Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 1
Interpretive Accommodations for National Park Service Visitors Who Are d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Elsa Hansen, M.E.Ed.
Center for Environmental Education
University of MN Duluth
1216 Ordean Court, SpHC 110
Duluth, MN 55812
Julie Ernst, Ph.D.
Professor, University of MN Duluth
Associate Director for Interpretation, Education and Volunteers
National Park Service, Washington D.C.
Interpretation plays a critical role in fulfilling the mission of the National Park Service (NPS). This study used survey research to describe the interpretive accommodations currently provided to NPS visitors who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HoH). Results show that most park units have completed accessibility assessments and provide some form of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. However, many park units perceived their unit was not sufficiently meeting the needs of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, and felt that their unit should be doing more. Perceived barriers to providing interpretive accommodations included budget and staffing constraints, lack of familiarity with possible services used by visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, and limited knowledge of legal responsibilities or guidelines pertaining to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. Recommendations stemming from this study include the following: staff training; incorporation of the Principles of Universal Design; inclusion of individuals who are d/Deaf or HoH in planning and evaluation of interpretive services; regular assessments for accessibility; personal and agency-level commitment toward equitable service; use of websites as source of information regarding interpretive accommodations; development of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for accommodative services; creation of a collateral duty for general accessibility; and additional research regarding what services visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH would find most useful to prioritize limited time and budget.
interpretive accommodations, disabilities, accessibility, Deaf or hard of hearing, National Park Service, survey research
Since 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) has worked to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” (National Park Service, n.d. a, para. 1). As stated in the National Park Service Director’s Order #6: Interpretation and Education (2005–2011), “Interpretation and education is the key to preserving both the idea of national parks and the park resources themselves” (section I, para. 1). Also stated in the Director’s Order #6 is that the “NPS will ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that persons with disabilities receive the same interpretive opportunities as non-disabled persons, in the most integrated setting possible” (section VIII.I, para. 1). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, requires program accessibility for all services provided with Federal dollars. It requires that the NPS does everything feasible to ensure that people with disabilities “receive as close to the same benefits as those received by other visitors” (National Park Service Director’s Order #42, 2000–2004, section V.A.2).
About 7.6 million people in the United States (3.1%) experience a hearing difficulty, defined as “experiencing deafness or having difficulty hearing a normal conversation, even when wearing a hearing aid” (Brault, 2012, p. 8). This number includes 1.1 million people who have a severe difficulty hearing, defined as those who are deaf or unable to hear a normal conversation (Brault, 2012). Burns, Paterson, and Watson (2009) discuss that access to the outdoors for persons with disabilities, driven by legislative laws and guidelines, has narrowed itself to thinking more along technical solutions, such as free entry and closed captioning. They argue that it is important to understand not only the physical barriers present for persons with disabilities to recreate outdoors, but also to understand the social context and needs for persons with disabilities while recreating.
Yosemite National Park is one example where a park has gone beyond providing basic accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. As of 2010, Yosemite National Park is the only park to establish a position to facilitate a deaf services program. The Deaf Services Coordinator position was created in 1979, and has since improved accessibility for Yosemite visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (Cayton, 2010). Yosemite now offers a public videophone in the main lodge, accessibility kits in park hotels, volume control telephones, Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs), and a full-time sign language interpreter during the summer season (National Park Service, Yosemite National Park, n.d.).
With high visitation and close proximity to major cities, Yosemite is a prime location for a deaf services program. Units with lower visitation levels and/or units in more remote areas likely have visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, even if they do not realize it. Yet more limited accommodations are often provided, such as closed captioning of park films, park pamphlets, and telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD), in disregard of the accessibility guidelines provided by the Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee (2012). Consequently, the purpose of this study was to provide an overview of the interpretive accommodations currently provided to NPS visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH.
The Disability Rights Movement empowered persons with disabilities to take control of their own lives, and major legislative advancements occurred that influenced social policy and practice. For example, the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required physical access to buildings and facilities built or renovated with Federal funds (National Park Service, 2000–2004). The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies or receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifies requirements for programmatic accessibility in addition to physical accessibility in all facilities and programs assisted or conducted by the Federal government (Project Play and Learning in Adaptable Environments, 1993). Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which, as amended, applies to web-based media, audiovisual programs, and other media incorporating these electronic elements and requires comparable access to and use of information for members of the public who do and do not have disabilities (29 U.S.C. § 794d). The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 together require that the National Park Service “not only has to be concerned with enabling people with disabilities to have access to parks and facilities but, once there, the NPS also needs to do everything feasible to enable them to receive as close to the same benefits as those received by other visitors” (National Park Service, 2000–2004, section V.A.2, para. 3).
Despite these advancements in legislation, individuals with disabilities still faced a great number of inequities, and in 1978 the National Council on Disabilities was created to study those inequities (First & Curcio, 1993). Their study concluded with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), written into law in 1990. The ADA was designed to protect the rights of all individuals with disabilities in the context of employment, public services and accommodations, and telecommunications (First & Curcio, 1993).
In addition to legislation, several organizations including the Smithsonian and the National Recreation and Park Association, support inclusion and accessibility with internal guidelines and position statements regarding accessibility. For example, the Smithsonian Institute’s internal Accessibility Program includes reviewing facility and exhibition design, outreach to the disability community, staff education on disability topics, and the provision of direct visitor services (Smithsonian Accessibility Program, n.d.).
The Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) is responsible for the overall management and direction of interpretive media for the NPS, ensuring that accessibility is incorporated to the highest extent possible (HFC Accessibility Committee, 2012). The Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines for National Park Service Interpretive Media (2012) prepared by the HFC Accessibility Committee, combines laws, policies, and best practices for interpretive design and presentation solutions for all types of interpretive media.
For audiovisual programs, the Department of the Interior requires that programs created after January 2009 are produced with open captions or subtitles that are displayed on screen at all times (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012, p. 14, para. 2). From the U.S. Department of the Interior Civil Rights Directive No. 2008-05, reasons for mandated open captioning include staff time and effort involved with turning captioning on/off in a timely manner for people with disabilities, along with switches becoming easily broken or tampered with, causing a possible period of non-compliance. The importance of open captions is described within the Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012), as they allow viewers with hearing loss to participate fully when watching an audiovisual program without the need to self-identify. The Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines further state that the use of printed scripts is not an acceptable alternative to the required open captioning, however copies of scripts should be available upon request and on park website. Assistive listening systems and audio amplification shall be provided for any audiovisual programs or tours, and transcripts for ranger-led programs are to be available, in addition to qualified sign language interpreters with reasonable advanced notice (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012). Each park’s accessibility site bulletin and newspaper shall note the availability of programs that provide these accommodations, as well as information as on how to obtain these services (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012).
Regarding interpretive exhibits, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, requires audio description of video programs used in exhibits (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012). For any exhibits with audio components, the guidelines recommend assistive listening systems and either open captions or a printed text alternative. Video programs with no audio shall be identified as such. Regarding training, accessibility issues should be a part of training for NPS staff, volunteers, and park partners. A training guide should be developed for “management, maintenance, repair, and distribution of accessibility programs and equipment for visitor use” (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012, p. 80, para. 1). Sensitivity training should also occur in regards to accessibility issues, including basic courtesy and correct terminology.
In 1999, the National Park Service began a “NPS National Accessibility Achievement Awards” program that consists of national and regional awards for several categories of achievement (National Park Service, n.d. b). These awards were created “to stimulate and reward creative thinking and original program/project activity…that result in greater opportunity for persons with disabilities throughout the NPS” (National Park Service, n.d. b, p. 1). Natchez National Historical Park won the 2005 NPS Accessibility Achievement Award for its incorporation of tactile models of buildings, available interpretive audio tracks with displayed narration, a narrated touch screen program that cues to hand-held MP3 players, and three large etched-glass panels with diary and sketch entries, allowing visitors to feel the contours of the lines drawn (Shteir, 2007). In 2008, Yosemite’s deaf services program won the National Park Service Programmatic Accessibility Achievement Award, in response to the 2006 additions of ALDs throughout the park and continued community outreach by deaf services program staff. Park programs are announced to local, state, and national deaf organizations, specifically the California School for the Deaf, which comprises a high number of visitors with hearing limitations (National Park Service, Yosemite National Park, 2008).
Although the National Park Service is improving its interpretive accessibility, in 2006 a panel of park visitors with disabilities testified about their experiences in an Oversight Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Parks of the Committee on Resources (Shteir, 2007). A statement by Janice Schacter, the Chair of the Hearing Access Program of the Hearing Loss Association of America, on behalf of her daughter who is hard of hearing, indicated varied levels of access in national park units and that anticipating the level of access ahead of time was difficult as park websites did not always reflect what was actually available (Disability Access in the National Park System, 2006a). She spoke of encountering park units where there were no ALDs or captioning for the park film and of captioning systems that were broken or with text too small to read. In her testimony, Schacter stated that the parks appear to be stretched financially and have endured personnel cutbacks, but that “lack of finances is not an excuse for inappropriate access” (Disability Access in the National Park System, 2006a, Statement of Janice Schacter, para. 12). Another statement provided by James McCarthy, Director of Governmental Affairs of the National Federation of the Blind, said that people who are blind tend not to want specific changes to the built or natural environment as they generally are done by “individuals who do not actually know the capacities of blind people, and they don’t ultimately therefore meet our needs” (Disability Access in the National Park System, 2006b, Statement of James McCarthy, para. 3).
In response to this hearing, the National Park Service issued a memorandum acknowledging a failure to meet the minimum level of access required by Federal Law, and outlined four areas of critical need: compliance with appropriate standards or guidelines for newly designed and constructed assets; incorporation of accessibility corrections into all rehabilitation and renovation projects; provision of accessible interpretive programs, services and opportunities; and education for staff regarding the legal requirements for accessibility along with methods to more effectively meet the needs of citizens with disabilities (National Park Service, 2006a, p. 2).
An additional 2006 memorandum focusing specifically on audio-visual accessibility articulates the NPS initiative to use fee revenue dollars in the fiscal year 2007 to improve accessibility of audio-visual programs (National Park Service, 2006b, October). Stated within this memorandum is the goal that all national park units will show films that are captioned and audio-described, and have Assistive Listening Devices available in assembly areas by January 2008 (National Park Service, 2006b, October).
