Accessibility in Our National Parks

Sprawling prairies, rising mountains, and crystal-clear lakes are just some of the beautiful landscapes that the United States has to offer. Add in some historic knowledge, cultural sites, and learning opportunities about geology, wildlife, and ecosystems, and you’ve got yourself just a taste of what national parks and sites have to offer. National parks aim to be for all Americans, but has it always been this way? Is it really available for everyone?

Unfortunately, national parks have not always been inclusive. Many parks have struggled with accessibility for all its visitors for years. There are many people who live with visual, auditory, physical, or mental disabilities who are not able to achieve the same experiences in national parks as everyone else. Many parks have physical limitations within their systems, whether it be steep hiking trails or a lack of tactile information in a visitor center, and these obstacles need to be overcome.

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Avalanche Lake hike with off-road wheelchair ©NPS/Jacob W. Frank

When there’s a rocky trail or river to cross on foot, how can we ensure that all people are able to visit these places without altering the landscape? Many campgrounds, facilities, parking lots, sidewalks, and interpretive programs are not always accessible to differently abled individuals. This then limits the amount of people who visit these places, as well as diminishes the ability of visitors and their companions to fully enjoy the park. In an article published in the National Geographic, a visitor who had a son in a wheelchair said that she used to carry her son around the parks so that he could see the scenery that were obstructed by barriers on trails(Djossa, 2018). Thankfully, there have been some new developments in the past few years that have been aimed towards  fixing the accessibility problem faced by  national parks across the country.

In 2006, Sue Masica, the then Associate Director of Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands for the National Park Service, released a statement that acknowledged the lack of accessible facilities in US national parks and discussed plans to fix many of the issues that the NPS had long been aware of. Many buildings in the 400+ national sites were built in the 1960s or earlier, before accessibility options were made a requirement by the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act. Additionally, Masica  shared in her statement that the NPS was working on creating guidelines to help park planners manage natural landscapes in a way that meets the needs of visitors but also does not damage or harm their natural landscapes.

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Fully Accessible Interdune Boardwalk in White Sand Dunes National Monument ©NPS 2019

Changes both large and small are occurring in parks all over the NPS System. Arches National Park now has barrier-free trails and audio-visual programming (NPS website), White Sands National Monument has a new 900-foot wheelchair-accessible interdune boardwalk with interpretative rangers onsite, at Cowpens National Battlefield in South Carolina, Braille and audio tapes were installed to enable visually impaired visitors to experience the information presented in the visitor center, and at Joshua Tree National Park, a day-use area was re-done by developing four new accessible picnic sites and re-constructing 1,420 linear feet of surfaced walkways (Masica, 2006).

A major move towards continuing accessibility-related developments in our national parks was made with the creation of the Accessibility Task Force. In 2012, the  National Park Service established the Accessibility Task Force with the goal of improving accessibility in over 400 National Parks and Sites throughout the United States. For the five-year period of 2015 to 2020, their three goals are: (1) to create a welcoming environment by increasing the ability of the National Park Service to serve visitors and staff with disabilities, (2) to ensure that new facilities and programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities, and (3) to upgrade existing facilities, programs, and services to be accessible to people with disabilities.

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Green River at Mammoth Cave National Park ©Bryan Woolson/AP

Of course, the question remains: how are the leaders and implementers of this project making these much-needed changes without compromising the natural features of the park that people come to see? According to Sue Masica’s 2006 statement, the NPS is working closely with the U.S. Access Board to develop facilities that are accessible for all but that also preserve the integrity of the natural sites. Accessibility remains the focal point of these new developments because one of the key missions of the NPS is to “ensure that visitors with disabilities can visit the parks, and to the greatest extent practical, have access to the same experiences and services provided to all visitors.” (Masica, 2006). There are many construction efforts that have been accomplished since then, and many projects are still underway.

Along with physical changes being made to the parks, another helpful development has been the introduction of the all-inclusive entrance pass that provides access to 2000+ interagency sites for visitors with permanent disabilities. Other than a one-time $10 processing fee, the pass is free for disabled individuals, as long as they are U.S. Citizens or permanent residents. Better still, the pass allows its owner to bring upto four additional visitors at no cost to sites within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), USDA Forest Service (USDA FS), National Park Service (NPS), and US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) (USGS.gov).

With all of these developing changes making National Parks more accessible, the hope is that more people with disabilities are encouraged to get outside and experience the joy and beauty of these natural areas. Our national sites are meant to be explored by all, so please, get out there and enjoy all that the national parks have to offer!

2018 Access Pass
Access Pass © USGS 2018

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