State holds calls with accessibility experts to review resources
By Gwendolyn Craig
About 61 million adults in the United States have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York, that number is about 3 million, according to state health department figures.
“It cuts across age, race and gender,” said Janet Zeller, an accessibility expert and the former National Accessibility Program Manager for the U.S. Forest Service. “My focus is integrating accessibility into the programs and facilities of sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities so people of all ages and abilities can recreate together.”
Zeller joined state agencies this month for two webinars focused on inclusivity, accessibility and sustainability in the outdoors. The informational sessions focused on how agencies should navigate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and provide wheelchair and mobility device access. They also covered the nuances of accessible and sustainable trail design, pointing to a few spots in the Adirondacks as examples.
Kimberly Hill, the state’s chief disability officer, introduced the two-part series. Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Hill to the new office in February. The office consists of a staff of two. Hill said she hopes her work “will translate to additional policies that will make our parks and all of our wonderful land that we have in New York state even more accessible to people with disabilities.”
Leah Akins, the DEC’s statewide ADA coordinator for accessibility to outdoor recreation, pointed out where the public can access information on places to visit.
“With all these riches in lands comes the challenge of figuring out where to go,” Akins said.
She recommended visiting the DEC’s website to find accessible recreation opportunities through DEC and this page on the state Parks website. Anyone with questions may also contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Jason Thurston, chair of the Adirondack Park Agency and DEC’s Accessibility Advisory Committee and outreach coordinator at John Dillon Park in Long Lake, also talked about his role in raising awareness of parks and areas accessible to people with disabilities. He spoke with the Adirondack Explorer in a September 2021 article about John Dillon Park where accessible campsites provide a wilderness retreat for those with disabilities. Thurston plugged the park again, with its nine accessible lean-tos, accessible ramps, provided firewood and 3 ½ miles of managed trails.
“There’s fishing access, a pontoon boat we can take you out on, and we’re going to start guided nature hikes,” Thurston said. “Everything is free.”
Akins also featured the Prospect Mountain Memorial Highway in Lake George as “a remarkable opportunity where people with disabilities are able to get to a mountaintop.” The DEC-managed highway allows for cars to drive to several lookouts and a seasonal, accessible shuttle brings visitors to the summit.
Also in Lake George at Million Dollar Beach, the DEC purchased a new accessible beach wheelchair for the public to use.
There are over 60 accessible DEC hiking trails statewide, Akins added, noted on DEC maps via an icon of a person in a wheelchair carrying a hiking stick. Akin said one such trail in the southern Adirondacks is called Willie Wildlife Marsh in the Peck Hill State Forest. The state is building accessible boardwalks.
Thurston hopes his committee and state agencies can work on new opportunities in the Adirondacks and beyond. He noted that opportunities are limited in the Adirondacks as much of the infrastructure is aging.
“We met with the commissioner (Basil Seggos) and with Kim Hill, and now we’ve been able to bring Janet (Zeller) in, and we’re really moving and shaking,” Thurston said. “Hopefully we’ll be opening up more and more lands for accessibility.”
Zeller pointed out the different requirements for trails to meet accessibility standards. Trail grade, slope, the amount of room for wheelchairs or mobility devices needed to pass each other, are just some of the considerations trail designers must take into account. There are also several exceptions where creating an accessible trail isn’t possible.
It might not be feasible to build an accessible trail up a high mountain peak, Zeller said. Trail designers may also find too much of the natural setting will be altered to make it accessible.
“The point for people to take a hike is to enjoy that outdoor recreational setting,” she said. If an accessible trail will alter that, then “don’t do it.” Zeller said it’s important to note exceptions and document as much as possible.
To learn more, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation at http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/accessibility.
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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