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New Jersey is stepping up efforts to improve the lives of those with disabilities, including expanding outdoor recreation opportunities.
According to Sarah Adelman, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, DHS launched the Inclusive Healthy Communities grant program in 2021 as a way to respond to a need seen in the community.
“We wanted to make sure that we were focused on solutions that change planning and policy for individuals with disabilities, so there is more inclusion and equity,” she said.
Sean Holland, the Access Nature Disability Advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said a $250,000 grant from DHS is being used to make improvements at different state parks, including the Atsion Recreation Areas in Wharton State Forest.
Sean Holland, the Access Nature Disability Advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, points towards improvements that are being made for those with disabilities at Atsion Recreation Area. (David Matthau/WHYY)
He said part of this effort involves making 5-foot-wide dirt trails more navigable.
“Crushed stone dust is the main material that we’re looking to use, but also where there’s wetland areas or inundated areas with wetlands, we’re looking to use boardwalk systems,” he said.
Holland said specialized wheelchairs that can traverse dirt and sand have been purchased and are available for use at the recreation area. There are also plans to get specialized beach mats and build an ADA dock system at Atsion Lake, “which will allow individuals with disabilities to go kayaking, it’s really a neat piece of equipment.”
Sean Holland, the Access Nature Disability Advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, points towards where a new ADA docking system will be constructed. (David Matthau/WHYY)
Holland, who was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect that often causes paralysis of the legs, said trail maintenance accessibility concepts have been upgraded and improved over the past 20 years. He pointed out that the Alliance is working to implement those guidelines in many different ways.
Adelman said this work is very important because 20% of the Jersey population lives with some form of a disability, and often these individuals experience disproportionate health and chronic disease issues as well as social isolation.
“Individuals with disabilities need to be at the table giving their input from their lived experience about what will make the most impact in their lives, and how they’d like to see communities to include them better,” she said.
DHS Commissioner Sarah Adelman. (David Matthau/WHYY)
Over the past three years, the Department of Human Services has provided almost $7 million in state funds to 32 organizations, towns, and hospitals across the Garden State to help fund projects that improve the lives of those with disabilities.
Allocations include a $250,000 grant to the Children’s Specialized Hospital to expand safety education programs, a $100,000 grant to Hanover Township to expand its “Dial-a-Ride” program, and $250,000 awarded to the Ocean County Health Department to construct inclusive community vegetable gardens.
A complete list of DHS Inclusive Healthy Community grantees can be found here.
“There are incredible natural resources across New Jersey that people with disabilities largely weren’t accessing because they couldn’t,” said Adelman. “We wanted to help fund organizations to make improvements, so that these spaces could be accessible for all New Jerseyans.”