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Constructing Accessible and Inclusive Communities for People with Disabilities

July 8th, 2022 by

“Inclusion means different things for different people,” stated Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “[With] the vast demand for accessible nature, [people are looking for] inclusion, not just being out in nature. That might mean a stable trail, being able to paddle…,” continued Montgomery as a panelist at the 2022 NJ Planning and Redevelopment Conference (NJPRC), sponsored by New Jersey Future and the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association. 

While an estimated 13% of people from South Jersey have a disability, Montgomery acknowledged that with friends, loved ones, and caregivers of New Jerseyans with disabilities, as much as half of the population might be affected by the inaccessibility of nature. By fostering inclusive use of the Pinelands through both the construction of secure trails and the creation of guided tours and paddling trips accessible to people with mobility-related disabilities, Montgomery and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance seek to encourage all New Jerseyans to care about and protect the region.

The virtual breakout session at which Montgomery spoke, titled Building Healthy and Equitable Communities Through Inclusion of People with Disabilities, was facilitated by Peri Nearon—Executive Director of the Division of Disability Services in the New Jersey Department of Human Serviceson Wednesday, June 15. The event featured four engaging speakers, including Montgomery; Patricia High, Assistant Public Health Coordinator of the Ocean County Health Department; Lauren Skowronski, Program Director for Community Engagement at Sustainable Jersey; and Heather Cooper, MPA, Deputy Mayor of Evesham Township. Throughout the session, the speakers clearly articulated how imperative it is to uplift the needs and ideas of people with disabilities in their public planning work.

“Every public space should have easy public access. [We need to] care for all people in all places,” explained Heather Cooper, Deputy Mayor of Evesham Township. Cooper explained how in her role as deputy mayor, she had worked to foster inclusive participation of people with disabilities in town boards and programs; administered community surveys on accessibility; engaged town employees, citizens, and affiliates in educational efforts on access and inclusion; and sought to offer competitive employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Evesham Township. 

Lauren Skowronski of Sustainable Jersey echoed the sentiments shared by Cooper and Montgomery about equitable access to public spaces as a means of connecting people with disabilities within the communities in the face of isolation. “We [put] policies and strategies in place to ensure that public facilities are built beyond the code requirements for true accessibility… When the municipality is notified public spaces are not accessible, they acknowledge and take action [to make these spaces more inclusive]… [In making these decisions], we need to engage the opinions of all residents [for] better involvement in municipal decision making.”

What might these accessible, inclusive public spaces look like? Patricia High of the Ocean County Health Department offered an answer. In her presentation, High shared about Tom River’s Field of Dreams, a 100% Americans with Disability Act (ADA)-compliant facility in Ocean County. The Field of Dreams was a garden with a wheelchair-accessible trampoline, zipline, and mini golf; a quiet corner for people with autism and other diverse needs; and a range of other accessible and inclusive features. High explained that the garden was created as an attempt to establish “inclusive gardening for all, cultivating health for all.” 

Ultimately, the Building Healthy and Equitable Communities Through Inclusion of People with Disabilities panel at the NJPRC offered an opportunity to engage with equity and inclusion from a perspective that is too often neglected in public planning and redevelopment efforts, by planning and developing public spaces to specifically cater to the needs of New Jerseyans with disabilities. Parks accessibility is a crucial ingredient in fostering a strong connection between New Jerseyans and public spaces in their communities. By designing spaces to include persons with disabilities, developers, planners, business owners, and municipal leaders can expand the number of individuals that visit these spaces, whether more natural spaces like the Pinelands or more constructed spaces like the Field of Dreams farm. During the session, the panelists demonstrated that by building inclusive communities for people with disabilities, these communities will be made more accessible and welcoming for all New Jerseyans.

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