• Zeyad Ghulam

A Glimpse at the United States National Park Services and Integrating Accessibility

This post is based on interview with Jeremy Buzzell in the Assistive Technology Update podcast titled, “ATU449 – National Park Accessibility with Jeremy Buzzell”. Audio recording and a transcript of the podcast can be found here.

This photo shows a sign for the National Park Service (NPS) at the Grand Canyon.
A sign for the National Park Service (NPS).

What is the NPS?

National Park Services (NPS), based in Washington DC, is focused on providing technical support and assistance for the 419 national parks around the United Sates. The NPS aims to make facilities, programs, services and employment accessible for visitors and employees with disabilities.

NPS acts like a consultation/facilitation group. They do a lot of work with policy, as well as serve as a hub for coordinating with national disability groups. NPS focuses on baking in accessibility into everything and that it is everyone’s job. It is tremendously important to have staff armed with this knowledge. Take for example, an employee that is standing behind a desk at the visitor center: what will they do if someone with a disability shows up and asks for something?

Everyone at national parks must be familiar with policies, processes and knowledge to be able to address the visitors’ needs on the spot! This is why NPS provides a great deal of resources to facilitate and improve staff training and training programs.

Park Locations and Modern Infrastructure

Often there is a big misconception of associating NPS with overlooking activities in remote communities that are hard to reach; many people do not realize that the 419 national parks span across many areas and jurisdictions where there is public transportation available including urban areas. Some examples of urban national parks include the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. You can find a complete list of national parks by using the Find a Park by State tool.

Resource protection and providing accessibility are the two elements that act as the basis of modern infrastructure planning and adaptation. Adopting modern infrastructure is always an ongoing process. Some of the recent adoptions include:

  • Grand Canyon – the presence of a really long paved trail in the South rim of the Grand Canyon.

  • Yellowstone – the addition of boardwalks across the entire park to keep visitors on the right path away from the grass.

Many more examples of modern infrastructure implementations by the NPS can be found here. Simply browse any national park and read over the latest updates.

Increasing Accessibility at National Parks

As mentioned earlier, NPS acts as a consultant where challenges and code compliance issues are submitted by local national parks for NPS to make recommendations and suggest creative solutions. Working on facilitating accessible campgrounds and picnic areas is definitely challenging for local national parks to take care of alone, as these areas were traditionally not viewed as accessible. This is a prime example where NPS steps in and gives national parks a hand for the sake of facilitating better accessibility for all.

Another area where NPS also helps is connecting parks with local disability groups to say, “Hey, can you help them problem solve this so that we know it is meeting the needs of the disability community, particularly the mobile disability community?”

Where to find Accessible Resources

Simply navigate to the plan your visit tab on the www.nps.gov website. Then select the accessibility option from the drop-down menu. Each park will have an accessibility webpage. The intention is to provide some information about what accessibility features are present at which park. Paved trails, boardwalks, audio description guides, and guided tours are some of the accessible features available to the public.

This photo is a screenshot of the navigation through the NPS website. A drop down menu under the Plan Your Visit section shows a link to the accessibility section.
A screenshot of a user navigating through the NPS website.

Based on going through a couple of parks, it can be said that while the majority of national parks have an accessibility webpage which provides a comprehensive list of different accessibility features available, there are some parks that currently do not report the presence of accessibility features at their parks or have outdated lists. It is clear though that a commitment is there, and an accessible infrastructure is on its way!

What is the most accessible national park?

There are certain parks that excel in one category but lack in another. It can be argued that one park is more accessible than the other in one certain aspect or as a whole …. But what is accessibility and who comes up with these rankings?

Jeremy Buzzell, the branch chief for accessibility management program for the NPS, said in an interview in the Assistive Technology Update podcast the following:

So that’s why we really are trying to focus on universal design and focus on baking that in, as well as focus on not telling our audience what features are or are not accessible in a park, and rather providing information about the features that allow someone to make his or her own decisions about whether that trail is accessible to him or her, rather than say, ‘This is an accessible trail,’ or, ‘It is not an accessible trail.’ Well that really depends on who you are and what kind of experience you have. So we don’t want to be in that position.”

Someone can view an activity as accessible whereas someone else in the very same park who experiences the same type of disability may think of it as not being accessible. It all boils down to an individual’s previous experience and past interactions. So, our job is not to decide what is or is not accessible, but to raise awareness of the different features available at different national parks.

What have you learned about the United States NPS and how can we implement/adopt positive change to Parks Canada? Let’s chat.

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