From Camden and Cherry Hill to Trenton and the Jersey Shore, what about life in New Jersey do you want WHYY News to cover? Let us know.
New Jersey is stepping up efforts to improve the lives of those with disabilities, including expanding outdoor recreation opportunities.
According to Sarah Adelman, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, DHS launched the Inclusive Healthy Communities grant program in 2021 as a way to respond to a need seen in the community.
“We wanted to make sure that we were focused on solutions that change planning and policy for individuals with disabilities, so there is more inclusion and equity,” she said.
Sean Holland, the Access Nature Disability Advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said a $250,000 grant from DHS is being used to make improvements at different state parks, including the Atsion Recreation Areas in Wharton State Forest.
He said part of this effort involves making 5-foot-wide dirt trails more navigable.
“Crushed stone dust is the main material that we’re looking to use, but also where there’s wetland areas or inundated areas with wetlands, we’re looking to use boardwalk systems,” he said.
Holland said specialized wheelchairs that can traverse dirt and sand have been purchased and are available for use at the recreation area. There are also plans to get specialized beach mats and build an ADA dock system at Atsion Lake, “which will allow individuals with disabilities to go kayaking, it’s really a neat piece of equipment.”
Holland, who was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect that often causes paralysis of the legs, said trail maintenance accessibility concepts have been upgraded and improved over the past 20 years. He pointed out that the Alliance is working to implement those guidelines in many different ways.
Adelman said this work is very important because 20% of the Jersey population lives with some form of a disability, and often these individuals experience disproportionate health and chronic disease issues as well as social isolation.
“Individuals with disabilities need to be at the table giving their input from their lived experience about what will make the most impact in their lives, and how they’d like to see communities to include them better,” she said.
Over the past three years, the Department of Human Services has provided almost $7 million in state funds to 32 organizations, towns, and hospitals across the Garden State to help fund projects that improve the lives of those with disabilities.
Allocations include a $250,000 grant to the Children’s Specialized Hospital to expand safety education programs, a $100,000 grant to Hanover Township to expand its “Dial-a-Ride” program, and $250,000 awarded to the Ocean County Health Department to construct inclusive community vegetable gardens.
A complete list of DHS Inclusive Healthy Community grantees can be found here.
“There are incredible natural resources across New Jersey that people with disabilities largely weren’t accessing because they couldn’t,” said Adelman. “We wanted to help fund organizations to make improvements, so that these spaces could be accessible for all New Jerseyans.”
Jessica Lax is a staff advocate for Disability Rights New Jersey, the state’s protection and advocacy agency for those with disabilities.
She said the work being done to expand recreational access and include those with disabilities is essential.
“Hopefully in the not-too-distant future,” said Lax, “we can see more activities and projects that really focus on true inclusion of people with disabilities.”
She said it’s sometimes hard for those with disabilities to speak up and seek help because they may not be treated in the same manner as people without disabilities. But Lax said it is imperative these individuals be treated “like the respected, dignified human beings that they should be treated like, that they are seen, heard and understood as much as possible.”
Adelman pointed out improvements that help people with disabilities also help the majority of the population.
“If you make a space wheelchair accessible by adding a ramp where there used to be stairs you’re also helping a young family pushing a stroller, you’re helping older residents who may use walking assistance devices,” she explained.
In addition to the $250,000 Inclusive Healthy Communities grant from the DHS, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance received a $30,000 state Department of Environmental Protection grant to improve natural resources.
Holland said the Alliance is using the money to work on many initiatives, including moving educational signage to wheelchair height so individuals can read about their natural surroundings as they traverse the trails.
Another project is aiming to make Pinelands Adventures, which offers land and water-based guided tours, more inclusive for those with disabilities.
He said barriers to access for people with disabilities have a trickle-down effect.
“It’ll affect their family, their friends, their loved ones, caregivers, because they are also not able to share in outdoor experiences and recreation,” Holland said.
Lax agreed, saying when opportunities for those with disabilities are expanded, “the whole family, the community can get together and have shared experiences.”
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance has an online Access Nature Forum that allows members of the public, land managers, and those with disabilities to get together and discuss different accessibility problems and solutions.
Holland said there is also an online accessibility map that has specific information about which outdoor areas have been improved in what ways, so “an individual can decide for themselves whether the site is for them, based on their interests and needs.”
Adelman said in addition to awarding grants to organizations and making physical improvements, DHS is offering other avenues of support.
“We’re also funding projects that also help individuals with disabilities engage more in their community, access government services better, access arts programs — things that others benefit from and don’t have to think about accessibility,” she said.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!