Imagine hiking while blind. Without sight, trails get a lot trickier, and for some, the outdoors are simply inaccessible. A new option at Bear Creek Park in El Paso County is making one trail just a little more usable.
The Songbird Trail already existed at the park. It consists of wooden planks that help keep the trail clear and easily traversable and occasional signs describe the local flora and fauna.
Now, with a few quick updates, the trail has been adapted for a wider audience.
“It felt like such an easy leap,” said Mary Jo Lewis, supervisor of Bear Creek Nature Center.
Fence posts now stand on the trail's right side, a long rope draped between them. Visitors with visual impairments are able to use their hands to follow the rope along the trail. The rope is knotted in some places, indicating that an educational sign is standing behind it.
“We had originally thought (we'd) do braille," said Lewis. But, "We’re all sighted people on our staff."
She enlisted the help of Monica Gimbel, a volunteer for nature centers in the area. Gimbel is legally blind and usually gets around with the help of her husband or her guide dog, Cambridge.
“I was so grateful to have Monica’s input to say, ‘Not all people who are unsighted read braille,’” said Lewis.
At Gimbel's suggestion, the Bear Creek Nature Center implemented a device called Pen Friend on the trail. She said she uses the Pen Friend in her daily life.
“It’s a device that you can take and label things with,” said Gimbel. “You actually record to it and it stores (the recordings). When you go over the little dot, it’ll read back what you recorded on it.”
On the Songbird Trail, these dots are on the corner of every sign along the path. Visitors can check out a Pen Friend before their walk and use it on the dots, which will then play a recording of what the respective sign says.
“There’s so many more things in this world than sight and it’s nice to get out here and smell, hear, and just be a part of it," said Tim Gimbel, Monica's husband.
He said the accessibility the device brings boosts Monica's confidence, and it helps her avoid “feeling like, ‘well, I have a disability so I can’t do that.’”
With the trail, Monica says she doesn’t have to rely on her husband or guide dog as much.
“I can come and walk by myself and enjoy it,” she said.
Pen Friends are inside the nature center and available for free at the front desk. Visitors can check them out before heading to the trail. If requested, a volunteer or employee can assist anyone to the trailhead.
The devices can also be used inside the Bear Creek Nature Center.
The center is monitoring the use of the devices. If the Pen Friend proves popular, Lewis said they hope to extend the accessibility features along the trail.
Bear Creek Nature Center is located at 245 Bear Creek Road in Colorado Springs.
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