‘The world doesn’t end on the edge of the pavement’

State organizations team to make parks more disability accessible

When the pandemic began last March, many escaped their homes to socially distance outside at Burlington County’s 13 parks.

But for residents with disabilities, this breath of fresh air isn’t always possible. Rocky trails, tiny bathrooms and a lack of accessible signage create barriers to access that able bodied people don’t face.

At a town hall on April 6, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, New Jersey Disability Rights, Hopeworks, and parks in Atlantic and Burlington counties teamed up to learn what they can do better. They introduced The Pinelands Is For Everyone, a new initiative to “future proof” parks so people with disabilities are a priority as trails and buildings are developed.

“Nature is such a critical part of the world we live in,” said Becky Free, director of communications for the alliance. “It provides stress relief and improves quality of life. We’re really excited to help do what we can to make this easier for all to access.”

The first town hall brought more than 70 participants who shared personal stories of the difficulties they’ve faced while trying to enjoy local parks. They offered suggestions and resources, like how to incorporate Braille into signage and make trails that people with walking difficulties can access. 

Pinelands resident Ann-Marie Woods has a son who is a blind wheelchair user. She remembers taking her two children to parks in the area. While her able bodied son was eager to run around, she couldn’t push her other son’s wheelchair through the sand and grass.

“What I used to say when my son was young and I watched my older son run off onto the grass is, ‘The world doesn’t end on the edge of the pavement,’” she said at the town hall. Woods understands it can be difficult to create accessible trails in protected areas, but she hopes parks in the Pinelands will work at addressing her family’s needs.

Between 13 and 16 percent of Burlington County residents are people with disabilities, according to a map created by the state. In New Jersey as a whole, about 13 percent of the population has a disability of some kind.

Other town hall attendees who spoke at the event told stories about their fights with local government to make public areas accessible. Charlotte Borgensen remembered visiting Batsto Village in Hammonton, where the sand caused her mobility chair to get stuck multiple times.

“I’ve managed to fill up two pages with notes,” said Disability Rights New Jersey lawyer Michael Brower, who hosted the discussion. “I would say a good 75 percent of these are things that, at least for me, didn’t cross my mind, even though I’m a disability lawyer. So, I really think it was valuable for us.”

The group will continue to host virtual town halls that will be advertised by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance on its website, pinelandsalliance.org. Anyone with thoughts or suggestions is encouraged to email Maritza Williams of Disability Rights New Jersey at advocate@drnj.org.