A little over 20 years ago the Virginia State Parks we have worked hard to reduce the barriers imposed by legacy facilities and the natural world that challenge people with disabilities who have a desire to visit and enjoy what our state parks have to offer. We have added accessible overnight accommodations whenever we have constructed new cabins and campgrounds and have tried to renovate older facilities. We have developed accessible trails and wildlife watching areas. Each of our park’s web pages have a special section that highlights our accessible facilities.
The biggest obstacle is, not surprisingly, money. Today I learned that in many ways we have to first understand the needs of the disabled in order to do a better job and our plan is to do just that. State Parks Director Joe Elton and I met with Craig Fabian from the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Virginia (SCIAVA) to begin a partnership to explore what more we can do to reduce barriers that keep the disabled from enjoying our parks. Craig has offered to help us create an inventory of our facilities that meet various levels of accessibility. Disabilities are varied and the needs are not always the same.
For example, Craig needs a lift to assist him in and out of bed. His lift only works if the bed has legs. Some accessible facilities use platform beds and some disabled appreciate them because they are lower and make the chair to bed transfer easier. So sometimes even ADA compliant facilities do not meet the needs of someone who is disabled. At the same time there are many disabled people that can cope with facilities that have been made “more accessible” but might not meet all of the requirements of ADA accessibility.
If we could create a database of what our facilities have to offer and they could be classified by levels of accessibility and by grades within those levels, we could improve the information available to people with disabilities so they could know what to expect and whether they could work around the facilities available. Today Craig mentioned a problem that we overlooked. At many of our new cabin facilities, we added picnic pads next to the cabins with a picnic table and grill. We “hardened” these areas to reduce impact by installing border timbers and gravel or mulch. The timbers effectively bar wheelchair access but cutting out an entrance or building a ramp over the timbers could easily remove the barrier. We have added accessible picnic tables in our parks. Craig asked a simple question – “Why do you just have an accessible side on one end? What if you have two people in wheelchairs?” He also asked why we still install the non-accessible tables.
In addition to our overnight and day use facilities, Craig has offered to coach us on what we can do to make some of our outdoor recreation activities and programs more barrier free. Several of our parks have hosted “Wounded Warrior” programs for service men and women with disabilities. Other parks offer hunting and fishing opportunities for the disabled. We want to do more.
So much of what we need is knowledge and understanding. We hope that with our partnership with the SCIAVASeptember Newsletter.