How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

Today’s interview is with Elise Dillingham, Wildlife Ecologist and DRLC Program Coordinator for the Sonoran Desert Network and Desert Research Learning Center. Elise was interviewed by Sehdia Mansaray.

 

How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

At Tucson’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC), the National Park Service is working to ensure that environmental education is accessible to everyone.

Cienega High School students made adobe bricks and are building a mini horno oven.

There are more than 61 million people with disabilities living in the US. For many of them, national parks can be difficult to experience. Some parks offer few opportunities for people in wheelchairs to explore areas beyond the frontcountry. At others, it’s difficult for people with disabilities to find information about what kinds of opportunities are available to them once they get there. For people to care about national parks, they need to feel like they belong in them. Through educational programs and citizen-science opportunities, Elise Dillingham and the DRLC staff are helping to make that happen.

Elise Dillingham helping students weave agave fibers to make bracelets.

Located adjacent to Saguaro National Park, the Desert Research Learning Center is an ideal space for connecting people, resources, and science. The center provides space and support for visiting researchers and interns, hosts hands-on experiential learning for local student groups, and displays examples of sustainable practices and native horticulture. Its mission is to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks.

The DRLC has ongoing partnerships with several local schools. When the center’s coordinator, Elise Dillingham, learned from teachers at Cienega High School that students in special education programs often have limited field-trip opportunities, she wanted to make sure the DRLC was one of them.

This challenged Elise and her staff to see their programming through a different lens. They made changes to many of their standard activities, so people with a variety of differing abilities could participate. Field projects were brought closer to the DRLC. A lingering plan to build wheelchair ramps to an artificial stream was completed. Classroom activities were modified to make them more tactile and accessible to students with different learning styles.

Cienega High School students learning how to harvest fibers by pounding agave leaves.

With no formal training on how to work with people with disabilities, the DRLC staff also learned to adapt to the various ways students engaged—or didn’t engage—with the activities. Sometimes, students needed to leave in the middle of a program, had outbursts, or participated with headphones on. With the help of the students’ regular teachers, Elise and her staff came to understand these as new behaviors to learn to work with—not signs of disrespect.

Their efforts have paid off. A group of students from Cienega High School now visits the DRLC for a variety of programs several times each semester. Students are becoming more engaged and getting the opportunity to learn about and visit national parks, just as their peers without disabilities do. For a few students, their first trip to DRLC was their first time on a field trip.

Elise shares the story of one young man who started in the program as a freshman and initially sat through DRLC programs with his headphones on and was not interested in volunteering to help with activities. Over time, he became more comfortable with the programs and eventually was the first to volunteer to complete tasks, such as setting up remote wildlife cameras. By the time he was a senior, he said he was sad to graduate because he wouldn’t be able to participate in the DRLC’s programs anymore.

Cienega High School student picked rainbow Swiss chard from the DRLC’s heritage food garden.

The improved programming at the DRLC is just one example of the National Park Service’s recent efforts to make parks in Arizona more inclusive. In collaboration with Special Olympics Arizona, several parks have created the Unified Hiking program, which provides opportunities for Southern Arizona athletes and supporters to maintain healthy, active lifestyles. The kickoff hike was in Flagstaff, but more hikes are being planned in Tucson and Phoenix. Finding wheelchair accessible trails has been a challenge for these events, but they plan to keep up their efforts. The park service has also published a plan for improving accessibility across the system. And US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can apply for a National Park Service Access Pass, which provides free admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five Federal agencies—for life.

For its part, the DRLC plans to continue to improve programming and expand opportunities for students with disabilities. Elise would also like to get formal training that would help her and her staff to better serve these students. She encourages anyone looking to engage with diverse student groups to talk with local teachers to learn about their community’s needs and ways to assist.

 

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