Outdoor Recreation Opportunity Day Article
We All Chase The Same Dreams . . .
by Carole Fraser
The winged and furry creatures that make their home near the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar went about their usual fall morning activities. Chipmunks collected food stores, bees created honeycombs and Aries, the resident barred owl, occasionally filled the Visitor Center with his haunting call. Among the many visitors to the Center that day, would be people learning about and understanding their natural world in many different ways.
Each year, Five Rivers opens its wooded trails and wildlife-friendly gardens to an Inclusive Outdoor Recreation Opportunity Day in recognition of National Disability Awareness Month. People of all abilities are brought together to experience new ways to recreate in the outdoors. Every activity and exhibit is designed to have a universally understandable component. In addition to introducing people with disabilities to adaptive equipment and the accessible environment at Five Rivers, the event has become an educational experience for people without disabilities who are also invited to participate.
This type of experience builds upon what Congress had in mind when it designated October as Disability Awareness Month - to advance attitudes of consideration and respect for people with disabilities through events that foster their abilities and skills. Approximately one in five Americans has a disability, and in spite of that large percentage, much needs to be done to enable people with disabilities to fully participate in our communities. The event at Five Rivers is one of "We All Chase The Same Dreams" campaign, promoted by a local team consisting of individuals with disabilities, community-based organizations and state agencies including the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The idea for a specialized event relating to outdoor recreation arose from the need to get the word out about accessible areas and facilities on state lands.
In recent years, DEC has created wheelchair accessible campsites, fishing piers, picnic areas, equestrian mounting platforms, trails and waterway access sites across the state and has increased efforts to make all programs and services inclusive. This Universal Design approach invites people to become active in outdoor recreation, which in turn supports a healthy quality of life. Many people with disabilities have not traditionally sought the benefits of outdoor recreation because they have been deterred by its challenges. By attending an outreach event at an accessible facility, people can discover for themselves the enjoyment and ease of access that Universal Design provides.
Five Rivers was selected as it contained all the necessary ingredients for a universally accessible event. The Center has ample designated parking, accessible restrooms and two of their nine trails are designed to be wheelchair accessible, which also makes them perfect for families with children in strollers. There are many benches along the trails for resting and the Woodlot Trail has a hand rail. Wheelchairs and an electric scooter are available as well as trail guides in Braille, large print and audio versions. In addition, the education staff at Five Rivers have received training to make them aware of the needs of people with various types of disabilities. The Outdoor Recreation Day made use of all of these amenities, as a wide variety of activities were scheduled throughout the day.
The Student Naturalists at Five Rivers presented sensory-focused tours on the wheelchair accessible trails and acted as sighted guides for the blind. A sign language interpreter accompanied the deaf and each exhibit contained inclusive elements. Staff from the DEC demonstrated how to set up a typical campsite and provided information on the many new accessible areas on state lands for people to visit and enjoy. The Adaptive Sports Foundation, an organization which provides outdoor activities for people with disabilities, brought handcycles and a tricycle for people to try. The Y-Knot sailing group, which operates on Lake George, displayed two beautiful sailboats this year to entice people to learn how to sail.
Inside the Visitor Center, there were educational exhibits with tactile elements such as the table draped with the skulls and skins of common wildlife. A taste of honey was available at the plexiglass beehive and drawings of different tree species were mounted on poster board and outlined with beads of glue. The drawings contained a reference point with the height of an average person near the trunk. The first person to discover the height of a full grown oak with this new reference remarked "You've got to be kidding me." As a person who is blind, she had not imagined the height of the trees she found on the trail.
A popular exhibit featured wildlife that was unable to be returned to the wild due to injury or disability. The animals, now having a new purpose in life of providing education, conveyed a silent message to the children and adults that handled them, that life after injury and disability goes on and provides new opportunities.
Columnist and lifelong birder, Chris Keefer, was the featured speaker for the afternoon and presented an animated introduction to birding with beautiful slides and personally provided amazing bird song and sound imitations. Birding is a wonderfully inclusive hobby as identification may be done by ear by those who cannot see and by eye for those who cannot hear. Birdwatching can easily be done from a stationary position, as if you are patient, the birds will come to you.
The sign language interpreter, who volunteered for the event, invited her parents who are both deaf and had never visited Five Rivers before. They were impressed enough by Five Rivers that they discussed creating a presentation for their senior citizens group in hopes of arranging a field trip for the group in the future. They remarked that they had learned much throughout the day. From the smiling faces of the families and other visitors that happened into the day of inclusive events, it appeared that people also learned about one another in keeping with the theme of the Disability Awareness Month campaign, "We all chase the same dreams, but we have different ways to get there." By recreating together, we take steps toward a more inclusive society, separating the person from the disability in our minds.