For disabled New Yorkers, the great outdoors is open again — partly because of a special, tax-supported program.
“We get closer to nature and have a greater appreciation for it,” said Keith Havis, site administrator at West Genesee Day Habilitation Center. It organizes activities for mentally and physically disabled Central New Yorkers.
Havis and his clients are among the users of what’s called the Access Pass. It provides free and reduced admission to parks, recreation and historic sites across the state. This is the revised version of the program. In 2010, it was drastically reshaped under financial pressures and after investigative reports by The New York Times that revealed widespread abuse.
In 2008, The New York Times disclosed not-so-disabled Long Island Rail Road retirees using Access Passes to play golf. That over-use cost the state park system much money, adding to the financial strain already on the state’s parks. The financial pressures included massive budget cuts that forced parks to close, including Clark Reservation State Park in Onondaga County.
“The economic crisis required State Parks to make a number of unpopular decisions,” said Dan Keefe, spokesperson for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Among those decisions: Cutting 65 percent of Access Pass holders from the program. Laying off park staff. Reducing services at 100 parks and historic sites. All of that has had effects on the state parks and it budgets. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, Access Pass visits decreased by 30 percent — saving $4.5 million.
Today, the program is available to New Yorkers who are blind, deaf, unable to walk, amputees, disabled veterans and mentally disabled. To get their Access Pass, they must apply to the state with documentation of their disability.
In 2011, more than 127,000 New Yorkers qualified for the Access Pass. Residents use it to visit parks and historic sites, camp in tents and cabins, and play at state-run golf courses.
In Fayetteville, at the pro shop at Green Lakes State Park Golf Course, employee Mary Gregg said she doesn’t see as many Access Pass-toting golfers as before. “Some still come,” said Gregg, 34, “but not as much.”
In Onondaga County, the Access Pass remains a godsend for a wide range of mentally and physically disabled individuals. Keith Havis, the site administrator at West Genesee Day Habilitation, takes clients to visit different parks once or twice a week in good weather.
As many as 24 clients and eight staff members take three vans to Green Lake, Chittenango Falls or other parks. Wheelchair-bound or walker-using clients, he said, can move more freely outside. The outdoors, sunlight and fresh air, he said, reduces behavior problems.
“A few years ago, when the parks closed due to funding issues,” Havis said, “I’m sure no one liked it, but our folks definitely missed it.”
(Elizabeth Carey is a graduate student in newspaper, magazine and online journalism.)