Help us make state parks accessible to everyone | Opinion

·3 min read
Guests enjoy renovations at Rish Park.
Guests enjoy renovations at Rish Park.

Florida is well-known by residents and visitors as a top-notch destination for nature, aquatic and outdoor experiences, but these opportunities have not always been available to everyone. Over the years, many innovations have expanded access to the outdoors for people with disabilities, ensuring they may have positive, memorable experiences in Florida’s natural environment and award-winning state parks.

As an individual who loves our state parks and uses a mobility assistive device, I personally know the impact of creating accommodations that allow visitors to explore our natural wonders with their friends and families.

July is recognized as Disability Pride Month, and each July 26 marks the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a time to amplify the voices of members in the disability community, celebrate their important contributions and recognize what support is needed.

People, mostly from the state of Florida, were visiting Silver Springs State Park to kayak, hike or sightsee on the glass bottom boats, Monday June 6, 2022. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2022
People, mostly from the state of Florida, were visiting Silver Springs State Park to kayak, hike or sightsee on the glass bottom boats, Monday June 6, 2022. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2022

Through my work with the Florida State Parks Foundation, I have been proud to support efforts that make state park experiences more accessible for visitors with mobility assistance needs. Just within the last few years, we have completed the following projects through charitable partnerships:

  • ·      The first-ever accessible glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala. Since launch in August 2021 to May 2022, the new boat has made 156 total trips with 3,417 passengers, of which 1,698 used wheelchairs or other mobility devices.

  • ·      Wheelchair-accessible electric trams in operation at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (Santa Rosa Beach), Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (Fort Lauderdale) and John D. MacArthur Beach State Park (North Palm Beach), enabling more visitors to see firsthand the beautiful natural features at these state parks.

  • ·      Eight all-terrain wheelchairs provided to parks throughout Florida and 52 beach accessible wheelchairs delivered to all coastal state parks. These chairs can handle deep sand or rugged trails, giving users the ability to explore sandy beaches and nature or hiking trails.

  • ·      Ten floating wheelchairs provided to seven coastal state parks, allowing visitors to experience both sand and water.

  • ·      A new, ADA-compliant fishing pier at Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey that features areas of lowered rails so that seated visitors have unobstructed views and can cast fishing lines.

Rish Park, which has been closed for the last several years, was created with maximum accessibility in mind.
Rish Park, which has been closed for the last several years, was created with maximum accessibility in mind.

And the beginning of this year saw the re-opening of William J. ‘Billy Joe’ Rish Recreation Area in Port St. Joe, which is specifically designated for people with disabilities, their families and caregivers.

How can you support accessibility projects at Florida State Parks? Visit the Florida State Parks Foundation website to donate and leave a note identifying your gift as for the “Access for All” campaign. Also, share information with community members to help expand these efforts and strengthen partnership support of accessibility practices at our state parks.

Florida State Parks are for everyone to enjoy. Together, we can ensure that no one is left behind on the docks, at the sand line or at the trailhead due to mobility level.

Paula Russo
Paula Russo

Paula Russo is Director of Services, Florida State Parks Foundation Services, LLC.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Beyond the entrance gate: Creating accessible outdoors experiences at state parks | Opinion