By MOLLY DeVORE, The Times

PORTER, Ind. (AP) – For Deborah Armstrong, knowing that blue water fills the background of the Indiana Dunes National Park brochure is unnecessary. Armstrong, who is blind, helped Indiana Dunes develop a new brochure with audio description, prompting the park to paint a vivid picture of the park.

“We don’t need to focus on what exactly we see, we need to focus on describing what we see,” said Steve Rossi, a ranger who was instrumental in shaping of the park’s audio brochure. “I was shaking in my boots terrified. How do you describe a map without losing someone? Now that everything is said and done, I’m not too scared anymore. I just learned to slow down.

In August, audio description company UniDescription approached the park to create the audio brochure. Visitors can access the brochure on the UniDescription app and listen to the one hour and 14 minute recording. Listeners using a screen reader can even customize the reader’s voice.

UniDescription, a research initiative to translate visual media into audio media, has worked with national parks across the country to make backgrounders more accessible.

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Steve Rodriguez, an Indiana Dunes park ranger who is legally blind, and park visual information specialist Wesley Butler, were also heavily involved in the project. From October 26 to 28, the team took on parks around the world in a virtual Descriptathon. The teams spent three days creating audio descriptions, receiving feedback from a panel of blind judges and other contestants.

Working alongside a ranger who has limited vision highlights the challenges visually impaired visitors can face, Rossi said. Even Rodriguez, who walks the park daily and knows the trails “like the back of his hand,” still needs guidance from time to time.

“It’s a great feeling. We not only gave someone equal and equitable access to the park, we also gave them autonomy, ”said Rossi. “Now a person with limited or no vision can listen to the brochure and navigate the park without having to feel pressured to have someone by their side. “

Rossi likes to see park visitors as silhouettes: “I don’t care who you are, I just want to see you enjoying the park. This is your park.

Inaccessibility has long shaped who can enjoy the outdoors. A 2004 study from the Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration found that non-disabled respondents were 16.6% more likely to say they spend time outdoors than people with disabilities. Thirty percent of respondents with disabilities cited “inadequate facilities” as a barrier to outdoor recreation, compared to only 15.9% of those who did not.

Over the past two or three years, Indiana Dunes has worked to make the park more accessible, providing a variety of bikes and wheelchairs that navigate the park’s changing terrain, including beach chairs that allow for ‘access the dunes. In 2019, Rossi led an excursion in which a boy used one of the park’s off-road wheelchairs to access the Fur Trader’s Hut.

“There wouldn’t have been an outing on the pitch if it hadn’t been for a wheelchair,” Rossi said. “It sold me (increased accessibility of the park) because I saw this little boy and the smile on his face.”

While the park had primarily focused on physical accessibility, last year Butler remade the park movie, adding audio descriptions. Starting in June, Butler and Rossi added audio recordings to the park’s many exhibits and information boards. Visitors can dial a phone number to hear a recording of Rossi reading the signage. So far, 10 of the approximately 100 roadsides have been completed.

When the park was approached by UniDescription, Butler and Rossi thought the project was a great way to expand on the work they had already started.

First developed in 1967, the park brochure has changed shape over the years, with the most recent update being in 2019 after Indiana Dunes became a national park.

Rossi has spent the last five summers looking at the front of the brochure – inside out. From his usual perch at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, Rossi spends much of his day showing hikers the brochure map. Before starting the audio project, Rossi said he was not sure he had “ever looked at the back of the brochure”.

Adorned with vivid photos of the park’s many habitats, graphics showing the impact of glaciers, and sepia-toned images of the park’s early days, the brochure is packed with information. The team divided the brochure into 34 sections, covering the history of the park to its many unique biological characteristics.

Each recording includes a synopsis, which Butler says is the “first look at what you see” and a detailed description. The detailed description is what happens “when you look at the photo for more than 10 seconds.” Then the details really start to come out, ”Rossi said.

“It changed my perspective, now I really appreciate what the park is about,” Butler said. “Listening to it you say to yourself, ‘Wow, there is so much more going on’ … even if you are not blind this is a great tool to have.”

Park rangers provided minute details for each image: the exact number of yellow perch, the exact type of goldfinch. Rossi hopes visitors of all skill levels will listen to the brochure on their way to the park to familiarize themselves with the sometimes difficult area to navigate, treating the brochure “no different from an audiobook”.

Rossi plans to incorporate the lessons learned throughout the audio brochure project into his other park responsibilities. When leading the tours, Rossi said he would “take into consideration that people’s eyes might not be what my eyes are.”

“It’s good to use a word or two more … you just provide someone with a little extra knowledge,” Rossi said. “None of this is a waste of breath.”

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