This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with physical and cognitive impairments, and it requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees who have disabilities. It also set out accessibility requirements for public spaces.
Earlier this summer, VPR met up with a Vermont family at the Waterbury Center State Park to talk about the value of getting outside for people who use wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the plan to get onto a trail was stymied by one small footbridge that had been flooded out and not yet repaired.
Ash Brittenham is a recent graduate of Montpelier High School. He completed his high school degree a year early at age 17, and went on to take a radio course at Goddard College. He enjoys media and getting outside with his family. Ash also has Duchenne muscle dystrophy, and has utilized a wheelchair for the past eight or nine years. This can make his passion for the outdoors a bit complicated.
Ash's mother Kim Brittenham is a self-proclaimed "ADA geek." "I know way too much about the Americans with Disabilities Act and standards for the built environment programs and services," says Brittenham. She believes this passion comes from a lifetime of loving wheeled vehicles, ranging from the motorcycles she grew up with to the wheelchair her son now uses.
"For our family, it really impacted where we could go, what businesses we could go to, where we could eat, where we could be outside," says Kim Brittenham. "So I started to learn about the ADA and started working with this disability rights organization, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, and I provide their ADA technical assistance and training."
Plans to visit the wheelchair accessible trail to explore the shores of the Waterbury Reservoir with Ash and his mother were thwarted by a footbridge that had been flooded out by heavy rains. For somebody who is used to running around on trails and doesn't need a wheelchair, the damage might not actually be much of an impediment. You could probably just jump over the little wet ditch and head onto the trail. For Ash and his family, that's not a possibility.
This is far from the first time Ash has run into trouble when trying to get outdoors. "Bridges here, sometimes there's a gap between that and like the gravel. Sometimes you need to like bring a piece of plywood with you to drive over, which is a little sketchy."
When not limited by these constraints on the trails, Ash says he likes to move fast down the paths. He admits to being "kind of a show-off in some places," citing times where he would ambush people he's hiking with when he ends up further down the trail.
Although the wheelchair limits Ash and his family from visiting certain places, it also brings them together. It allows them to travel as a family, and even provides Ash's younger brother with some entertainment. "He used to call all wheeled vehicles 'vrooms,'" says Ash Brittenham about Kai, his brother.
"His little brother has done everything, I think, on this wheelchair. This is a power wheelchair, and it can go six and a half or seven and a half miles an hour, so on a smooth straight away ... like a bike path or a smooth surface, they can really go a distance," says Kim. "He'll ride on the back. When he was little we would mount his baby carrier to the back of the chair and he would sit down like a motorcyclist up above. He just loves speed."
Ash acknowledges the impact that his disability has on his life but affirms this disability is not what completely defines him. "You know that it does define me, it it does quite a bit. But it's not really the assumption that people should be making, and it's not really that I am somehow some inspiration because of my disability," he says. "That's the cliché people use a lot that. Is not really a good thing to go on about."
"I know as Ash's mother, I've known him for 18 years now, that he would go out into the world in and make art and be involved in media," says Kim. "But he does have to spend time wondering if he can get into the place, if there's accessible parking there, or space for him to move around."
On accessible space
Not everyone thinks about accessible space as much as Kim Brittenham does daily. She has advice for people who want to keep an eye out for physical space, public or private, that may or may not be accessible for individuals with disabilities.
"People want smooth, stable, slip-resistant surface. Then they want an accessible route, so somebody should look around their facility, whether it's an outdoor facility or a building, and check it for ADA compliance or accessibility," says Kim. "There are ADA checklists, tools that people can use to assess their accessible parking – the number of spaces, [if] they have an accessible route to their bathrooms to their meeting rooms, to the swimming pool, to the tennis court."
"Just one step for somebody that uses a wheelchair and doesn't get out of a wheelchair is the whole difference of going inside or getting outside or not," says Kim.
Creating spaces that are accessible for all people is not a feat best taken by individuals; it takes a village. "In Vermont I think we have an opportunity to create the communities that we want to create, and that when we do that we need everybody involved in the decision making process," says Kim Brittenham. "So I think that we have a chance to have people with disabilities in a variety of perspective sitting on our design review boards and participating in our municipal government."
On making the outdoors accessible
Flood damage aside, how did the Waterbury Center State Park stack up for the self-proclaimed ADA geek?
"Ash chose to use the grass, which is not an accessible route right now," says Kim about her son's path to the waterfront bench they were seated on. "When we leave, he's going to use the accessible route which is this packed gravel, it's like staymat. It's at least 36 inches wide, looking at it now."
Ash's take on the park's accessibility was positive as well. "Pretty good, I think recently they added a metal ramp near the water that brings you down to the level of the water, which is pretty easy," he says. "I don't know [about the] transfer in, it's different the way different people get into the water."
State parks have specific policies that make outdoor activity more accessible for individuals with disabilities. The use of what are called OPDMDs, or Other Power Drive Mobility Devices, are an example of the accommodations being made. "[OPDMDs] are devices that are powered by something but aren't created to be a piece of medical equipment that somebody might use to go hunting," says Kim. "Perhaps like an A.T.V. on a state access trail, you know not everybody is allowed to do that, but if you're a hunter and you need a mobility device they might allow you to bring that on to state lands."
Accessibility at state parks is increasing, according to Kim Brittenham. This news means that disabled Vermonters and tourists will be able to further enjoy the nature the state has to offer. "There's a website that [Vermont] tourism has done called Inclusive Vermont, and there's a Google map on it and you can search it for specific accessible elements."
There are a few upcoming outdoor events in Vermont to raise awareness and provide opportunities for disabled individuals."There is an accessible boat launch that's going on in Branbury to memorialize Hector Racine who was an avid hunter and fisher who used a wheelchair and was a strong disability rights activist here in Vermont," says Kim. "We're having an ADA celebration at the Shaftsbury State Park on July 24, and there's an accessible bus from Bennington that's going out there and there's a adaptive sports kayaking program that is going to be setting up that day."
For more events, visit the Inclusive Vermont community calendar.