Few disabled people use accessible parks


,TC Although many scenic overlooks, fishing piers and campsites at Maryland parks and forests have been made accessible for the physically impaired in recent years, they are not being used as much as state officials had expected.

"Use is lagging behind availability," said Debbie Heller, a therapeutic recreation specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources. "We're trying to get people to utilize whatever we have. People don't use access areas nearly enough."

Maryland has spent about $1.5 million to renovate buildings and recreational areas at its 30 state parks and 10 state forests, Ms. Heller said.

DNR officials have sought to make at least one facility at each site accessible to the disabled, some as part of renovation projects, others as new improvements. Many state parks have accessible picnic tables, restrooms and parking areas.

"We have access to just about everything statewide," Ms. Heller said. "While not every park is totally accessible, there is something in every park that is, whether it's trails, cabins or playgrounds."

Accessible recreational equipment also is offered at some parks, such as pontoon boats at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, and water wheelchairs at Assateague State Park in Worcester County and Greenbriar State Park in Washington County.

"I think people just don't know about them," Ms. Heller said.

Groups such as Dateable, a dating service and social group for individuals with disabilities and others, generally applaud the state's efforts.

"I think they're coming along very well," said Robert Watson, executive director of the Chevy Chase-based group. "The state parks we've been in have been very accessible, but I think the state still has a ways to go."

Ms. Heller said that DNR officials are planning improvements at other parks in Baltimore and Frederick counties. She said renovation is costly.

Many parks facilities were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s.

Accessibility may not be the only problem.

"A lot of these [accessible facilities] we've just never heard of before," said Carolyn Brown, director of the Brandenburg Center, a Cumberland residential facility for individuals with developmental disabilities.

"People in wheelchairs tend to think they just can't use these kinds of things. They know they can't take a wheelchair down a rocky cliff," she said.

John Mash, a DNR deputy regional manager, agreed.

"When most people see a forest or wildlife management area, they think they can't go there, especially if they're handicapped," Mr. Mash said.

Such may be the case with a scenic overlook at Green Ridge State Forest that affords a sweeping view of the rugged valley between Town Hill and Green Ridge Mountain, where oaks and maples are coloring the forest in brilliant hues of crimson and orange.

The pristine view -- from one of five overlooks at the 40,000-acre forest in eastern Allegany County -- was formerly one that users of wheelchairs and other physically impaired visitors could not reach.

However, DNR officials made the overlook accessible earlier this month by replacing a rocky, sloping trail with a 340-foot path of crushed stone dust and boardwalk.

"We're trying to tell people . . . they can use these facilities," Mr. Mash said.

Francis Zumbrun, forest manager at Green Ridge State Forest, said that DNR plans to post a sign advertising the accessible overlook on Interstate 68, which runs through the forest's northern end.

Park officials also are looking at making other overlooks accessible to the disabled and providing accessible portable restrooms for after-hours use.

"People often have trouble getting this kind of information," Ms. Heller said. "They're not going to go 20 miles off the beaten path if they don't know if there's anything accessible.

"The challenge is to get the information out there," she said.

She said that the focus for many disabled individuals in recent years has been on making sure that other public facilities, such as schools and government buildings and transportation, are accessible.

"Recreation has been a lost area," she said. "I think we have done a lot in the eyes of everybody, but outdoor recreation is only something that has become recently available. I think use will come in time."

State officials and others, she said, have to help the disabled overcome other barriers, including lack of transportation to recreational areas, lack of skills in using equipment and facilities and the absence of marketing and information about the sites.

Ms. Heller said that officials are organizing a volunteer group to provide transportation and help the disabled develop outdoor skills.

"It's something we're working on -- an Outdoor Partners Program," she said. "It will take a lot of people statewide to do this. We want everyone in Maryland to be able to enjoy the great outdoors."

Ms. Brown said that the responsibility for promoting the facilities and helping the handicapped use them goes beyond state officials.

"I think all of us working with those with disabilities need to help educate the public. We all bear the responsibility of promoting these ideas," she said.

Bill Cihlar, manager of the state's Allegany County parks and forests, said that everyone benefits.

"If you enable the disabled, it makes it great for everyone," he said, noting that the new trail to the Green Ridge overlook is easier for everyone, including the elderly and parents pushing strollers.

"We always see more intensive use by everyone when we build these kinds of trails. They're just wonderful to walk on."

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