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Improvements to park and outdoor areas and facilities are a sure sign of the summer recreation season. However, as the national economy and state budget cutbacks put the squeeze on spending, parks and recreation will undoubtedly feel the impact. The dollars typically are budgeted to benefit usage by the greatest number of persons. What many places do not always recognize is that universal access not only improves accessibility for persons with disabilities, but also for parents with children in strollers and the growing aging population.
Many communities contend that there is no demand to justify expenditures on adaptive programs, accommodations, or retrofitting existing facilities. Yet, the U.S. Census estimates that there are more than 54 million Americans with disabilities and upwards of 15% of the people in our communities have disabilities. People with disabilities often encounter barriers to using fitness facilities, national and regional parks, and community recreation programs and venues. Perhaps the phrase, "If you build it, they will come," bears repeating.
Budget cuts can create the aggravation of phase accommodation. When there is inadequate funding to complete all the necessary improvements for access, projects are completed in "phases" or gradually as funding permits. Phase accommodation might take place over months or years. For example, I visited a city park that had recently purchased wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, paved the table area, and created accessible parking spaces. The area from the parking to the picnic tables remained surfaced in chunk wood chips. How many individuals with disabilities will be able to utilize this area? Isn't half a project basically useless? And then the city can say that there is "no demand, no usage" for accessible areas and facilities.
When I inquired about the wood chips, I was told a sidewalk is the next "phase," but that is not part of this year's budget. Phase accommodation might mean there will be a new accessible restroom at the park, but that the step to the restroom door will not be ramped for another season. This year's retrofitting of the gym might mean installing an elevator so that you can get between the floors, although the fitness equipment, pool, and sauna are still inaccessible.
Many parks and conservation professionals at national and state parks are making campgrounds, trails, and outdoor recreation areas much more user-friendly. I had the opportunity to visit with a state park ranger who was interested in accessibility, NCPAD's Project AIMFREE for assessing park accessibility, and park accommodation resources. She shared her frustration in delaying projects and improvements as a result of state budget cuts. Also, the state relies on code and regulations for making parks accessible, although codes do not ensure accessibility. Persons with and without disabilities subsequently should be asked to provide input.
This particular state park has made many improvements toward accessibility over the last few years. Two paved accessible campsites and several paved RV sites have been created. Frequently, the accessible campsites are located closest to the amenities, such as the comfort station or rest room. Not everyone wants to be located in the highest-traffic area of the campground and would prefer more secluded or remote camp sites. The key concept in dispersion is the element of choice. Enable campers to choose among campsite types where each type is accessible. I prefer a non-electric site that is closer to the water with grass under my tent.
Walking paths around the lake and through the woods have been paved. Pavement is better than wood chips or gravel, but I have used boardwalk and granite dust-surfaced trails in other parks with as much rolling ease as pavement. You can make outdoor areas accessible and still be ecologically sound for the land conservation, as well as maintain a more natural-looking setting.
The state park picnic area offers paved sidewalks, lowered drinking fountains, accessible height grills, and some accessible picnic tables in a paved area. Parking throughout the park is striped and signed for access. The park's swimming pool is ramped. Last year, an accessible fishing pier over the edge of the lake was added. In the main bathhouse, there is a roll-in shower with a bench (it could use hand controls to make it even better), but at least there is a shower!
The improvements to the park have been wonderful, but there is a problem. The ranger inquired about whether or not I could even "get inside" the restrooms. Even in the bathhouse with an accessible shower, there is no accessible restroom. I can roll straight in a narrow stall with my knees meeting the stool, and as I turn to transfer, my kneecap gets whacked on the toilet paper dispenser on the wall. Forget closing the door. The other restroom closest to the tent campsites is also inaccessible; a wheelchair cannot even get inside that one. When I explained, the ranger said that the state Department of Conservation and the state have been discussing the "bathroom situation" and it was a consideration for remodeling this year. But the state is tightening the budget and when the camp numbers are low, only the main restroom will remain open to save on electric and water usage. The state administrative types were deciding between new gravel on the boat ramp area to appease the numerous boaters/jet skiers versus retrofitting a "disabled" restroom at the campsite. The boaters and jet skiers will outnumber the persons with disabilities in park usage. And the Department of Conservation is under the impression that one accessible restroom at the lake is enough. It doesn't matter that the accessible restroom is on another side of the lake!
How can persons with disabilities work to facilitate parks and recreation access? Discuss in a constructive manner what the barriers are at local and regional parks and community facilities. Be willing to work out a compromise. For instance, suggest a surfacing option that will both make the trail accessible and preserve the ecology. Many parks and recreation personnel have appreciated learning about resources such as NCHPAD (NCPAD) and the National Center on Accessibility (NCA). Take the opportunity to let parks know what they are doing right in meeting access needs and that it is appreciated. Realize that some parks, in order to save money, receive help with landscaping, surfacing, and building from volunteers who may not be aware of the needs of persons with disabilities. Educate others that Universal Access means making facilities user-friendly for many persons. Get out and enjoy your community, state, and national parks and support them through usage fees. Golden Access passports (National Park Service) are available for citizens or permanent residents of the United States who have visual impairments or permanent disabilities; the passport provides a 50% discount on federal use fees charged for facilities and services such as camping, swimming, parking, boat launching, and tours. Use will demonstrate demand and increase the likelihood of future improvements, and the fees will help offset budget cutbacks.