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By Rose Hoban
At Hanging Rock State Park, there are 60 sites where people can picnic, but only one table can be used by someone in a wheelchair.
People in wheelchairs who want to get onto the beach at Fort Macon State Park have been unable to unless they bring their own special wheelchair with oversized wheels.
Videos at state historic sites don’t have captions on them, rendering them meaningless for people with hearing problems.
One guy, Philip Woodward, a project manager with the Department of Health and Human Services, has been working to change all of that for the estimated 1.24 million North Carolinians who report a disability. According to the Carolina Population Center, about 717,000 people in North Carolina “have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.”
But Woodward lost his $41,000-a-year job on Oct. 31, the casualty of a cut in the final state budget passed by the General Assembly in late September.
The other thing cut in the budget was Woodward’s magnum opus: He was the man behind ACCESS North Carolina, a vacation and travel guide to state-run and state-managed sites expressly for people with disabilities. The budget repealed the part of state law that provided for ACCESS North Carolina.
“It’s a loss not just to the people who were working in the program, it’s a loss to every person with a disability and every family with children with disabilities who want to take advantage of the recreation in your beautiful state,” said Ron Pimentel, a disability activist who was in North Carolina last week to give the closing address at the annual GREAT (Global Rehabilitation Enhanced with Assistive Technology) conference in Raleigh.
“We offer it, or used to offer it, as a printed travel guide, and also made it available on CD and also online, depending on what that person’s needs are,” Woodward said. “But the legislature eliminated the funding and moved the funding to the roadside vegetation-management program.”
The product will still be available online. But he worried about the vast parts of the state, primarily in the east and in the western mountains, where there’s poor, if any, Internet and cellular access, making the resource inaccessible for people traveling to those areas.
And without Woodward, the book won’t get updated.
“I tried to travel across the state and visit as many sites as possible to survey them for accessibility,” he said. He surveyed managers at state-run sites about accessibility and would also counsel them on improving accessibility for people of all abilities.
Woodward spent two and a half years traveling across the state research ACCESS North Carolina, all 514 pages of it, completing a major update in 2012. The book indicates whether sites are accessible, providing details such as “restrooms in the picnic area have 52-inch by 58-inch stalls,” important details for, say, a mother who needs to help her daughter in a wheelchair on and off of the potty.
The publication also gives shout-outs to places that engage in particularly good practices, such as the Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University, where, the guide notes, “Staff has undergone etiquette training on interacting with visitors with disabilities.”
“I developed relationships with the tourism industry and the people who work at the sites,” Woodward said.
Money for upgrades
Woodward had a particular interest in making attractions useful for people with hearing disabilities. He’s had a profound hearing loss since the age of four.
The U. S. Census estimates about 130,610 North Carolinians between the ages of 18 and 64 have a hearing disability. And according to the National institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, nearly 25 percent of people nationwide aged 65 to 74 and about half of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.
The other thing that was cut, along with Woodward’s job, was money for upgrades. When Woodward’s budget had leftover money, it went to the State Construction Office in the Department of Administration to do accessibility upgrades – a project at Hanging Rock to increase the number of picnic sites, for example.
“Picnicking is a big activity there,” he said. “They’re building an accessible picnic shelter for people of all abilities to be able to have more accessible opportunities.”
“Also, the state construction office told me earlier this week that beach wheelchairs that they ordered for Ft. Macon State Park just arrived,” he said.
But Woodward said he’s unsure of what the funding supply will be.
“They may or may not have the funding to do all the projects I have proposed, such as making all state historic site orientation videos captioned,” he said.
It takes someone with Woodward’s expertise and training to find the gaps in accessibility, said Monty Honeycutt of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. He noted that many able-bodied people think their facility or business might be accessible when it’s really not quite.
Honeycutt recounted a story of when his office was moving into a small strip mall in Asheboro.
“The landlord of the property was very proud of himself because he had more handicapped-accessible parking spaces than the law requires, and he was patting himself on the back,” Honeycutt said. “But every one of those spaces was on a hill,” rendering them useless for many people with physical disabilities.
“You don’t think about it if you don’t know,” Honeycutt said.