While accessibility is legally mandated, the concept of universal design is not. Universal design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Connell et al., 1997, para. 1). Universal design takes into consideration “the wide spectrum of human abilities. It aims to exceed minimum standards to meet the needs of the greatest number of people” (Skulski, 2007, Accessible Design vs. Universal Design section, para. 3). This concept is different from accessible design, which describes a site or facility that complies with the minimum accessibility standards to satisfy specific legal mandates or code requirements (Skulski, 2007).
The seven Principles of Universal Design were developed to guide the usability of products, environments and communications (Connell et al., 1997) and are as follows:
- Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities;
- Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities;
- Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level;
- Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities;
- Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions;
- Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue; and
- Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility (para. 4–10).
It is suggested that these principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process, and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments” (Connell et al., 1997, para. 2).
The Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines for NPS Interpretive Media (HFC Accessibility Committee, 2012) references the NPS 2006 Management Policies, which guides park facilities toward the incorporation of universal design principles in order to provide accessibility for all. The guidelines further state that all planning should be guided by universal design principles, particularly the first principle of equitable use. For this principle, it is expected that “the same experience can be provided for all users, without segregating or stigmatizing others with special accommodations or the need to ask for the special accommodations” (HFC Accessibility Committee, 2012, p. 7, para. 1).
Barriers to Inclusive Recreation and Strategies for Overcoming Barriers
Germ and Schleien (1997) interviewed Minnesota’s key community leisure service agencies to identify the inclusive practices employed and barriers encountered in serving people with disabilities. Administrators and supervisors reported financial constraints more so than any other barrier (Germ & Schleien, 1997). Difficulties were encountered in securing additional funding for hiring and training personnel, budgeting for new programs, identifying new funding sources, and persuading city councils on proposed allocations of resources for inclusive programming. Administrators, supervisors, and program instructors also believed staff attitudes to be an issue (Germ & Schleien, 1997). Germ and Schleien (1997) stress the need for increased attention to staff training, including any program instructors or volunteers that may have minimal duties or present only a few programs, as well as the importance of administrator involvement with inclusive programming, as it is difficult to facilitate programs without any actual experience with the program itself. From a National Park Service perspective, Chief Interpretive Ranger Karl Pierce of Cabrillo National Monument listed similar barriers to making parks more accessible including adequate funding, staffing, time, and technological limitations (Shteir, 2007).
Coco-Ripp (2005) looked at the importance of inclusive recreation and barriers to providing such recreation. Inclusive recreation was defined as providing services that offer everyone involved a full range of choice, social connections, and support, as well as the opportunity to reach their potential. As part of her literature review, she cited a national survey by Devine and Kotowski (1999) which found that financial restraints, lack of training, and the role of qualified staff were limiting factors to implementing inclusive recreation. Overall, Coco-Ripp (2005) identified three areas that are problematic when providing recreation for people who are deaf: communication, deaf identity, and social skills.
The concept of access is often narrowed to a discussion of technical or structural solutions, as opposed to a recognition of the broader social context that it entails. Burns, Paterson, and Watson (2009) studied motivations for outdoor recreation and found that for some people who are deaf, the outdoors provided an escape from the frustrations of communication, as the outdoors provided a means to manage such emotions. They concluded that it is important to understand not only the physical barriers present for disabled people to recreate outdoors, but also the reasons of how and why people wish to access the outdoors. Burns, Paterson, and Watson (2009) stress that there are more than structural changes that need to happen at a facility (ramps, captions), such as understanding the social context and needs of people with disabilities while recreating.
The National Center on Accessibility, established at Indiana University through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, sponsored a study to identify the perceptions of people with disabilities relative to program and physical accessibility in the NPS (Chen, 2001). Visitors to five national park units were surveyed including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Hot Spring National Park. This survey was a first of its kind, as it focused on the perceptions and expectations of visitors regarding individual park accessibility (Chen, 2001).
The results showed that visitors indicated deciding to visit parks less than a month in advance, yet park units typically require a month’s notice for providing a sign language interpreter. Additionally, the majority of all visitor respondents for each park indicated that they did not know if the park had a TTY. The majority also indicated that information on park accessibility was readily available and that they obtained information on park accessibility using the Internet, as well as the visitor center or ranger station, or a call to the park. Visitor respondents offered suggestions for accessibility improvement, including hiring individuals with disabilities as consultants of park management teams, understanding the needs of individuals with disabilities, and additional funding to make improvements (Chen, 2001).
The accessibility of park units from the visitor’s perspective is important not just for park planners, but park visitors as well. Two online blogs share personal experiences and photos about recreating in nature with a disability. Explorabilities: A Blog for the Physically Disabled Nature Enthusiast provides reviews along with recommendations of travels to various national parks, written by an individual with Multiple Sclerosis (Schuknecht, 2015). Wheelchairtraveling.com allows for public contribution of accessibility reviews and hosts an Access 2 Parks Project that provides a listing of park guides to assist people with limited mobility to plan a park visit (Wheelchairtraveling.com, 2016).
The literature review suggests that interpretive services may not be sufficiently meeting the needs of visitors with disabilities. Dissatisfaction may actually be higher, as visitors with disabilities may choose to not visit a park unit (and thus not participate in these research studies) due to anticipating a lack of accommodations or having had prior experience where needs were not met. Investigating the interpretive accommodations currently provided to National Park Service (NPS) visitors who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) can provide guidance as to where additional resources and services are needed. The following research questions guided this study:
- How do NPS units accommodate for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH within their provided frontcountry interpretive services?
