DEC plans Adirondack campground upgrades to improve accessibility, amid scrutiny
By James M. Odato
Since George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, New York state land managers have increased accessibility in Adirondack recreation areas.
But it took a lawsuit under the ADA for New York to commit millions of dollars in upgrades and to promise open roads to camping or fishing areas. Much of the post-ADA work happened after the Department of Environmental Conservation settled litigation started by a Warrensburg disabilities rights activist who remains dissatisfied.
The state has a lot of room for improvement, said frequent Adirondack camper Debbie Roberts, a survivor of traumatic brain injury. She said the DEC isn’t meeting basic needs of people with disabilities, particularly those who use wheelchairs or have the kinds of ambulatory impairments that come with aging. Such people can’t wash themselves in camp shower areas, fit into broken toilet stalls or navigate confusing booking services, she said.
Perhaps most galling, said Roberts, 57, of Schenectady, is when a comfort station bears the accessibility logo of a stick figure in a wheelchair but there are no accommodations for wheelchairs inside. “The bathrooms say accessible, but they’re not,” she said. In numerous emails with the DEC’s campgrounds and accessibility officials starting in 2020, many of which she shared with the Adirondack Explorer, she detailed her experiences, including having to go to a hardware store to purchase a latch and install it herself for some privacy at a campground restroom.
“They were very kind and very open to listening to what I had to say,” Roberts said. But little has changed, she said, except facilities dubbed “handicapped accessible” online, are now called “accessible,” which is vague.
She has specifically found the Fish Creek Pond Campground near Saranac Lake troublesome.
It’s “100 percent accurate,” said wheelchair user Jason Thurston about Roberts’ concerns. Not just Fish Creek, which he investigated recently, but he knows that the accessibility logo is mislabeled on comfort stations throughout DEC’s Adirondack campgrounds, he said.
“We’re trying to get them taken down,” said Thurston, chairman of the DEC/Adirondack Park Agency Accessibility Advisory Committee. “They’re called (an) ambulatory stall. But it doesn’t have enough room to turn around.” And sometimes there’s no space to park a wheelchair next to a toilet to transfer onto it. “It is bad that the signs are up,” he said.
He said Fish Creek, popular for its water views and woodsy setting, lacks showers or bathrooms for wheelchair users, although it advertises as having 11 accessible campsites among its 355 sites. Those accessible sites come with firm and stable surfaces, unobstructed access for a vehicle, a level space for a tent and some longer picnic tables and places to have a fire, and were required under the lawsuit settlement, part of $156,000 in improvements laid out in a federal judge’s order.
In interviews, Thurston, and other members of his committee, say the DEC has improved conditions, thanks to the July 1998 ADA lawsuit by Ted Galusha, but has much more to do.
DEC officials say they’ve developed blueprints — unit management plans — that call for adding a fully accessible shower and bathroom at Fish Creek. They also say they’re working on many of the issues Roberts listed, including better maps, improved reservation information and clarity on locations of accessible resources.
But Thurston said it’s one thing to list projects in action plans. It’s another thing to get $400,000 authorized for a new bathroom and shower building.
The DEC did not make Leah Akins, the DEC’s accessibility director, available for an interview. Roberts said she has had pleasant interactions with Akins, and Thurston and committee members say they see her as an ally on the advisory committee.
Akins’ predecessor, Carole Fraser, now retired, said the DEC and the committee have worked through the list of requirements in the settlement of the Galusha’s case against the DEC.
She said Galusha, a fierce watchdog for disability rights, was a member of the committee — the settlement required it — but he became disruptive. She said he would cut padlocks off DEC gates to open roads and throw the broken locks on the table of committee meetings.
Galusha also was cited for clearing paths and sawing trees that he said blocked his ability to drive to trails and primitive sites. “Civil disobedience,” he said.
His suit was settled in 2001, calling for DEC to reassess access, particularly to mobility-impaired people, to recreation areas and to set up new unit management plans for a host of locations in the Adirondacks, and include organizations for paralyzed veterans and independent living in planning. Among the things required was setting up access to Santanoni Great Camp in Newcomb.
The current committee has been distressed that Santanoni access didn’t happen this summer because the wagon used to transport people with disabilities broke and hasn’t been replaced, said Scott Remington, a 20-year board member from Brant Lake.
“It is getting better,” Remington said about parkwide accessibility. “It needs to get a lot better.”
The judge’s order made DEC spend about $4.8 million over five years after the settlement on upgrades. The construction program added restrooms, shower areas, camping, fishing, canoeing, hunting, boating, picnicking, horseback riding and birdwatching options to people with disabilities.
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“We did good. We did more than good,” Fraser said, whose job was created because of the settlement.
She said Galusha’s presence on the committee became intolerable but she credits him with changing the thinking at the DEC — “the whole spirit of doing more for people, especially as our hunters and anglers are aging.”
She said it is important that people like Roberts tell the DEC and the committee about their needs and wants.
In her communications with Roberts, Akins stated that staff at the campgrounds are trained about accessibility issues, but that recreation facilities are under heavy use and the department has not been able to keep up.
“Although the short staffing and heightened responsibilities do not excuse incorrect information being given to visitors, I did want to note the unique difficulties to campground operations this year,” Akins wrote. Campground staff receive awareness training on “the importance of accuracy and discretion in providing information about facilities to people with disabilities,” she wrote.
Roberts said she is fortunate that she can walk, although she cannot hike because of physical problems. She likes to watch the fire, do crafts, listen to the radio, swim, kayak and relax. It helps with the depression that set in after her head injury 20 years ago from a fall, ending her customer service career with a vision insurance company. Because of her work background, she tries to cure problems, not let them rest.
She started camping 10 years ago, traveling in an SUV crammed with camping gear to Adirondack destinations, leaving behind her two daughters and husband who preferred staying home. The outdoors activity has helped her to feel better physically and mentally, she said, adding to her self-esteem.
“It’s really hard to camp when you’re disabled,” she said. “You have to be determined.”
During her two years of challenging DEC, one state manager, not Akins, recommended she camp at Frontier Town in North Hudson, where the state has built fully accessible sites. “So that’s it? I should just stay at that one campground, shut my mouth and be content with that?” Roberts said. Frontier Town, she said, is undesirable because it lacks shade and isn’t close to a body of water.
Galusha, 62, who has dealt with multiple sclerosis most of his life, continues to complain about DEC’s oversight of public space, desiring greater motorized access in the forest preserve. After suffering a stroke in January 2020, he became paralyzed on his left side and uses a wheelchair.
Access is still denied, he said, and demands that the state land master plan be updated to accommodate people with disabilities. “They backed out of the settlement,” he claimed.
Thurston said Galusha, by suing, helped many, including Thurston himself. The case motivated International Paper to create John Dillon Park, a private campground for people with disabilities, he said. He is outreach director for the complex in Long Lake.
“The only way to enforce any accessibility is to file a lawsuit,” Thurston said.
DEC officials said accessibility to people with disabilities is a “top priority.”
“We are continually evaluating our facilities and applicable Americans with Disabilities Act and Architectural Barriers Act standards,” the department’s press office said in an email, adding that it is abiding by its many requirements under the Galusha settlement, including developing unit management plans.
The department said former standards of accessibility apply to their facilities if they don’t undergo renovations. “The ADA requires public entities to bring existing public buildings to compliance at the time of renovation, along with ongoing work to remove architectural barriers and planning for overall program accessibility,” the DEC said. The Fish Creek campground was rehabilitated in 1994 and more improvements happened after the Galusha order, in 2004. New standards took effect in 2010.