Doable: Parks offer trail options

Published in the Asbury Park Press 6/30/04

Area parks offer miles of trails, nature and wildlife education programs, playgrounds and picnic grounds to all who have access.

And thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, the number of facilities with access is growing.

Last weekend, the Monmouth County Park System opened Challenger Place, billed as the first universally accessible playground in the state. Elevated wheelchair-friendly walkways and Braille signs encourage disabled and nondisabled children to interact and play side-by-side at Dorbrook Recreation Area, Route 537, Colts Neck.

The new facility, a joint project of the park system and Challenged Youth Sports of Middletown, is part of a parks improvement program for complying with safety and access standards, including those set by the ADA.

In Ocean County, meanwhile, a wheelchair accessible boardwalk trail on Cattus Island in Dover Township was extended a few months ago to increase the natural sights, scents and sounds available to visitors.

Melanie Weinberg, Barnegat, who often calls Ocean County Parks System with tips on how to make the facilities more accessible, was invited to tour the new leg of the trail. "It was a very encouraging experience," said Weinberg, who has MS. "For some people it is such an effort to go out. You have to decide whether it's worthwhile or whether you're going to waste your energy." Benches along the trail are especially helpful for resting along the route, Weinberg said.

Chris Claus, chief naturalist at Cattus Island, said the 1/4-mile accessible trail was built 10 years ago, well ahead of the ADA enactment. "It was a very simple thing to do and cost next to nothing" because members of the Boy Scouts did the work, he said. Using boards raised on footings, instead of pavement, also is environmentally friendly, Claus said, because the walk can easily be moved if sensitive plants grow nearby.

The boarded trail has railings on each side and some wider sections for turnarounds or to allow one wheelchair or scooter to pass another. The extension passes through forest and salt marshes and loops back to the parking lot and picnic grounds.

Still, very few people with disabilities use the facility, Claus said, "but plenty of nondisabled folks use it." Weinberg sometimes chides the county for not actively promoting its accessible facilities, Claus said.

Another project in the works for the trail is a self-guided tour with signs describing habitat and wildlife, and possibly a few years in the future, an audio-narrated tour.

Linda Walls is a parent and grandparent of people with disabilities ranging from deafness and Tourette's syndrome to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Her column appears in Wednesday's Jersey Life Accent on Food section. Write to her at the Asbury Park Press, 3601 Highway 66, Neptune, NJ 07754, or e-mail or call her at (732) 449-0696.