skip to Main Content

RECAP: June forum discusses increasing accessibility for visual & sensory sensitivities

Awareness and understanding were the key takeaways from our June forum on accessibility in parks and trails, which focused on sensory sensitivities and visual impairments. It is not always easy to identify someone with disabilities if it’s not physically apparent.

Still, we can always work to be better aware of our visitors to potentially spot when someone is having difficulties. And the best way to approach them? Simply ask, “Is there anything I can do for you or assist you with today?” Nothing fancy, but this can have a huge impact on those that do need some assistance. 

During the forum, accessibility advocate Michele Ensign spoke to attendees about what she has learned from her experience with her non-verbal autistic son. Sensory sensitivities can stem from too much, or even too little, stimulation from our surroundings. Everyone has sensitivities to some degree that cause us to focus intensely on certain things and lose the ability to focus on anything else.

It could be someone next to you clicking a pen, overwhelming perfume, or the bright headlights of an oncoming car when you’re driving at night. For some, sensitivities are far more exacerbated, such as those living with autism. So, what can we do to help? Understanding where sensitivities might be coming from and providing reasonable accommodations—such as quiet spaces or sensory kits—would be a good start! It is also important to be flexible, ask questions, and listen to what their needs are. Michele has put together a great resource guide for Southeast MN that provides insight into additional resources and helpful information. You can look for similar resources in your area or reach out to Michele for information.

Our other guest speakers were Mary Lee Turner and Jane Toleno, twin sisters born congenitally blind, who had many useful tips for park professionals and users. First and foremost, they posed an important question—how are you reaching the blind community to let them know your park or trail facility exists? If they don’t know you’re there, they will never come to visit. One way to start connecting with the blind community is with a website and content that are accessible. Reaching out to schools for the blind, senior services, and community education organizations are also good resources. Just remember, brochures may not be the most accessible source of information, so be sure to talk with those organizations about the best practice for relaying your information.

Next consideration: is your park accessible for someone who is visually impaired? Is there public transportation? If so, what do they encounter when they get to your park or trail that will help them understand what direction to go from there? Awareness of others while using trails is key to sharing the trail correctly. Look for guide dogs with their walking harness or the use of canes as signals that a person may not see you coming and could easily be startled. Loud and clear indications of what side you will be passing—such as, “passing on the right!”—can be very helpful. Many planning guidelines are available through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but a few important points to consider are the proximity of parking, ADA-accessible restrooms, paved paths, and trail edge/curb height changes. Mary Lee and Jane are very passionate about the outdoors and help facilities improve the experience for those with visual barriers. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact them using the information provided below. This was just a recap of the valuable information shared during the forum! To learn more or view the forum recording, please visit the Past Forums tab of the GMPT website.

Contact Information:

Michele Ensign — (507) 509-0079, Michele@AutismResource.Guide
Michele is a special-needs mom and former teacher living in Rochester, MN, who is on her way to completing graduate degrees in applied behavior analysis (autism therapy is the flagship) and autism spectrum disorders. Earlier this year, she formed Autism Resource Guide to serve the needs of the community through community connections, education, and advocacy.

Mary Lee Turner — (503) 956-5088,
Mary Lee is congenitally/legally blind and is experiencing some hearing loss. During her graduate studies at the University of Oregon, she took every environmental interpretive course the university had to offer and earned a master’s degree focused on Therapeutic Recreation. Mary Lee was the first ever blind person to participate in an Outward Bound course—right here in the Boundary Waters area around Ely, MN! Throughout her life, Mary Lee has taken every opportunity to provide feedback regarding issues of accessibility in local and state parks.

Jane Toleno — (210) 957-1233,
The younger twin sister to Mary Lee, Jane is also congenitally (and now totally) blind. Jane was one of the first children to speak at the Oregon State Legislature about the need for orientation and mobility training for visually impaired persons in all environments. She has loved traveling all her life—walking country roads and city streets, along riverbanks, through woods and in parks. Jane is always thinking about what kinds of cues and information would help others which motivates her advocacy.

Recommended Reading: ⁠The Power of Disability: Ten Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World – Al Etmanski