- What guides NPS units’ provision of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
- Do NPS units perceive they are sufficiently providing interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
- What barriers do NPS units face relating to interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
This quantitative study utilized a cross-sectional design in the form of a self-administered survey, composed primarily of close-ended questions. The survey was administered online, as it allowed for data collection from a greater number of National Park Service (NPS) units in comparison to what would reasonably have been attained by gathering data via telephone or personal interviews. Additionally, the online survey allowed respondents to take the survey at a time most convenient for them and helped to maintain respondent anonymity.
The population of interest for this study was the Chiefs of Interpretation from all 401 (as of March 2014) NPS units, as these are the NPS employees with likely the most familiarity with interpretive accommodations at their respective park units. However, if the Chiefs of Interpretation felt another employee could better answer the survey, they were given the option for passing the survey on to an employee with more in-depth knowledge of interpretive accommodations. Sampling was not needed as the original population of interest (N=401) was feasible for this survey.
A total of 226 responses were collected for the survey (from 401 NPS units), for a 56.4% response rate. Table 1 displays the NPS units represented among the respondents. Tables 2 and 3 display the approximate distance of responding NPS units from a population center (50,000–70,000 or more people) and from a major community of people who are d/Deaf or HoH, such as a city or an area that have schools which serve students who are d/Deaf or HoH. Annual visitation to the responding NPS units’ visitor centers (combining numbers of visitors to all park visitor centers if more than one in park) is seen in Table 4 (n=210). The majority of respondents indicated that their NPS unit offers non-personal interpretive services and that their NPS unit also offers personal interpretive services (99% and 98% respectively).
The survey instrument was developed specifically for this study. The self-administered survey contained 37 close-ended and six open-ended questions. Six of the close-ended questions contained a response option, “other,” that allowed respondents to provide their own additional information. These questions were used to gather information regarding interpretive accommodative services provided, guidance for interpretive accommodations, perceptions as to the quality of services provided, and barriers to the provision of interpretive accommodations for each NPS unit. The survey also included general questions about the NPS units’ proximity to population centers, visitation levels, budget, and overall interpretive services. Survey questions were chosen based on the review of literature and the researchers’ experience working in the NPS. A panel of three experts reviewed the survey for content validity. This panel included one with expertise in survey design, one with expertise in accommodations for persons who are d/Deaf or HoH, and one NPS Chief of Interpretation. Based on their feedback, survey questions were revised before being administered to the population of interest. Feedback from the Chief of Interpretation included the suggestion to contact the Washington D.C. Office, Division of Interpretation and Education to make them aware of this study. Consequently, contact was made with the current NPS Associate Director for Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers who viewed the study as relevant and useful. Permission was granted to refer to this NPS Associate Director’s positive sentiments in the recruitment emails sent to NPS units; however it would remain clear in the invitation that this study was an independent study conducted by a university graduate student and that the study was not being conducted on behalf of or for the NPS. Contact was also made with the Director of Education and Technical Assistance at the National Center on Accessibility who provided survey feedback prior to survey administration.
After university Institutional Review Board approval, the survey was administered via the online platform Qualtrics, following an administration approach similar to that used by Kwak and Radler (2002). An introductory email was sent out, informing participants about the study and asking for their voluntary compliance in participating in the survey. To increase the response rate, a follow-up email was sent out seven days after the initial survey. A final email was sent out to thank the park service staff for participating in the survey and to provide a final opportunity to complete the survey. All emails were sent out with a link to the survey, along with a consent form. Participants had 18 days to complete the survey. Two hundred and twenty-six responses were received, for a response rate of 56.4%.
The following are several areas discussed by Babbie (2011), where validity may have been threatened in this study. Standardization of questions may have resulted in missing site-specific information. However, open-ended questions were used in attempts to potentially alleviate this threat. In addition, artificiality of results may have occurred as respondents may not have been aware of whether their park unit offers a specific accommodation or not, though they still may have answered the question. Respondents may also have felt that their park unit was being looked at critically, and may have provided a more favorable response. The purpose of this study was made clear in the sent emails, so as to avoid any threat to park units that may only provide minimal accommodations. Allowing the Chiefs of Interpretation to pass the survey on to a fellow staff member who was more knowledgeable about interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH may also have reduced the artificiality of results.
The results will be discussed in context of the study’s over-arching research questions.
1) How do NPS units accommodate for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH within their provided frontcountry interpretive services?
Survey participants were asked whether their park had offered programs specifically for visitors with disabilities within the last year. Of 224 respondents to this question, 59 respondents (26%) indicated they had, and 165 respondents (74%) had not. When asked if their park had offered programs specifically for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing within the past year, most had not (179 of the 223 respondents, 80%, had not).
While 16 of the 224 respondents indicated their park units provide no interpretive accommodations, most respondents indicated at least one accommodation for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. The most frequently provided accommodation was open/closed captions (see Table 5). As noted in Table 5, 183 park units had open/closed captioning; of those, the majority (158 respondents, 71%) used on-screen captioning, and the remaining used captioning on a separate reader board. For those using on-screen captioning, the majority used open rather than closed captioning (128 respondents, 81%). Of the 37 respondents indicating their park units did not have open/closed captioning, 26 indicated not having a park film and thus not needing open/closed captioning.
