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How accessible recreation facilities benefit everyone

If we are not accommodating these folks in our programs and facilities, we are ignoring most of our customers.

By R. Brian Kermeen

photo: Boardwalk and fishing access facility
Boardwalk and fishing access facility

Like most areas managed by the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the central Sierra Nevada has steep and mountainous terrain. Most of our facilities evolved over time or were designed 30 years ago with no consideration for the needs of persons with disabilities. This is also true of the nearby communities. I am frequently asked why we should bother to build special facilities for people with disabilities. "They never come here anyway." I wonder why! It's as if people think we are doing this for somebody who does not exist.

The main thrust of my presentation will relate to the needs of people with disabilities, but there are many aspects of access that go beyond them. The needs of people with mobility impairment, those in wheelchairs, come to mind first when thinking of disabilities. Like the spotted owl, these folks are the "indicator species" of the human race. If their needs are taken care of in our facilities and programs, the needs of many other users are also satisfied better. So that we may establish a common vocabulary here I offer the following definitions:

Access-- The means by which an individual acquires information or an experience. Access management can be used to encourage or prevent access depending on our objectives.

Barrier-free access-- An ideal that strives to eliminate situations that prevent access. Barriers can be attitudinal, physical, social, or communicative.

Isolated barrier-free access-- Segregated facilities or pro grams that remove the individual from the mainstream of activity. This is what we did in the 1970's.

Integrated barrier-free access-- Facilitates participation into the mainstream for all participants through careful consideration of their different physical, mental, and social needs. This is the "one size fits all" approach to serving the people, which we call universal design.

How many of you have an official disability? Who can't read without glasses or contacts? Do you have a hearing aid, bladder bag, AIDS, epilepsy, or any other medical condition? Are you pregnant? Have you ever been burdened with the care of a dependent? Are you under 5-feet tall? You are vertically impaired! Have you ever broken or sprained a foot, leg, or arm? Were you born? You spent the first several years of your life totally dependent on others, but you probably forgot what it was like. Congratulations... you are all members of the club! Most of us are lucky enough to be temporarily able-bodied most of our lives. We must remember that we didn't start that way, and we may not finish that way. With improved health care and longer lives, most of us in this room will outlive our ability to get around and about in a normal way.

Universal Design Benefits Everyone

Access for all! If we are not accommodating these folks in our programs and facilities, we are ignoring most of our customers. Customer satisfaction has been discussed a lot in recent years. Effective access management is a vital prerequisite for success here. We cannot ignore 57 percent of our customers. Universal design is subtle when it is done correctly. Careful planning and good design prevent obtrusive "special" features. Are all of you familiar with the two biggest lies? "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you," and "One size fits all." When it comes to universal design, these statements are truth, to the extent possible anyway. The "one size fits all" approach to design is quickly being recognized as the norm. The design guide soon to be published presents specific criteria that can be easily applied. Through the access program we will build on this base incorporating access concepts into many other programs.

Expanding to Include Cultural Considerations

Multiculturalism has replaced the melting pot social theories of the past. One way of looking at persons with severe disabilities is that they are members of a distinct culture. People born deaf think differently than the rest of us, for example. Universal design in combination with ROS (recreation opportunity spectrum) gives us a planning tool to incorporate the known needs of first generation emigrants who desire to recreate in larger groups. If our facilities are designed for the able-bodied nuclear family of the Ozzie and Harriet era, then we have a conflict. Once this is known and incorporated into the planning process, we may accommodate the need, enabling use by different cultures without conflict.

Universal design facilitates participation, freedom of choice, and integration. Much progress has been made in the use of information. International signing is helpful to non-English speaking customers. We are beginning to understand and research can help. Our President recently visited Australia and made a mistake. He flashed the "V" symbol to a crowd and they were shocked! In Australia that means something very different... here we use only one finger! This illustrates the need to more fully understand the cultural context of our symbols, gestures, and words. When we have a relationship with our publics, this naturally occurs. At the field level, it is possible to have a rich and rewarding relationship with the public, not unlike a marriage. This is very different than a "public affair" a one-night stand where familiarity is shallow.

Integrated Administrative Approach

For an agency to most effectively develop an access pro gram there must be collaboration and a holistic focus. In the Forest Service this means a team composed of recreation, civil rights, engineering, and information managers. The fragmented approach cannot implement the vision shared here today. We can not ignore our own internal policies while we seek to implement a program for the public. If our own offices and employment policies contain barriers, how can we be effective with our partners and the public? When we advance both employment and public issues simultaneously, there is synergy. The President supported the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Chief of the Forest Service wants the agency to be the employer of choice for persons with disabilities. When you consider that we lag far behind the private sector, this is a worthwhile goal. When it is understood that more money is spent on welfare for unemployed persons with disabilities than is spent on the National Defense, it makes both good economic and moral sense. Joe Meade in the Washington office chairs a committee that is structured in this way. Joe is also the national access coordinator.

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