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"Seeing" the National Parks

"Seeing" the National Parks - by Laura Griffiths, July 2017

The National Parks in our country are a treasure that should be enjoyed by every US citizen. Wishing to see them while I still had vision, I recently had the privilege of touring thirty-five of the parks, as well as a couple of National Historic Sites, with my fully-sighted husband. I have retinitis pigmentosa, which causes night blindness, light sensitivity, and a shrinking visual field. While it was a spectacular experience, there was definitely room for improvement with regard to accessibility for those who are blind or have low vision.

Audio description was another source of frustration. Most parks offer a video at the Visitor's Center, which provides a history, description, and/or orientation to the park. These can be wonderful, even if you can't actually see the park itself. I was absolutely delighted when a ranger approached me at one park (I think it was Black Canyon of the Gunneson) and asked if I was interested in the video description. What a pleasure to actually be told what was on the screen! From then on, we made a point of asking about video description at each park, but more often than not, I was disappointed. We were usually told they either did not have audio description, or did not even know what it was. (How many of us have had to explain that, no, we are not deaf?) A few of the rangers either couldn't find the audio description or did not know how to set it up. Once I was asked to come back the next day, so they would have time to figure it out. Only three times in our travels was I actually able to attend a film with audio description. It took persistence, but what a difference it made!

In spite of the challenges, I would encourage everyone who can to take advantage of this priceless national treasure. Highlights included the awe-inspiring views of Crater Lake and Mt. Rainier; the exhilaration of a mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon; feeling the splash of raging waterfalls or tramping through a snow field in Yosemite in June; smelling the damp earth and spring vegetation in Fern Valley at Redwood or walking the pebble beaches of Olympic; witnessing a profusion of cactus blooms in the heat of Death Valley; listening to the mud pots boiling at Lassen Volcanic NP; paddling a kayak down Rio Grande in Big Bend; tasting the delicious fruit pies from the orchards of Capitol Reef; and enjoying the isolation of Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Michigan. Perhaps the most exhilarating moment came when riding horseback through the woods of Stahekin Ranch, in North Cascades. When my horse suddenly began to "dance" I instinctively grabbed the saddle horn. That kept me from being thrown when he bolted after confronting a rattlesnake! (Why our trail guide had the blind lady leading the group is another story for another day.) Every park had its own character and charm, and I wouldn't skip a single one.

If you are fortunate enough to get to visit the parks, here are a few recommendations:

1. Plan accommodations in advance, as the parks draw big crowds, particularly in summer. We drove in our minivan and stayed in budget motels, where you usually get free breakfast and free wi-fi.

2. Be sure to pack a hat or visor, as well as assorted sunglasses if you are light sensitive. In the blinding white heat of the southwest I often wore wrap-around sunglasses over my clip-ons! And don't forget to dress in layers, as temperatures vary drastically from valley to mountaintop.

3. If you have a limited visual field, a reverse monocular device may be helpful for bringing the sweeping vistas into your view. I enjoyed this atop Rocky Mountain and on the cliffs of Channel Island, among others.

4. If you use a cane: wheelchair accessible trails are great. But very few rangers understood the challenges of hiking
rough or rock-strewn terrain. In retrospect, I would recommend a pair of hiking poles - especially for steep, rocky trails. I have also used a saucer-shaped tip which can be helpful on grass and packed sand or gravel.

Fortunately my husband was very patient, and did his best to warn me of obstacles on the paths. A trail that was supposed to take about an hour would take me closer to two hours - but of course stopping to take a close look at every animal, cactus or wildflower probably added considerably to the time spent!

I am aware that our national parks are strapped for funding. I am also painfully aware that too few blind or vision impaired people seem to visit them. Perhaps this is a chicken-egg situation. But it is unreasonable to expect our government to invest in ranger training or audio description if these services are not being used. It is therefore up to us to take some responsibility. I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to do so to get out and experience these fabulous natural resources. Only if we do so, and request accessibility to at least some of what they have to offer, can we expect to see an improvement in accommodations for the blind and vision impaired. And when we are accommodated, let us not forget to express our sincere thanks to those who take the time and effort to make it possible.

Laura Griffith
Red Rose Council of the Blind
Lancaster, PA

Addendum:
On a recent visit to Acadia National Park in Maine, I was pleased to find that this is one of the very few parks to offer audio description for the film at the visitor's center. Although the young man at the desk did not know when asked, he checked with his supervisor, and quickly returned with working headphones. When I thanked the supervisor personally, he asked me to fill out a comment card. This is an important way to both make requests and express thanks for the things they are doing right. (Note: There are fifty-two steps from the parking lot to the visitor's center. However, we were told there are a ramp and an elevator behind the center for those who need them.)

NOTE:  We list all we know about AD accommodations at National Parks on our Museums & Tours page!