The second most frequently provided interpretive accommodation was Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) (see Table 5). Of the 147 respondents (66%) whose park units have exhibits with audio components, 128 respondents (88%) indicated that accommodations are available. However, many respondents indicated they were unsure if they had (44 respondents, 21%) or did not have (117 respondents, 55%) standard operating procedures for maintaining their ALDs or other accommodation equipment.
A sign language interpreter upon request was the third most frequently provided interpretive accommodation for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (see Table 5). Of the 56 respondents who indicated providing a sign language interpreter upon request, 27 (12%) required less than a week’s notice; 33 (15%) required two weeks; and 15 (7%) indicated their site required three weeks or more. In addition, most park units indicated being able to meet requests for a sign language interpreter (180 of 213 respondents, 85%). For the 33 respondents (15%) unable to meet requests for sign language interpreters, the most frequent reason was the request for an interpreter was made with too short of notice. In addition, the following reasons were also stated: sign language interpreter was not available; park unit in remote location/no interpreters in area; no one qualified on staff; never had received a request in the past; and no funding available.
Respondents who indicated providing some level of interpretive accommodative services for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH were asked how they communicate the availability of these services. Of the 212 respondents to this question, most indicated using their park website (155 respondents) or signage posted in the visitor center (141 respondents); see Table 6. Other responses for communication of available services included Trip Advisor narrative, news releases, handouts, and a partnership with their State School of the Deaf and State School of the Blind.
One form of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH includes having trained staff on duty. While most respondents (161 of 224 respondents, 72%) indicated having general accessibility training at their park units, only 63 (28%) indicated having training specifically regarding visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. For those who indicated having training specific to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, most indicated their training included what resources/services were available in the park to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH and how to communicate with people who are d/Deaf or HoH.
The majority of respondents indicated that they have reviewed their interpretive accommodative services for visitors with general disabilities (146 of 212 respondents, 69%) as well as for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (114 of 146 respondents, 78%). Of the 114 respondents that indicated they reviewed their interpretive accommodative services for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, 64 (56%) indicated that they regularly review those services (once every year or at least once every several years).
2) What guides NPS units’ provision of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
Respondents were asked, through an open-ended question, what guides their planning for the provisions of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. Their responses are summarized in Table 7. The most frequent responses were Harper’s Ferry Center guidance, NPS policies/guidelines, and requests from visitors. Respondents also were asked the degree to which specific guidelines or regulations influence their parks’ provision of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. The most influential guidance for respondents was the Americans with Disabilities Act (M = 3.37, SD = .88) and the Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Guidelines (M = 3.06, SD = 1.02), which corresponded to a rating of somewhat influential on a four-point rating scale (1 not at all influential/not familiar with to 4 = very influential). Less influential were the principles of Universal Design (M = 2.90, SD = 1.03), their park Long Range Interpretive Plan (M = 2.72, SD = 1.01), and the Rehabilitation Act (M = 2.42, SD = 1.18). In addition, respondents were asked if their park unit’s provision of interpretive accommodations was guided by persons with disabilities. Of 213 responses, 85 respondents (40%) indicated they were, while 88 respondents (41%) indicated they were not, and 40 respondents (19%) indicated they were unsure.
Beyond polices, guidelines, and guidance from persons with disabilities, results suggest provision of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH seem to be influenced by the frequency of requests for services. Respondents were asked about the frequency of requests for services made by visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, regardless of if the park unit has access to the requested service or not. The majority of respondents (96 respondents, 44%) indicated receiving one request per year, and 89 respondents (41%) indicated receiving requests either less than one a year or no requests. There were respondents who indicated receiving requests more frequently, with 30 respondents (14%) indicating receiving monthly requests, 3 respondents (1%) receiving weekly requests, and 2 respondents (1%) receiving daily requests. There was a significant correlation between frequency of requests and offering programs specifically for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (r = .31, p = < .01). Further, there were significant correlations between offering programs specifically for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH and perceived need to provide accommodative services (r = .16, p = .02), distance from major community of people who are d/Deaf or HoH (r = .14, p = .05), and visitor center visitation (r = .21, p < .01).
3) Do NPS units perceive they are sufficiently providing interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
Respondents were asked if they have had visitors to their park who are d/Deaf or HoH (n=225). One hundred, ninety-nine (88%) responded that they had, 2 (1%) responded that they had not, and 24 (11%) responded that they were unsure. Respondents were asked how great of need there was to provide interpretive accommodative services for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH at their park unit. Most respondents indicated somewhat of a need to provide interpretive accommodations (135 respondents, 60%), while 69 respondents (31%) indicated a strong or very strong need. Some respondents indicated that interpretive accommodations were not needed at their park unit (20 respondents, 9%; there was not an opportunity for respondents to expand upon this response). Perceived need was significantly related to distance from population center (r = .16, p = .02), distance from major community of people who are d/Deaf or HoH (r = .25, p = < .01), and visitor center annual visitation (r = .26, p = < .01). This suggests park units that were closer to population centers or communities of people who are d/Deaf or HoH and units with higher visitor center visitation perceived a greater need to provide interpretive accommodations.
