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Lucy Gertz: When someone says, you know, “I love nature, I don’t have many opportunities to be alone in nature but because you built this trail, my wife can drop me off at the trailhead and she can come back an hour later and I can be completely alone in nature, which is a very unusual treat for me.”
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. We’re joined today by Lucy Gertz, she is the statewide education projects manager at Mass Audubon and you are doing some really groundbreaking work around accessibility in the outdoors. I think you know we’re pretty interested in this topic here at the Mass Cultural Council. We’ve launched a program called, UP, Universal Programs and Universal Places, that it’s really built on making Massachusetts the most accessible place on the planet to participate in the arts and culture but this is work you’ve been doing for quite some time, tell us a little about how you got into it?
Lucy Gertz: I’d be happy to, thanks for having me. In 2008, some of our sanctuary committee members at one of our sites asked if they could give us 5000 dollars to..
Anita Walker: And you said, “Really?”
Lucy Gertz: Designated to re-open what was then known as a, “Braille trail,” that had been neglected and overgrown so I was asked to start working with these committee members and donors and the trail was very rocky, it was completely overgrown with poison ivy. It was going to be nearly impossible to turn that into kind of a safe, wonderful trail but right next to it was a cart path that looked practically ADA compliant. So I worked with the donors and convinced them to move the location and make the trail more universally accessible and we had an eagle scout work with us, we had the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation provided a lot of help and for that 5000 dollars we were able to open what we call our first accessible interpreted trail at Mass Audubon.
Anita Walker: So talk to me about what are some of the features about a truly accessible trail and obviously in the olden days it was about having the signs in braille so the people who couldn’t see could at least get the information, it’s a lot more than that now?
Lucy Gertz: Definitely. So first we have to make sure the trail is physically ADA compliant so that was.. there was some grading and you know, elevation work and some.. removing some barriers and then we put up a fencing with a rope guide, posts and beams fencing with a rope guide so that a visually-impaired visitor could follow the rope guide. All of our trails don’t have rope guides but this first one did and we needed some sort of tactile cue system for letting them know where the stops would be so all of the trails have a one-hour.. approximately one-hour interpretive experience. So each one has anywhere from 10 to 12 stops and so one of the first successful features beside the ADA compliance is some sort of navigational system so we have that on most or all of our trails. Then we have the stops marked with these posts and if you’re following the rope guide, there’s a bead. A round bead lets you know you’re at an interpretive stop and the sign is right nearby and the sign is printed in large print and braille and if there’s a cell phone connected to the site’s audio interpretation, a phone number is also put on that sign in print and in braille. So that is how visitors know, you know, how to progress on the trail. At each stop they can get the interpretation in a few different formats so if the site has good cell phone coverage signal, good signal strength, we can attach it to a cell phone tour. We put the audio tour on a cell phone and they can reach it, you know, by simply phoning the number. Some sites don’t have a good cell phone signal and some visitors don’t have a cell phone they can use or want to use so we also have Victor Stream Readers which are very popular book readers for people who are visually impaired or completely blind. So we’ve been loading those with the audio tour and we have those available for loan and visitors can also download the audio tour ahead of time off the website if they wanna put it on their own iPod or their own audio device. So having the interpretation in as many different formats as possible has been really key. We had to add.. on most of the trails since the original trail we’ve learned how to add accessibility-friendly seating areas and make other trail improvements. We have tactile learning activities at the stations so it’s not just talking to them about what to listen for or look for or smell. We also have stops where they can actually feel things we’ve set up for them to do, like life cycles on a butterfly or compare bark textures or things.
Anita Walker: So, how do people know about this? It’s one thing to design a trail that is accessible to all but it’s another thing to let people know that it’s there and they really can participate?
Lucy Gertz: That’s a great question because outreach has been a really important part of this project so for each of the trails and we now have 11, they’re all over the state, we’re going to eventually have 20. So we’re more than halfway there but on the 11 trails we’ve done so far each trail has been developed with a team of staff and volunteers connected to the site, who know the site really well and can help create the interpretation but also we’ve brought in accessibility consultants and local resource professionals and those local resource professionals have been incredibly helpful in the outreach endeavor. So they get us testers, we’ve had expert users test all the trails and development, we wouldn’t finish anything without that input, that’s been incredibly helpful, and the outreach.. the resource professionals have also provided a great deal of outreach because they work with all sorts of audiences and they’ve often sent people or brought people to the trails, they help advertise the trails.
Anita Walker: So if I were an organization thinking about accessibility.. so you mentioned two things and I wanna dig a little deeper into these two resources. One, user experts and two, you talked about resource professionals. So first of all, what is a user expert?
Lucy Gertz: A user expert is someone who can work with us and bring the perception or the perspective of someone who needs accessibility accommodations. So we have people who use mobility devices, people who have vision challenges or even who are completely blind. We’ve had users with cognitive challenges so we.. for each trail we typically had five to seven expert users come, one or more times to help us identify the stops, provide navigation for one stop to the next if needed, help us use the language that helps them understand everything we’re trying to explain at that stop.
