Heather Smith, a national equality specialist for the National Trust, has been appointed as the new disability champion tasked with improving access to the countryside and heritage sites for disabled people. Her brief is to challenge the idea that disabled people do not want to access the countryside or heritage venues – an experience that many people simply take for granted and don’t give much thought to how difficult it might be for disabled visitors.
The role of the champion is to pave the way for far easier access to the countryside and heritage sites, making them available to everyone. Consequently, continuing to work on recent improvements to countryside access by promoting accessible routes will be key.
In fact, some National Parks are already part of a project to promote accessible routes and it seems that improvements to accessibility are being made. Rachel Briggs, access and recreation officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said there had been a cultural change in recent years.
“National parks have generally come a long way,” she said. “I’ve been doing this job for about 15 years and I have seen a shift in how we consider increasing accessibility.”
“There is a lot more thought from park rangers now when they are replacing a stile and whether they should do that with a gate or a gap. That was a real cultural shift for them. Gone are the days when we would put in ladder stiles over a wall.
“On the ground we are doing quite a lot of work. We’ve done a full audit of rights of way in the park to see which routes we could improve and every year we make improvements.”
In fact, the existing Miles Without Stiles initiative is backed by, among others, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and advertises 17 routes through the Yorkshire Dales which vary between two and five miles in length. The Peak District National Park has 20 accessible sites.
In addition, Yorkshire’s second largest landowner (Elsewhere and Yorkshire Water) has been working on some of its most scenic reservoirs to improve access around them for wheelchair users.
Following her appointment, new countryside champion Ms Smith said: “There is a wealth of great practice across the sector but so much more we can do by working collaboratively with disabled people.”
“I hope to foster more of this approach and improve conversation and understanding to deliver improved and innovative change.”
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