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Accessible Practices Behind the Scenes Carolann Balyga
Carolann Baldyga: Working with Your Local ADA Office

In this 1998 interview, Carolann Baldyga, director of education at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, explains how two Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinators from the county parks and recreation department helped to make the garden a more welcoming place for visitors with various disabilities.

Our Visitors
Visitors come to Fairchild Tropical Garden because they want to see a tropical environment. Most visitors know little about the tropics but are curious. Many classroom teachers are limited to showing students textbooks that picture maple trees and a diagram meant to explain the four seasons. The garden's 83 acres immerse visitors of all ages in the amazing variety of plants growing in the subtropics and the tropics, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

But what about those who do not visit? I believe botanical gardens and museums must look at visitors they are not yet serving and figure out, Why not? For example, if people don't know about the garden, if they think it is private, if it has been experienced as inaccessible or a place where "don't touch" is enforced, then it is up to us work to change these perceptions. Doing this, I have found is partly a matter of learning how to change what we do and the way we do it.

How We Got to Know Our Local ADA Office
Hurricane Andrew caused vast damage when it went through southern Florida in August 1992. The recovery process at the garden was greatly aided by thousands of volunteers, many of whom had suffered severe personal losses themselves. With staff and volunteers working together, palms were righted, plants salvaged, and debris taken away. However, the conservatory, which housed the rare tropical plant collection, had to be completely rebuilt. Although no one understood the significance at the time, here was an opportunity to design and reconstruct a building according to what were then new ADA guidelines.

Two women, one standing and one in a powered wheelchair, travel a brick conservatory path amidst lush and diverse greenery. In the early stages of rebuilding the conservatory, the garden's facilities manager, Linda Friedman, called the ADA office at Metropolitan Dade County Department of Parks and Recreation. She assumed that the garden and the department likely had a lot in common when it came to outdoor spaces. She was right. Over the past several years, staff from the ADA office—director Dr. Diana Richardson, who uses a wheelchair; ADA training specialist Gayle Krause, who is blind; and ADA coordinator Lucy Binhack—have become valuable resources to us.

Our partnership started when we invited ADA office staff to tour the garden, ride on the tram, attend some activities, and, in general, act like visitors. We told them we wanted to learn what they found out—both positive and negative. Based on our conversations, we began making some changes. We also made a formal plan that addresses access with each new phase of renovation. For example, over time, all garden bathrooms will be accessible to people who use wheelchairs, and the new telephone system will have TTY access. Assisted listening devices are now available for visitors who use the tram and participate in walking tours.

In addition to providing valuable feedback, staff at the ADA office have provided us with Braille transcriptions of our brochures, which we loan to visitors who request them. They have also led workshops for garden staff and our 200-plus volunteers. Among other benefits, workshops have provided volunteers with opportunities to ask questions about how to talk about or to people with disabilities.

For me, it was very important to have our workshops for staff and volunteers conducted by people with disabilities rather than by someone talking in the abstract. Because Diana uses a wheelchair and Gayle is blind, there was no need for role playing. Instead, the situation was real and natural, with opportunities to share ideas and demonstrate appropriate language and behaviors. I recall that at one point there was a conversation going on, and Diana said, "Would you mind looking in my direction? Because I am a little bit lower than you." Conversation resumed, and I think we had become aware of what inclusion really means.

Our official training may be over, but Diana, Gayle, and Lucy continue to come to the garden. In fact, they have become frequent participants at Fairchild events and they recommend the garden to others. They continue to tell us what works for them and we continue to try out things together.

What We've Learned
Four visitors stand holding hands against the thick trunk of a baobab tree. When I review these experiences, I think the key is, Ask first. Also, make the changes needed. For special events and festivals at the garden, for example, we no longer put booths in the middle of lawns. We place them next to paths. Little things like that make a big difference in terms of accessibility and, not surprisingly, bring us lots of good comments. Another example is our plan to change pathways so that all visitors can get closer to the plant material. We have learned that when visitors who are blind or visually impaired have the opportunity to extend their arms around a large baobab tree (see photo), they understand the size and texture of this amazing tree far better than any lecture or Braille description might convey. In the future, we want to find ways to better accommodate visitors with mobility impairments so that they can move more easily and independently around the garden. In the long run, I expect that everyone will enjoy the improvements.

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