Respondents were asked if they felt their park unit is sufficiently meeting the needs of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH and if they are providing similar interpretive experiences for both non-hearing and hearing visitors. About a third of respondents felt their NPS units were sufficiently meeting the needs of visitors and providing similar experiences for hearing and non-hearing visitors (65 respondents, 31% and 59 respondents, 28% respectively; there was not an opportunity for respondents to expand upon their response). Some units indicated they felt they were neither meeting the needs of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (90 respondents, 42%) nor providing similar experiences (89 respondents, 42%), and others were unsure (57 respondents, 27% and 64 respondents, 30% respectively).
Respondents were also asked if they felt the following level of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH was needed and would be feasible at their park unit: Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) available for park programs, public videophones, accessibility kits in park hotels, and a staffed Deaf Services Coordinator position. About half of respondents indicated they felt this level of service (these expanded accommodative services) was needed (103 respondents, 50%) and about one half of respondents indicated they felt it was feasible (113 respondents, 55%). Table 8 provides reasons as to why and why not respondents felt a high/expanded level of services would be needed at their park unit. Table 9 provides reasons why respondents perceived this expanded level of services to be feasible or not feasible. Respondents were asked to select from a list of possible services what one accommodative service that they feel would be most important to add to their interpretive operations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. The most frequent responses were staff training for interpretive accommodations and ALDs; see Table 10.
4) What barriers do NPS units face relating to interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH?
Respondents were asked to rate the strength of each potential barrier to providing interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH (1 = not a barrier to 5 = strong barrier). The strongest barriers were limited Division of Interpretation budget and limited park budget; the strength of these barriers corresponded with a rating of somewhat to moderate barrier (see Table 11). Respondents had the opportunities to list additional barriers, which included the following: low demand for interpretive accommodation; limited staff time; minimal staff to cover all interpretive operations; budget; changing technology; and lack of on-demand training (online).
In anticipation of the role of budget in influencing the provision of interpretive accommodations (Germ & Schleien, 1997, Devine & Kotowski, 1999, Shteir, 2007), respondents were asked to indicate sources of funding for general interpretive accommodative services, indicating all that applied. Most indicated their Division of Interpretation budget (139 respondents) or general park budget (82 respondents), while other sources included special grant funding (79 respondents), natural history association (21 respondents), and some indicated not knowing (3 respondents). Other sources for funding indicated through open response included park donations, fee program funds, and volunteers, with one response of “none.” Additionally, 84 respondents (40%) indicated having received funding specifically for accessibility improvement projects for interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH.
Discussion and Recommendations
The purpose of this study was to describe the provided interpretive accommodations for National Park Service (NPS) visitors who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HoH). Based on the high response rate to this voluntary survey (respondents from 226 of the 401 NPS units), it seems there is an openness to and interest in ensuring that visitors are appropriately accommodated. Perhaps this is reflective of, or at least consistent with, A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement, which, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, identifies specific actions to advance its mission (National Park Service, 2011). Within this A Call to Action is the goal of strengthening the educational and interpretive mission by engaging NPS visitors with interpretive media that is accessible to the broadest range of the public.
Achieving Relevance in Our Second Century (National Park Service, National Council for Interpretation, Volunteers, and Education, 2014), which aligns with A Call to Action, helps identify ways for the NPS to prioritize and expand limited resources, while adapting to recent budget cuts and staff reductions. This strategic plan mentions the need to strengthen the capacity for organizational learning, increase flexibility in response to new opportunities and challenges, and ensure the presence of forward-thinking leaders. The desired outcome, Relevance and Inclusion, is particularly relevant to this study, as it includes the strategies of improving the accessibility of interpretive programs and products, using social media and other emerging technologies to promote free-choice learning and reach new audiences, and using social science research to better understand audiences and stay current on best practices. The desired outcome, Business Acumen, includes the strategies of creating a flexible and adaptive organizational culture by regularly seeking input from stakeholders and encouraging a culture of evaluation. Strategies also include using long-range interpretive planning processes to incorporate trends, operational realities and audience research, as well as supporting and training staff, volunteers, and partners involved with interpretation, education, and volunteer services (National Park Service, National Council for Interpretation, Volunteers, and Education, 2014). Similarly, the Accessibility Task Force of the National Park Service’s plan for improving accessibility, All In! Accessibility in the National Park Service, 2015–2020, focuses on three main goals: “Create a welcoming environment for visitors with disabilities; ensure that new facilities and programs are accessible; upgrade existing facilities to improve accessibility” (National Park Service, n.d. c).
Based on the respondents to this survey, most NPS units have not provided programs specifically for visitors with disabilities, nor have they provided programs specifically for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. And several park units indicated not even offering the basic accommodations of captioning for their park film, nor accommodations for audio components of exhibits. However, most units do provide some form of interpretive accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, such as open or closed captioning, Assistive Listening Devices, and sign language interpreters upon request. Another encouraging finding is that many respondents indicated having completed accessibility assessments at their park units, which they have then used to guide the provision of accommodations for visitors with disabilities, including visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. Many also are guided by relevant legislation and policies, as well as by the Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Guidelines. Some respondents also indicated their provision of accommodations was guided by people with disabilities.
