Expanding Coastal Opportunities for People with Disabilities

The Takeaway: Creating sign language for “estuary” and other coastal terms, and trails that accommodate wheelchairs and the needs of the visually impaired—these are just two of the contributions from research reserves and coastal zone management programs.

Throughout the nation’s coastal zone, NOAA and its partners are breaking down barriers to coastal access. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the theme, “Empowering All,” provides a good opportunity to recognize advances and needs as they relate to coastal access. Here are highlights from two NOAA programs—the National Coastal Zone Management Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

Adding “Coastal” Sign Language

  • Before 2018, American Sign Language (ASL) had no signs for “estuary,” “watershed,” or other coastal terms, which, for people with hearing loss, was a barrier to experiencing and learning about the coast. A New England coastal partnership is changing that. There are now ASL coastal terms, and instructional videos are being shared with teachers and interpreters for people with hearing loss through the Teachers on the Estuary curriculum at the Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay Research Reserves in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Teachers are emphasizing watershed-focused lessons, and their students will visit one of the three reserves during the year.

Making Trails More Accessible

  • In Puerto Rico, the first public access trail designed for the visually impaired and other disabled persons is equipped with smartphone-scannable barcodes, enabling visitors to hear information about Punta Tuna Nature Reserve. The trail emphasizes clear navigation and safety, with recorders and trail-adapted wheelchairs available. The Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program supported this initiative.
  • In California, at the Elkhorn Slough Research Reserve, a new ADA-compliant trail welcomes visitors of all physical abilities, and features a flat, gentle path through a variety of habitats.
  • In Florida, a workshop with local diversity and inclusion experts has led Guana Tolomato Research Reserve to adapt trails for people with hearing and vision loss. A second training will enable reserve staffers to communicate more effectively with these visitors. In addition, staffers and reserve volunteers are being trained to communicate better with visitors who have developmental disabilities or disorders on the autism spectrum. As a result of this initiative, local organization The Arc of Florida is taking field trips to the reserve with their clients, who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Improved Water Access

  • In Virginia, a new canoe and kayak launch at Carrollton Nike Park fulfills the Isle of Wight County’s aim for ADA-compliant water access to activities, including fishing, crabbing, and sightseeing. The county used Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program funds to construct the launch.
  • In Mississippi, the Grand Bay Research Reserve is outfitting their new education boat to accommodate wheelchairs. An ADA-accessible kayak launch is also in the works. The reserve widened their Savannah Trail boardwalk and installed rails, boosting safety and helping wheelchair-bound visitors view more habitat.
  • In California, people with disabilities are kayaking open waters and wheeling specially adapted cycles that allow them to take in the scenery along the Monterey, San Francisco, and Tomales Bays. These opportunities are made possible through Explore the Coast, a grant program created by the California State Coastal Conservancy.

Therapeutic Horse Riding

  • Access Adventure at Rush Ranch provides therapeutic horse riding in the San Francisco Bay Research Reserve for people living with mobility challenges, special needs children, the elderly, and injured veterans.

Improved Restroom Facilities

  • Numerous coastal zone management and research reserve programs are leading efforts to make restroom facilities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Minnesota, for instance, restroom facilities at Duluth’s Park Point are now accessible to all, snow or shine. Through their design and signage, the restrooms are gender-neutral and ADA-accessible. The Minnesota Lake Superior Coastal Program provided funding to the City of Duluth to construct these facilities.

The National Coastal Zone Management Program is a state and federal partnership program that addresses the nation’s coastal issues. The National Estuarine Research Reserve System, 30 sites strong, protects estuaries and provides educational and science opportunities. (Original story 2018/Updated 2019 and 2022)

More Information: National Coastal Zone Management Program and National Estuarine Research Reserves

Partners: California Coastal Conservancy, Minnesota Lake Superior Coastal Program, Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program, and Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program; the Elkhorn Slough, Grand Bay, Narragansett Bay, San Francisco, Waquoit Bay, and Wells National Estuarine Research Reserves; and Access Adventure at Rush Ranch, Boston University Graduate Program in Deaf Education, City of Duluth, Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, Horace Mann School for the Deaf, Isle of Wight County, Punta Tuna Nature Reserve, READS Collaborative, Rhode Island School for the Deaf, Solano Land Trust, and The Learning Center for the Deaf’s Center for Research and Training and Marie Philip School