How we're making nature more accessible for people with disabilities
Executive Director, Pinelands Preservation Alliance
August 1, 2022
In 2021, we at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and our partners began working with people with disabilities, their advocates and caregivers on a project we call “The Pinelands Is for Everyone.” This project has opened our minds and hearts to the varying challenges that people living with different kinds of disabilities face in exploring nature. And it is bringing new friendships and new partnerships that are making PPA a stronger, more effective advocate for the Pinelands.
We started by holding virtual “town hall” gatherings, smaller focus groups, and many conversations to talk with people about their experiences, wisdom and ideas. We worked with Michael Brower from Disability Rights New Jersey to conduct these conversations.
We learn so much from these conversations. When asked about the barriers to visiting natural places in New Jersey, Tracy said, “I’ve given this considerable thought. I am a blind person and I do not live with anyone who drives. One of the very first problems I have – I would love to get out in nature more – but most of them are not anywhere near any public transit . . . They often do not have addresses that I can give to a taxi or Uber driver.”
Charlotte shared her experience visiting historic Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest. She said:
“Me and my younger brother travel around in power wheelchairs. They have a lot of sand there and we were driving around and you would get stuck in the sand in places and my mom and my sister would have to push us to get us out.”
Her mother Kim told us how important bathrooms are. She said, “If you have somebody with a disability who can’t go into a restroom unattended and you are woman with a male it is a real problem, so making sure there is a family bathroom so that you can accompany that person in that is a huge issue.”
PPA and Disability Rights New Jersey summarized the key points from these discussions in a report The Pinelands Is for Everyone: A Report on Learnings from Town Hall Meetings and Focus Groups About Access to Natural Places for People with Disabilities. The report is available in English and Spanish on our web page, or listen to the audio version below.
The people we met and the wisdom we gained from them are shaping our next steps in this effort to make natural places more accessible. We hope everyone will read the report and find both inspiration and direction for getting involved in this effort.
The Pinelands Is for Everyone aims to engage and empower people with disabilities to make the Pinelands’ natural places accessible to everyone, so everyone has the means and motivation to enjoy the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of the Pinelands’ vast open spaces. Because most public lands are not managed or marketed for people with disabilities, we aim to shift deep-seated, exclusionary expectations about nature recreation, both among people with disabilities and among those who manage public open spaces, so that all people take advantage of the wonderful natural areas we have.
What does that mean in practice?
Our plan over the next year is to:
• Create forums for people with disabilities and caregivers to be heard. We will launch and support a regular Access Nature Forum, to be led by people with disabilities, this coming fall of 2022. Let us know if you want to join the conversation!
• Publish a mobile-friendly web site to provide detailed information and images of trails and scenic locations that are accessible to at least some degree. We will publish the web site soon, in July 2022, but it will always be a work in progress. Let us know what you think of the site and help us keep the information up to date!
• Help State, local and nonprofit land managers create more accessible trails and improve facilities with people with disabilities in mind. For relatively little cost and with lots of volunteer help, we can upgrade many existing sand trails to make them more firm, flat and stable, and make other improvements.
• Help people become comfortable exploring natural areas by offering guided nature trips that are designed for everyone, including people with disabilities, through our Pinelands Adventures outfitter. We are currently researching sites and working with partners to design great trips, which we aim to start offering to the public in September 2022. We are also testing all-terrain wheelchairs to lend to participants for use on these nature trips.
• Show the world that everyone can enjoy the joys of nature in the Pinelands. We aim to use images, videos and testimonials to show people with disabilities, caregivers, land managers and the general public that everyone can explore the Pinelands if appropriate trails, facilities and programs are made available. If you have pictures and experiences, you are willing to share with others, please let us use them to spread the word.
We are very fortunate to have the financial and moral support of the Inclusive Healthy Communities program sponsored by New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, Division of Disability Services and the members of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance to make this work possible.