In addition, the results of this study suggest the provision of programs specifically for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH was related to the degree to which park units perceived a need for interpretive accommodative services, frequency of requests for services, distance from a major community of people who are d/Deaf or HoH, and annual visitor center visitation. In some cases, lack of requests for interpretive accommodations or even perceived lack of need may be a true reflection of lack of need. Perhaps the unit’s overall visitation level is low and consequently the number of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH is also low. Or perhaps visitors are enjoying NPS units in ways that do not require accommodations or special programs. On the other hand, lack of requests or a perceived lack of need may mask a true need, as this disability often isn’t as apparent as other disabilities, such as visual or mobility impairments. For example, about 10% of respondents weren’t sure whether or not they have had visitors to their parks who were d/Deaf or HoH.
In spite of this uncertainty regarding actual need, many respondents offered this reason for why they felt their park unit should be doing more in terms of accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH: Every visitor deserves access to interpretation. Further, about two-thirds of the respondents to this study indicated they perceived their park unit was not sufficiently meeting the needs of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, and most perceived either a need or a strong need to better accommodate visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. This, coupled with a high overall response rate, suggests something other than an attitudinal barrier to ensuring non-hearing visitors and hearing visitors have similar interpretive experiences. Instead, a variety of other barriers seem to be standing in the way of providing needed services and accommodations, including budget and staffing constraints, lack of knowledge or familiarity with possible services used by visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, and limited knowledge of legal responsibilities or guidelines pertaining to visitors who are d/Deaf or HOH. These barriers identified through this current study are consistent with some of the barriers previously identified, such as in Germ and Schleien (1997) and Coco-Ripp (2005).
With many respondents indicating a need to better accommodate visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, the question is how to do so. Survey results prompted the following recommendations, which are further described in the paragraphs that follow:
- Staff training regarding interpretive accommodations;
- Incorporate the Principles of Universal Design into the planning and provision of interpretive services;
- Include individuals who are d/Deaf or HoH when planning, updating, or evaluating interpretive services;
- Regular park unit assessments for accessibility;
- Personal and agency-level commitment toward equitable service;
- Use websites as a source of information regarding interpretive accommodations;
- Develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for accommodative services such as ALDs; and
- Create a collateral duty for general accessibility
Most respondents, when asked if they could do one thing to better accommodate visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, identified staff training regarding interpretive accommodations. Staff training would be useful toward decreasing two barriers identified in this study: lack of knowledge or familiarity with possible services used by visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH and limited knowledge of legal responsibilities or guidelines pertaining to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. The need for staff training is consistent with the literature. For example, Devine and Kotowski (1999, as cited in Coco-Ripp, 2005) found that lack of training and lack of qualified staff were limiting factors to implementing inclusive recreation, along with staff attitudes that were negative toward accommodations. Germ and Schleien (1997) stressed the need for increased attention to staff training, including even program instructors or volunteers who have minimal duties or present only a few programs. Bedini and Stone (2000, as cited by Coco-Ripp, 2005) suggested teaching awareness of deaf identity in recreation, as well as teaching how to provide opportunities for social skill development through recreation.
The majority of NPS units responded that interpretive staff received training regarding accessibility in general, however only 28% responded that this training includes topics specifically related to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. Staff with limited experience with accommodations and limited time for staff accessibility training were both rated by respondents as acting as somewhat of to moderate barriers to the provision of interpretive accommodative services. In regards to an open-ended question as to whether or not a higher level of accommodations for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH is needed or feasible, several respondents indicated a need for training to become familiar with services in regards to visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. One respondent stated, “I’m actually not sure…. Perhaps if I knew more about this area of accessibility, I would better understand where/how the services would be helpful.”
Another respondent indicated being unsure how to find relevant training, suggesting the usefulness of an online course offered “on demand.” In light of respondents indicating limited time available for staff accessibility training, and in some cases not enough staff to cover all the demands of the interpretive division, an online training course that could be accessed at any time is a good suggestion. Currently, the National Center on Accessibility, along with the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, has two courses relating to accessibility (one on Universal Design Principles, and one on access). Raising awareness of these training options among NPS interpretive staff may be helpful. In addition, The Eppley Institute and the National Center on Accessibility, potentially in conjunction with the NPS, might consider the development of additional modules focusing on fostering understanding of specific disabilities in an interpretive context, such as one on visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. Another training option for consideration would be within the Interpretive Development Program, which provides NPS interpreters with professional growth and development opportunities. While the interpretive competencies currently available include the topic of accessibility as a small component within them, the addition of a separate competency regarding accessibility (or interpretation for visitors with disabilities) may be beneficial.
In addition to staff training, another recommendation for better accommodating visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH is to incorporate the Principles of Universal Design into the planning and provision of interpretive services. These principles could also be used for evaluating existing interpretive services. While some respondents indicated their units’ provision of interpretive accommodations were influenced by these principles or were influenced by the Harpers Ferry Center Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines (which incorporate the Principles of Universal Design), the Principles of Universal Design were not as influential as legislation aimed toward eliminating discriminatory policies and practices. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was, on average, the most influential guidance on the provision of interpretive accommodations at respondents’ units, reflects accessible design or the compliance with minimum accessibility standards to satisfy specific legal mandates (Skulski, 2007).