Anita Walker: You talked about resource professionals, for example, who are these people?
Lucy Gertz: So, one resource professional was the program director at the Stavros Center for Independent Living. He, himself is a wheelchair user. He not only brought testers with him and traveled the trail and gave us all sorts of pointers, he actually went through the building which at the time it was built was considered ADA compliant and he made us a punch list of about 10 things we had to fix that would help upgrade to current standards. You know, for example, in the men’s room the mirror wasn’t tilted right so he couldn’t use it. The back door from the accessible nature center to get out to the accessible deck that starts the.. where the trail starts, it required too much pressure to open the door. He gave us a checklist, we worked our way down that checklist and then he continues to bring people to the trail. So he was a resource professional that.. many roles wrapped up into one.
Anita Walker: So this is not just about serving people with disabilities for the right reasons, this is audience development too?
Lucy Gertz: Oh absolutely. We’ve had.. these trails are used by everyone and so we’re getting more visitors and a broader group of visitors but there are lots of families and individuals and groups who don’t necessarily need the accessibility accommodations but they’re more comfortable on these wider, smoother trails. They’re not worried about poison ivy and ticks and getting lost because the trails are so well marked and so well maintained, they’re very welcoming for beginners.
Anita Walker: So it’s access for all really is what it’s all about?
Lucy Gertz: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: I can imagine that probably one reason that we don’t see more of what you’re doing is fear. Fear that, “Oh my gosh, if I ask too many questions it’s gonna cost me too much money. We can’t do it, they’re gonna find a million things wrong, I don’t even wanna open that can of worms up.”
Lucy Gertz: Yes, and we never say that we’ve arrived at, you know.. “We’re at completion.” It’s always, “It’s a spectrum, we’re getting as accessible as we can. We’re trying to be as inclusive as we can with these trail experiences.” There are always things we can do better and the trails also get impacted by nature so we have to resurface and trees fall down and we have to fix things and so we’re never done because of where the trails are anyway ’cause they’re outside but, you know, we make them as accessible as we can.
Anita Walker: How did you get over the fear though of sometimes not being perfect?
Lucy Gertz: Well the accessibility consultants have helped me tremendously. I have four accessibility consultants that have been with me the whole time since the first project. We’ve done all 11 trails together and we did not have any guidelines when we started this together. We have figured out a lot of this and people are calling us now and saying, “How do you do this,” and, that’s another project we’re working on is creating best practices.. materials for other groups because we’re getting so many increased but there are a lot of guidelines for access.. access areas but not a lot of guidelines for recreational trails so we’ve had to make some of this up and figure it out ourselves. So that eliminates a lot of our feeling like we have to be perfect because a lot of it was experimentation.
Anita Walker: So what are some of your big takeaways, some of the big learnings, especially for those who have outdoor environments or outdoor trails that they’re interested in making more accessible?
Lucy Gertz: Well, one of my biggest learnings was.. and I’m so glad I had this experience on the first trail because I think people might tend to develop a plan and build these trails without getting a lot of input and I think tester– the expert users.. we call them testers before we were in the UP network, now we call them expert users, their input completely turned around some of the plans we had and strengthened our products and our process so much and I don’t.. I wouldn’t dream of doing it without that input. I didn’t know that was how it was gonna be but after the first trail I learned how valuable that was and I just kept using expert users.
Anita Walker: So there’s a difference between reading guidelines and then having real people actually come and really use the trail or exhibit or whatever else that you may be building?
Lucy Gertz: Yes.. yeah, I think we came up with the bead system ourselves. We don’t even remember but we didn’t know how to mark.. how to give a tactile cue for the stops and one of our testers or accessibility consultants suggested the bead system, so that’s what we have. We have a round bead for an interpretive stop. We have a square bead, that means there’s seating nearby and one of our trails had.. it was linear, it went down a hill and then back up and we wanted stops both going down and up because the tester said it was too hard physically to come back up without stopping a few times. So we ended up having ten of the stops go down and then we saved three or four for the way back. So we needed a third kind of bead to indicate, “Yes, it’s a stop but we don’t want you to stop here ’til you’re on your way back up the hill.” <laughs> So we made like a wheel, a wooden wheel. I don’t know if we’ll ever need a fourth kind of bead but we’ll have to come up with one if we do.
Anita Walker: Have you ever had any big surprises in terms of somebody coming and you just couldn’t figure out how to give them a good experience?
Lucy Gertz: Probably, yeah. Yeah, I mean I do have a collection of accessibility bloopers that we’ve experienced and we use them to learn, we learn from them.
Anita Walker: Alright, so give us a blooper?
