Accessibility in Action: Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
Friday, September 11, 2015
Pearl Gannon, named Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, and her service dog explore the accessible garden and water feature with Julie Vandervort, Director of the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.
At least one in ten people in the Chicago Wilderness region have some kind of disability, but all residents should have access to our region’s outdoor assets.
Nestled in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center is revolutionizing nature access. We asked Julie Vandervort, Director of the Nature Center, how they lead by example:
Q: How has the community responded to the accessible building design at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center?
A: We have seen an increase in attendance by audiences with special needs, seniors, pre-school children, and visitors that use walkers and wheelchairs. We have seen an increase in field trip requests by schools with students that have special needs.
Q: Why was accessibility an important consideration in this nature center design?
A: We wanted to provide a nature center that would be inviting to a larger audience. It is important to us to make everyone feel welcome when they visit. Being outside, immersed in nature benefits our physical and mental health for people with and without special needs. We wanted to provide visitors with the opportunity to access our natural resources.
Q: What are some examples of on-site accessibility features?
A: We provide accessible parking spaces, entrances, restrooms, sidewalks, and interpretive display and programming. Our latest additions include our accessible garden and trail. Visitors can explore accessible flower beds, water feature and signage that include text in raised tactile lettering, braille, American Sign Language, Polish and Spanish. Our programs have been adapted to be accessible to visitors with a variety of abilities. Our event Nature IS Accessible, held in June, showcases nature activities that have been adapted to be inviting to visitors with different levels of ability.
What is the more important thing you’ve learned about incorporating accessibility considerations?
A: Everyone benefits. The important thing is to consider the needs of others when planning and developing visitor space, programs or activities. Be mindful of barriers and work hard to remove them. We strive to create an inclusive atmosphere here at the nature center so everyone feels welcome.
Q: Do you think the accessibility features of the site have helped to attract new people to this nature center?
A: Yes. We’ve seen an increase in visitors with special needs, visitors that use wheelchairs and walkers, and an increase in seniors visiting the nature center. Visitors are staying longer. Grandparents are spending more time at the nature center with their grandchildren. Strollers can also be easily pushed along the accessible trail making this trail attractive to visitors with infants, toddlers and small children.
Chicago Wilderness is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in partnership with ADA 25 Chicago, a network of civic partners who have come together to commemorate and advance this civil rights milestone. Chicago Wilderness proudly supports ADA 25 Chicago’s vision to make Metropolitan Chicago the most inclusive region in the nation as a part of the Public Engagement: Beyond the Choir focus area. The Chicago Community Trust is the lead sponsor of ADA 25 Chicago.