How Do You Blaze a Trail That Everyone Can Enjoy?

Birding with a disability can be difficult and lonely. These advocates are working to change that, one park at a time.

Jerry Berrier wanted to go birding. He’d been listening to birds, recording them, and learning to identify them by sound for decades. Wherever he went—family vacations, car trips, city streets—he would hoist a microphone into the air to grab a snippet. But he’d never ventured out with others who shared his passion.

So, when he moved to a quiet town in Massachusetts in 1998, Berrier signed up to volunteer as a docent at the Broad Meadow Brook nature center. He would sit on the building’s wide back porch and talk to visitors about the songs bursting through the trees. “I kept hoping that someone would take me birding with them,” he says.

It took a while to get an invitation. Berrier is visually impaired, and in his experience, birders often don’t want to be slowed down by someone with a disability. “It’s not really easy for a person who is blind to get into a hobby like that,” he says.

Tired of being left behind, Berrier decided to take up a new mission—to change the birding landscape for people with disabilities. As a program manager at the Perkins School for the Blind and consultant with Mass Audubon, he’s among a small group of experts working to make nature more accessible across the board.

Berrier’s efforts began in the early 2000s when he joined a Mass Audubon advisory team to plan a new braille trail at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary. The group decided to repurpose a boardwalk that ran through forests, wetlands, and fields by incorporating ADA-friendly features. Mass Audubon then tested the design out with individuals with various impairments. “They wanted to include people with disabilities from the ground up,” Berrier says. He was impressed. “It’s not usually the way things are done,” he adds.

The boardwalk, which opened to the public in 2008, was the first of Mass Audubon’s one-of-a-kind All Persons Trails. The nonprofit has now built 11 of these routes statewide, complete with rope guides, tactile signage, and sensory stops. Berrier’s influence is clear throughout: His voice, along with the sounds of common local birds, narrates the audio tours at each site.

Since Mass Audubon’s program took root, other nature organizations have taken similar steps to make their facilities more accessible. “We get calls constantly,” says Lucy Gertz, Mass Audubon’s education projects manager. The questions inspired her to publish a guide in 2016, sharing some of the strategies that she, Berrier, and their collaborators developed. Her biggest suggestions? Secure funding (making ADA-compliant trails can get pricey), recruit testers, and train staff to help visitors with a wider range of abilities.

But until more trail builders start thinking like Gertz, birders across the country may want to seek out accomodations, says Marcy Marchello, a program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. She recommends trails with wheelchair-compatible parking lots, graded surfaces on curbs, and plenty of rest areas. If a space doesn’t have benches, an easy cheat is to bring along foldable chairs.

Pace can be important, too, when planning a disability-inclusive hike. “It’s a question of being willing to slow down,” says Jan Ortiz, a former trip leader for the Hampshire Bird Club in Amherst, Massachusetts. “We start later than the normal birding walk, and we end earlier [to allow] more time to get up and get going in the morning,” she explains.

And while trails serve as a great inroads to nature, Berrier stresses that they aren’t the only route. In his birding-by-ear classes, which he hosts throughout New England, he teaches blind and sighted students that it doesn’t matter where they are. “You don’t have to be out in the woods,” Berrier says. “You can be listening to birds like I do . . . everywhere you go.”