By Lucille Gertz
Statewide Education Projects Manager, Massachusetts Audubon Society
Mass Audubon strives to welcome and engage a wide range of visitors. By making our nineteen nature centers more accessible, and by creating accessible trail experiences, we’re working hard to ensure that everyone can experience the nature of Massachusetts. We’ve already made a lot of progress. The public facilities at most of our centers are universally accessible, and we have several fully accessible trails. Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), eight more Mass Audubon centers now feature a multi-sensory interpretive trail affording a rich experience for visitors with a wide range of vision, hearing, and mobility levels.
The accessible interpreted trails each have a combination of these resources:
- Audio tours—available by cell phone, online, or on a borrowed audio player
- Trail information booklet—available online, in large print, and in Braille
- Trail map—available in printed and tactile formats
- Rope/post guiding system
- Stops that are designed for sensory-rich audio and tactile exploration
- Signage along the trail marking the stops with large print and Braille
- Improved trail surfacing and wider boardwalks with safety edging
- Accessible seating areas
- Orientation materials and information panels
- Visitor services staff and volunteers who have been trained in accessibility regulations, customer service, and etiquette
While developing these trails, we learned some important things. We engaged accessibility consultants, local resource professionals, volunteers, and supporters on each project, and we cannot overstate the value of testing all ideas, plans, and proposed content with target audiences. Second, tester input helped us better understand the need for transportation information and physical accessibility upgrades needed at our centers. Finally, we learned to design trail experiences, balancing safety with the authenticity of an outdoor experience. While visitors must be safely navigated around hazardous rocks, trees, and other vegetation, we still highlight the natural features, textures, smells, sounds, and changes in elevation and microclimates.
“I used to go to my local Mass Audubon nature center and spend a few hours sitting on the deck listening to birds. I enjoyed the experience, but it was limited. I could smell the flowers and listen to the birds, but that was about all I could do. Now that an accessible trail has been completed there, today, I can go back to that same place without assistance. On the mile-long, rope-guided trail, I can independently walk through a butterfly garden, visit the bird blind, examine and learn about various types of tree bark, visit and learn about a wetland and a frog pond, touch a 90-foot tall oak tree that was there when Teddy Roosevelt was president, and put my hands in a fountain containing a tactile representation of the local watershed. That’s a big difference. These accessibility enhancements have made a huge difference to me personally, and I know they have to other people with disabilities also.”
IMLS support has boosted our efforts and our momentum to continue making strides. To date, ten accessible interpreted trails are completed, and three more are in development. Our website and printed guide “Places to Explore” now prominently feature accessibility information. We regularly advise other organizations seeking to develop similar trails. In 2015, we plan to produce a manual to share our experience and the guidelines we established, and will follow up as we develop ten more accessible interpreted trails across the Commonwealth.
Lucille Gertz, Statewide Education Projects Manager at Mass Audubon, works with 19 staffed nature centers to strengthen visitor experience and to provide resources to help visitors and program participants experience, understand, and protect the nature of Massachusetts.