sixteenth-century Spanish explorer. It is also the site of the nineteenth-century Old Point Loma Lighthouse, tide pools, and rare coastal sage scrub habitat.

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"We've been working hard over the last several years to improve accessibility," says Pierce. Entrance fees have provided revenue to build accessible parking spaces, routes with curb cuts to the visitors center, signs that direct wheelchair users to the most accessible paths, and an accessible auditorium. Just like at Yosemite, visitors with mobility limitations can get a one-day placard that permits them to drive right up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, where ramps and pathways lead to the first floor. Visitors who cannot negotiate the lighthouse stairs can view a first-floor photo exhibit that shows the interior of the second-story rooms.

But the innovations at Cabrillo National Monument go beyond just making facilities accessible to people with mobility limitations. Two interpretive movies, In Search of Cabrillo, and Tide Pools: On the Edge of Land and Sea, are captioned for people with hearing loss or who are deaf. In the coming years, the park plans to add a voiceover that describes scenes in the film for people who have visual impairments. Two sculptures allow visitors to feel the form of a gray whale and the buildings associated with the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. In past years, the park has produced a play entitled Voyage of Cabrillo with American Sign Language translation.

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Down South

Universal design isn't restricted to the West Coast. Natchez Historic Park, Miss., won the 2005 National Park Service Accessibility Achievement Award. The park interprets the history of the antebellum South and includes the William Johnson House, the home of a freed African-American businessman and diarist.

The home's exhibits include a talking tactile model of historic buildings and a narrated digital diary touch-screen program that cues to hand-held MP3 players. The large tactile model shows three buildings in the Johnson complex. Visitors can activate an interpretive recording by touching the buildings. While the audio recording plays, a monitor shows the narration so visitors can learn about the buildings' fascinating history. Visitors with hearing impairments can view more than 70 exhibit panels and artifact cases with text interpretation.

The audio stations, which are wheelchair accessible, contain two tracks depicting life in the antebellum South. One features the Main Street Barbershop, one of Johnson's businesses, and has audio programming recreating white Southerners discussing politics and business while having their hair cut. Another track reproduces sounds that might typically be heard in the William Johnson house, including dogs barking, children playing, and family members talking.

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In addition to audio tracks, three large etched-glass panels contain pages reproduced from Johnson's diary and sketches. Visitors can trace Johnson's original penmanship and feel the outlines of people and objects he writes about in his diary.

"In many ways the exhibits are groundbreaking," says Natchez Historic Park chief interpretive ranger James Heaney. "The tactile exhibit has served as a model not only for the national parks but also state and local parks."

Natchez Historic Park, Cabrillo National Monument, and Yosemite National Park show that making parks more accessible benefits all visitors. Although much more must be accomplished in order to create equal access for people with disabilities, NPS is making significant progress.

From the snow-capped Sierras to the historic buildings of the antebellum South, the concept of universal design is creating a road map to plan accessible facilities and programs. The challenge of the park planning process is, in the words of Bloomer, "taking every opportunity to incorporate the needs of people."

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Contact: www.nps.gov.
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Author:Shteir, Seth
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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