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Open to interpretation: the National Park Service is making a concerted effort to share all of the nation's treasures with all of America--including those with disabilities.

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

When planning facilities and programming for people with disabilities, the National Park Service is getting better at providing access for people with hearing loss and those who are deaf, but making sites accessible for the blind remains a challenge. "Programmatically we have barely scratched the surface," says Ray Bloomer, director of technical assistance and education for the National Center on Accessibility and an accessibility specialist for the National Park Service.

Much of the progress made 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. The Architectural Barriers Act requires that buildings be made accessible for people with mobility limitations. Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mandates programs for people who are physically disabled, visually impaired, or deaf, but doesn't stipulate how they are to be conducted. The Americans with Disabilities Act goes a step further and requires that any state, local, or federal project that receives federal dollars must be made accessible.

Recent park planning is being guided by a principle known as "universal design," which seeks to increase accessibility for all visitors. For example, a bronze sculpture of Yosemite Falls serves people who are visually impaired, but also gives all visitors a tactile experience. The rangers at Yosemite frequently pour a cup of water on this sculpture to demonstrate how water moves over Yosemite's glaciated landscape.

Although the National Park Service has shown interest in improving accessibility, a recent panel of park visitors who are disabled gave critical testimony about their experiences before the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation, and Public Lands. One witness complained that her daughter, who has a hearing loss, was unable to obtain audio aides at any of the national parks they visited. Another reported that people with physical disabilities were prohibited from using Segway scooters 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, the greatest challenges to making parks more accessible are adequate funding, staffing, time, and technological limitations. Another challenge is the tension between the National Park Service mandate to leave park resources "unimpaired for future generations" and its obligation to provide access to all. These dual goals can create hard choices for the management of historic and natural resources.

Changes to Independence Hall in Philadelphia provide a good example. The Park Service had hoped to make the first level of the building accessible from the rear but was faced with a dilemma. Should workers raise the land around the original staircase to provide access to the first level or should they maintain the original character of the historic landmark? They finally opted for a creative solution: They built a ramp to the first level and preserved the original staircase.

Programming is another way to extend the park experience for people with disabilities. It might be impossible to provide universal access to tide pools or cliff dwellings at the bottom of a steep canyon. One solution would be to screen a film about tide pools in a visitor's center or display a model of an ancestral Puebloan village in an accessible area. Tactile exhibits, models, virtual tours, and films with audio description are all examples of accessible programming that can help people with disabilities gain better access to park resources.

On the West Coast, Yosemite National Park placed a special guide on its Web site that highlights accessible park facilities and services including 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 percent of Yosemite's visitors rate access for people with disabilities as extremely important.

Rangers at the visitor centers provide temporary disability placards to those who request them, with few questions asked. The sign permits the driver to use service roads that are not available to most tourists. Roxanne Patin, a disability coordinator for the Pittsburg Schools who brings her students to the Yosemite Institute, has found the disability placards invaluable. A bone disease limits her mobility, and she's frequently accompanied by a service dog. "I can drive within 40 yards of Mirror Lake," she says. "Otherwise, I'd be walking one-and-a-half-miles with a steep grade."

Yosemite's new fleet of comfortable hybrid buses is designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and the principle of 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 under construction in the Yosemite Valley meadows. The new facilities are designed to accommodate not only people with disabilities, but also people of a variety of ages, says Adrienne Freeman, a public information officer at the park.

Nanette Oswald, a seasonal ranger at Yosemite and the coordinator of services for the deaf, provides signing interpretation for visitors with hearing loss and those who are deaf. She has conducted programs in Wawona, Glacier Point, and Tuolumne Meadows. "Families with hearing-impaired children are thrilled to have an interpreter that signs," says Oswald. When she's not working in the park, she conducts public outreach, encouraging members of the deaf community to visit Yosemite.

Hundreds of miles away, at the southern tip of California, lies Cabrillo National Monument, winner of the 2005 National Design Project Achievement Merit Award and a 2006 National Park Service Accessibility Award for its Lighthouses of Point Loma exhibit. The monument celebrates the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a 16th-century Spanish explorer. It is also the site of the 19th-century Old Point Loma Lighthouse, tide pools, and rare coastal sage scrub habitat.

"We've been working hard over the last several years to improve accessibility," says Karl Pierce. Entrance fees have provided the park with revenue to build accessible parking spaces, routes to the visitor center with curb cuts, signs that direct wheelchair users to the most accessible paths, and an accessible auditorium. Just as they can at Yosemite, visitors with mobility limitations can get a one-day placard that permits them in drive right up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, where ramps and pathways lead to the Assistant Keepers Interpretive Shelter. Visitors who might have trouble negotiating the lighthouse stairs can view a floor plan and a photo exhibit of rooms within the Old Point Loma Lighthouse; an audio tour is also available.

But the innovations at Cabrillo National Monument go beyond 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. In the coming years, the park plans to add voiceover narration that describes scenes in the film for those who are visually impaired. 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 staged a play titled Voyage of Cabrillo with American Sign Language translation.

The use of universal design isn't restricted to the West Coast. Natchez Historical Park, located in Mississippi, was the winner of 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 former slave who went on to become a successful 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 of the 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 with hearing loss can learn about the buildings' history; visitors can also 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 highlights the Main Street Barbershop, one of Johnson's businesses, with audio programming that recreates the sounds of white Southerners discussing politics and business while they get 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.

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 Johnson writes about in his diary. "In many ways [the exhibits] are groundbreaking," says James Heaney, chief interpretive ranger at Natchez Historical Park. "The tactile exhibit has served as a model not only for the national parks, but for state and local parks as well."

Natchez Historical Park, Cabrillo National Monument, and Yosemite National Park show that making parks more accessible benefits all visitors. Although much more needs to be accomplished to create equal access for visitors who are disabled, the National Park Service 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 for the planning of accessible facilities and programs. The challenge of the park planning process is, in the words of Ray Bloomer, "taking every opportunity to incorporate the needs of people."

For information about travel opportunities catered to those with disabilities, visit Environmental Traveling Companions at www.etctrips.org or the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality at www.sath.org.

Seth Shteir is a teacher and conservation chair of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.
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Author:Shteir, Seth
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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