Lucy Gertz: So, one of the most recent bloopers was a visitor who showed up with a service dog and we had just finished the training about service. We actually had to write.. because more visitors were coming to these trails with service animals, even though we have a no pets policy at our wildlife sanctuaries, we had to come up with a way to be inclusive to people who show up with service animals.. to be inviting and welcoming and make it work. So we had help from one of our accessibility consultants. She had worked with other groups in helping. She gave us examples of service animal policies from zoos and visiting farms, places where the public go where there are animals because we do have two or three sites with live animals on exhibit and farm animals and it was really important to us to protect the native species that are all over the sanctuary and the animals on display. So, we went through this.. we developed.. it was not a policy ’cause the policy is, “Anybody with a service animal can go anywhere the public’s invited.” You know that’s the.. those are the regs, that’s important to uphold that law and let people do what they have the right to do but we were cautious about what our visitor services personnel would do so we developed a statement and put it on our website and trained all of our sites and said, “Okay, if somebody shows up with a working animal, this is.. you know, you wanna protect the animal, you wanna protect the handler, and you wanna protect the wildlife and the animals on display, and here’s how zoos do it, here’s how farms do it,” and this.. it’s like a message you give to the visitor. If they call ahead or if they show up, these are the things you wanna tell them that we wanna be careful and you know, if you’re service animal is having a not great encounter with a wild animal or an animal on display, we have staff who can you help you. We’ll.. you know, all the same things a zoo would have. So, a week after that training someone showed up with a service animal in training.. a puppy in training without any kind of certification or gear and explained to the person at the window at one of our sites that does have wildlife on display that this was a service animal, and it was like, “I don’t see any identification,” you know, and the person was not at our training and said, “You just.. you can’t bring the dog here,” and the trainer, the animal handler knew a lot about service animals, she trains them and she said, “No actually, I can,” and they had an exchange and the person staffing the visitor.. the admission’s desk, called someone else and said, “Can you give us some advice,” and the person they called hadn’t been to our training and gave the wrong advice and said, “You’re right, a dog can’t come here,” and they ended up sending the person away. That’s like a huge accessibility blooper. They’ve since resolved it, we’ve given her the red carpet treatment, she’s come many times with her service animals but I was horrified when that happened. We had just finished the training, we’d just finished the statement and we thought, we had arrived at some sort of good place with that and I realized we’ll never be done, there are always going to be those.. hopefully fewer and fewer of those but it’s a challenge. The cultural piece is a real challenge.
Anita Walker: As you know that’s why we call our program UP, it’s a direction, not a destination and we know we’re never gonna get there but we just keep getting better. I love the fact that you used the word blooper because that says you’re trying and trying means that, you know, you’ll trip once in a while but it means you’re still trying to get there and it also really hits home. You keep talking about the cultural piece. The culture of your staff so that you can’t give a solution to absolutely everything but you can provide a way of thinking so that people can come to the right answer on their own and training is really a big, big part of it.. it’s gotta be.
Lucy Gertz: Yeah and we have to un-train a bit too because our original mission, you know, protecting the nature of Massachusetts, people.. our staff and volunteers are very.. they are very tied to that mission and so sometimes they think that you know, welcoming in a broader audience and service animals and motorized wheelchairs, you know, that that contradicts their job of protecting interest. So we have to remind them that we’re.. you know, we’re connecting people to nature, that that’s our new and improved mission. <laughs> But we have some people who’ve been there for 30 years saying, “No, no, no, you can’t bring a motorized vehicle here.. no, no, no.” And we’re like, “Well, actually, yeah, we have a new policy for that because they can and we have figured out how to make it work,” so.
Anita Walker: So if there is some organizations listening to this podcast and are starting to catch a little bit of this inclusive accessibility fever [ph?] and it’s more than the ADA. I mean, you make it clear that it’s not just compliance with a set of rules and regulations because there are things that hadn’t even been thought about when the ADA was written and there is always gonna be new situations that you confront, tell us why this is so much fun and you wouldn’t do it any other way?
Lucy Gertz: It is fun.. it’s very heartwarming. You know, we’ve had families who have been to one trail and then they’ve helped fund the access.. what we call the accessible overlay or the experience stops on another trail because they want their adult son who is in a wheelchair to be able to do to multiple sites instead of just the one they are near and so the Lion’s Club have supported many of the trails locally with the instruments and the expenses associated with the visually impaired using the trails, so just the community that comes together is just wonderful. I can see that <inaudible> your question though did I?
Anita Walker: Yes, you did. Actually we talked about community and I really do think we are all part of one community and that’s why we like the idea of accessibility for all. Not special things for special people but when you make it easier for one you actually make it easier for all of us.
Lucy Gertz: What’s heartwarming, that was what you asked me. What’s heartwarming is when someone says.. someone say who’s totally blind says, “You know, I love nature, I like to bird by ear.. I like to be alone in nature, I don’t have many opportunities to be alone in nature but because you built this trail, my wife can drop me off at the trailhead and she can come back an hour later and I can be completely alone in nature, which is a very unusual treat for me,” and so those kinds of stories are incredible and there was another mom who wrote to us that her 14-year-old son who’s very physically.. has a lot of physical challenges, he’s discovered birding and he.. last summer they went to, I think most of our trails. That’s how they spent their summer and she was so delighted to discover the trails and that was their summer quest, was to visit all of them.
Anita Walker: Lucy Gertz with Mass Audubon, thank you for sharing a bit of your creative mind out loud.
Lucy Gertz: Thank you.
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