For nature lovers with disabilities the national parks offer a range of accessible accommodation, facilities and activities. At the Disability Expo SANParks will showcase its offering – and make nature come alive for young visitors.

The sights, smells and sounds of the wild are something that everyone, regardless of physical abilities, needs to experience first hand. That’s why South African National Parks (SANParks) will be reaching out to disabled visitors at the Disability Trade and Lifestyle Expo & Conference.

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According to Chris Patton, Project Manager: SANParks Strategic Tourism Services, every national park in SA has some level of accessibility, but certain parks are more developed and accessible than others. One of SANParks’ biggest challenges is mobilising people with special needs. “People with disabilities are often reluctant travellers. They are comfortable in their own known and safe environments, so to provide a suitable environment where they feel catered for is a big challenge. The natural terrain of park environments can also present certain barriers. But at some level it is always possible to provide some way of seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting or simply experiencing aspects of a national park.”

The Disability Trade and Lifestyle Expo & Conference was in Cape Town from 17 to 19 September 2015 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, followed by a showcase in Johannesburg during November. “People’s first instinct is probably that things like wheelchair suppliers, accessible vehicle manufacturers, hearing aids, guide dog schools and various other disability organisations would be the main exhibitors. But while such parties are featured it is also an opportunity to look at accessible lifestyle products,” Patton explains.

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SANParks have implemented several enhancements for disabled visitors. Think accessible accommodation with ramps and adapted ablutions, accessible nature trails and boardwalks, tactile exhibits that offer the chance to feel natural curiosities, audio products and accessible bird hides. “In general, the healing and spiritual power of being in nature are some of the main attractions,” Patton says.

I have loved nature since early childhood and part of being able to appreciate nature is the ability to experience it.

– Chris Patton

Although SANParks’ main focus at the expo will be accommodation, facilities and activities for visitors with disabilities, the SANParks Honorary Rangers will exhibit their environmental education displays and interact with guests, particularly children with disabilities. “The enriching experience such children get from being able to feel, see and hold various wildlife exhibits can be intensely powerful. Conservation and national parks are often a foreign concept to people and such interactions fuel their fascination and interest.”

Patton is a paraplegic himself and has worked for SANParks for 17 years. “I have loved nature since early childhood and part of being able to appreciate nature is the ability to experience it. Ironically I ended up in a wheelchair because I fell off Table Mountain as a student. The mountain wasn’t a national park then, it was only proclaimed as such in 1998.”

Patton says the national parks exist to be the pride and joy of all South Africans and as a consequence must be accessible to all. “There are a series of SANParks protocols on universal access within the parks that are quite specific and flow out of the organisation’s Responsible Tourism Plan, so all parks have a reference point and guidelines as to how to adapt their park to be universally accessible. There is no reason why people with disabilities cannot have a wonderful experience in visiting any of the parks.”