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Accessible Experiences at Martin Park Nature Center

15 February 2016

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Integris Martin Park Nature Center

Amidst the bustling highways, sprawling apartment complexes and suburban neighborhoods of northwest Oklahoma City lies a quiet oasis tucked into the trees. Martin Park Nature Center occupies 144 acres of pristine, undeveloped land: a hidden gem providing a serene environment for exploring and appreciating nature, right here within our city.

In addition to being rated one of the “Ten Best” regional parks by National Geographic, Martin Park Nature Center boasts unique features that set it apart from other nature parks in the state, and even from most across the country. Through an initiative of the Wilderness Matters organization and backing of INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation, Martin Park Nature Center’s newly redesigned Courage Trail is the first accessible nature trail of its kind in the state, and one of only a few accessible nature centers in the United States.

Wilderness Matters

Wilderness Matters strives to provide world-class accessible experiences so all people can actively engage with nature. “The idea evolved out of my desire to get outdoors,” says Jack McMahan, a 2004 winner of the Jim Thorpe Courage Award and a champion for accessibility. “I didn’t want to go only to the visitors’ center at these places. I wanted to be able to get off the beaten path.”

A wheelchair user himself, McMahan envisioned a place all Oklahomans could enjoy, regardless of their abilities. Along with the organization’s co-founder/chairman of the board Peter Hoffman and a team of dedicated individuals, Wilderness Matters recognized Martin Park Nature Center as the perfect place to make this vision a reality.

The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that not only must the physical structures in parks be made accessible, but also the programs and the experiences. Martin Park is the only nature center in the Oklahoma City system with a paid naturalist who gives tours, but what about visitors who can’t see or hear or get close enough? The key driving factor in this project was to add that dimension, making those experiences accessible for everyone.

A trip to Martin Park Nature Center is about more than bird-watching, animal observation and looking at flowers and plants. “The outdoors is inextricably tied to mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. As we looked at many outdoor venues, it became apparent there wasn’t a true accessible experience in a real nature park setting. We knew this project would be meaningful and allow all kinds of people to spend time outdoors, to really get it, feel it and absorb it,” Hoffman says.

Universal Design

An endowment through Wilderness Matters and support from INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation helped spur the project forward, which has evolved the nature center into a much more user-friendly and accessible destination. The organization worked with the Friends of Martin Park and the city of Oklahoma City, making tremendous effort to preserve the natural aspects of the park, complete construction during a dormant season and not interfere with ecological habitats.

The main trail, renamed the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Courage Trail, is now stabilized with decomposed granite, an environmentally friendly and ADA-compliant material that allows wheelchair users and those pushing strollers to use the trail efficiently. Boardwalks, decks and a planned accessible tree house along the trail give those with mobile limitations the experiences of being off the ground and seeing things from a higher vantage point.

Through a concept called Universal Design, eight interpretive exhibits will be added to the park. These exhibits include steel features with text, diagrams and raised maps, along with tactile, three-dimensional plaques for the visually impaired to be able to participate in the park in their own way. “There won’t be a visitor in the park who can’t have a hands-on experience. Universal Design ensures participation for everyone – not only those with disabilities, but everyone.”

An Experience for Every Person

Hoffman adds, “If INTEGRIS had not stepped in, this project would not have been possible. The generosity and wonderful vision of INTEGRIS have allowed us to deliver all these enhancements and guarantee remaining plans will be executed. We want to bring back the childlike wonder and recharging that come from connecting with nature. Our goal is to give the experience to all people.”

If you’re looking for a place to escape within the city or a fun place to discover with your family, Martin Park Nature Center offers miles of accessible trails perfect for leisure, exercise and exploration for all ages and mobility levels. Make a trip during springtime to see trees, plants and flowers in bloom, birds and animals in their natural habitat, and simply breathe in some fresh air. For more information about the nature center, visit the Martin Park website, and see below to find out how we logged the trip as part of our Steps to Health.