In contrast, universal design aims for use by people of all abilities, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation; rather than meeting the minimum accessibility standards, the aim is to exceed the minimum standards (Connell et al., 1997). With interpretive services grounded in the Principles of Universal Design, visitors who may not have otherwise requested assistance would benefit. For example, open captions may be beneficial to people who don’t wish to identify themselves as being d/Deaf or HoH, those learning English, or for media situated in a noisy room. Thus, by grounding interpretive services in the Principles of Universal Design, visitors can benefit from the interpretive services provided without being segregated with special accommodations or stigmatized by having to ask for special accommodations (Harpers Ferry Center Accessibility Committee, 2012). In addition, the Principles of Universal Design can help address the problem noted in the literature regarding access to the outdoors for people with disabilities being narrowed to thinking more along technical solutions, such as free entry and closed captioning, rather than along a broader social context (Burns, Paterson, & Watson, 2009). The Principles of Universal Design provide a more holistic approach to planning interpretive services that are usable by people of all abilities. With universal design, issues of accessibility can be addressed not as isolated problems or projects, but through initiatives that reach the greatest number of people.
An additional recommendation stemming from this study and the literature review is to include individuals who are d/Deaf or HoH when planning, updating, or evaluating interpretive services. While 40% of respondents have included individuals with disabilities to provide guidance regarding accommodative interpretive services at their respective park units, the majority has not. Including individuals with disabilities when planning or evaluating interpretive services is consistent with recommendations by Chen (2001) and would help address the barrier of lack of knowledge or familiarity with possible services used by visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH. As several respondents noted, requests, feedback, or suggestions from visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH can guide provision of interpretive accommodations. They know best what they need and may have had experiences at other parks or museums where they experienced something that worked well that might be transferable to another park unit. Another resource to consider is the State Residential School for the Deaf, as each state in the United States has a residential school. In addition, the National Association of the Deaf, which is a civil rights organization of, by, and for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, may be another resource for consideration.
In addition, regular park unit assessments for accessibility are recommended. While the majority of survey respondents indicated they had reviewed interpretive accommodations for visitors with general disabilities and also for visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH, only about half indicated they review these services at least once every year or once every several years. With budget constraints being a barrier for many respondents, facility or program assessments conducted by the National Center on Accessibility, while perhaps ideal, would likely not be feasible. However, one respondent indicated that this survey encouraged them to check on their Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs). This respondent sent a brief online questionnaire to each of the operating visitor centers asking for the number of ALDs available, location of ALDs, if staff had been trained on their use, how often they are tested, if Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are available, and where signage is posted to advertise availability of the ALDs. This is an example of how a review of interpretive accommodative services could be done relatively easily and by doing so, raise awareness of accessibility to a park unit’s staff and help ensure that services are available and functioning. And as mentioned in prior recommendations, including visitors with disabilities and reviewing services in light of the Principles of Universal Design would also be helpful.
Another recommendation pertains to personal and agency-level commitment toward equitable service. Limited time and budget, along with competing priorities for time and budget, were barriers faced by many respondents. In addition, one respondent expressed this concern, “The real question will come with the park’s ability to maintain and/or improve the systems and program now in place into the future.” In Achieving Relevance in Our Second Century (National Park Service, National Council for Interpretation, Volunteers, and Education, 2014), managers are encouraged to identify several actions from within the document and focus on those so that collectively the agency can take small steps towards common outcomes. Perhaps if some of these small steps are in the equitable service context, capacity for organizational learning regarding accessibility may be increased, as well as flexibility in response to rapidly changing technologies, even in light of competing priorities for time and budget.
With limited time and budget and competing priorities to address, the following recommendations can be accomplished with minimal budget or time. Park units that are not already using their websites as a source of information regarding interpretive accommodations could begin to do so. While updating the website requires technical knowledge and time, it is a resource that can be updated frequently for less cost than updating printed materials. Park units should assess the ease of access to this information on their website and verify that the information is most current. It would also be helpful for park units to include the amount of time needed for requesting a sign language interpreter, as most units indicated they require at least two weeks notice, in contrast with Chen (2001) who found many visitors decide to visit a park site less than two weeks in advance. Another low-cost recommendation is to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for accommodative services such as ALDs, as most respondents indicated they did not have these in place. This is particularly useful when services are not requested frequently, as one respondent expressed, “It is a challenge for staff to remember how to use them when so rarely requested.” SOPs may include location of provided services, operating instructions, troubleshooting guide, procedures to lend equipment to visitors if applicable, and instructions for upkeep and maintenance. A final, easy-to-implement recommendation would be to create a collateral duty for general accessibility. For example, one respondent indicated they already had an Accessibility Coordinator as a collateral duty.
The NPS recognizes the need for change, acknowledges the challenges of growth, and outlines a strategy to achieve greater accessibility for park visitors. Future research is necessary to assess the needs and preferences of NPS visitors (past, current, and potential) to prioritize limited time and money. Further, perceptions NPS units have regarding how well they are meeting the needs of visitors may change as NPS units or other research entities explore the social context and broader needs of visitors who are d/Deaf or HoH beyond the physical changes to programs and structures.
The results of this study indicate areas where park units are doing well, as well as opportunities for doing more. These findings can guide the NPS as they seek to understand their audiences and improve the accessibility of interpretive programs and products.
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