Feature Article - February 2019
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Expanding Access

Inclusion & Diversity Outreach Boosts Participation

By Dave Ramont


Disability Outreach in Charlottesville

Individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities should also be a priority for parks and municipalities, whether that means making facilities more accessible or offering more adaptive programming. The Charlottesville, Va., Parks and Recreation Department offers an adaptive recreation program for individuals ages 8 and up with physical or mental disabilities whose recreational needs cannot be met by regular programs. Offerings include classes in exercise, hiking, swimming and water exercise, crafts, ceramics, cooking, social relationships, anger management and more. There are drop-in activities such as basketball, exercise and swimming, plus special events like dances, pool parties and picnics. Participants needing financial assistance can apply for scholarships.

Public parks and recreation services should be equally accessible and available to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age.

These programs not only provide recreation, but also aim to improve self-esteem, social skills and independence for participants. Sarah Blech, program manager of adaptive recreation in Charlottesville, feels this is very important. "Our participants benefit on multiple levels; not only are they participating in activities that are healthy for them physically, but the interactions and group dynamics foster better communication and 'soft skills.'"

There are also day trips, including lunches, bowling, movie and theater, theme parks and the botanical garden, and overnight camping, adventure or ski trips. Their Supper Club program features monthly outings to local restaurants where participants learn communication and social skills, how to order and pay for a meal and leave a tip. Blech said the program is very popular, accommodating 50-plus people, and all their outings are typically filled to capacity.

Some participants in Charlottesville attend programs with an aide, but most come independently, according to Blech. She explained how they've adopted a "level system" for their programs, based on their experience and research into what a participant can expect physically and sensory-wise during an activity. Participants are rated in areas including mobility, personal care/hygiene, and cognitive and communication abilities. This helps participants choose programs that will be most enjoyable and beneficial to them.

Blech said she's seeing more adaptive programs, even in smaller communities. "There is also movement toward more inclusive programs—us as well—but we believe there are still individuals who would rather participate strictly in adaptive, and really need the supervision we provide."

She believes that fitness and recreation should be available to every individual, regardless of ability, to improve quality of life. "Aside from the health and wellness benefits, there are intrinsic benefits that come from participating in recreation, and it's our job as professionals to provide those opportunities and make the adaptions necessary so it can be accessible."

Park Equity for New Yorkers

At more than 100 years old, New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P) is an independent nonprofit organization conducting research, promoting advocacy campaigns and working for equity in parks for all New Yorkers. "We work to ensure that all communities have access to the physical, mental and environmental health benefits that quality, well-maintained open spaces bring," said Megan Douglas, director of communications for NY4P.

Douglas pointed out that different communities have different needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. While some things are universal, like adequate maintenance, other needs vary neighborhood by neighborhood. "Some communities tell us they need more recreational and after-school programming for young people, while others tell us they want more space for passive recreation. We have to tailor our advocacy, and encourage the city to take the same approach," said Douglas.

In fact, Douglas said they work closely with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. "As a watchdog organization, we may not always see eye-to-eye on individual issues, but we have a very open and honest relationship, and find many opportunities to work together to improve and protect our parks."

NY4P conducts meetings and discussion groups, like their annual Boro x Boro meetings and their monthly Open Space Dialogues. Douglas said these gatherings have been extremely effective for learning how to best serve New Yorkers and also as a way to share resources and bring local park advocates together. "Our panels have featured urban planners next to environmental justice activists, designers next to transportation activists, leaders of large conservancies next to community gardeners, etc. Participants may not always agree, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."

If park equity is our goal, it means that we must place special emphasis on standing up for those communities who don't have access to quality open space.

Conducting research is an important part of what NY4P does, as it empowers residents and helps them advocate on their own behalf, as do other advocacy tools, such as their "How Can I Improve My Park?" guide. "When a community group goes to their elected official or a government agency armed with numbers and data, we've seen time and again that it leads to real, positive change in local parks and neighborhoods," Douglas said. She added that the research also means they have the data to back up their own advocacy. "When the numbers show that a certain neighborhood doesn't have an adequate amount of parkland, or that their parks are in disrepair, we can make a very clear case for why improvements are needed."

"It's important for NY4P to listen to, work with and engage underserved populations in our advocacy because otherwise we wouldn't be nearly as able to speak up on their behalf," Douglas explained. "If park equity is our goal, it means that we must place special emphasis on standing up for those communities who don't have access to quality open space."

Access for All

Back in Portland, Hendricks said there are many reasons to make sure that underserved populations have access to parks, facilities and services. "The primary reasons are to create a greater sense of community cohesiveness, promote health and healthy lifestyles and develop key life skills."

He said he often gets inquiries from various jurisdictions wanting to know about their DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) practices. "It begins with mindset, beginning by taking a proactive approach. It's important for cities to understand that in many ways, parks and recreation departments are best equipped to help serve and engage underserved populations," Hendricks said. "By creating multicultural events, providing low-cost services and ensuring that you're communicating with the diverse language groups in your community, you help strengthen the fabric of the community."

"Everyone deserves access to parks and recreation opportunities, regardless of ZIP code," said Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish. "I'm proud that Portland Parks & Recreation and the community we serve recognize that parks are a key part of thriving neighborhoods and have prioritized equity and inclusion in our system."