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Coordinator for Birdability with participants

Smiling From Ear to Ear

Accessible nature outing provides a path toward inclusion.

The “peter-peter” of the tufted titmouse echoed through the woods as a group strolled along the Tennessee Valley Authority Native Plant Garden Trail.

The jaunty bird that sports a mohawk proved to be a fan favorite for those who participated in an Accessible Nature Outing at Muscle Shoals, Ala., in late June.

The first of its kind, the outing offered an opportunity for people of varied abilities to explore the beauty of nature. 

Focus on inclusion

Sara Bayles, a TVA watershed representative, partnered with local organizations to make the outing happen.

In November 2021, Bayles met with Mercedes Maddox, a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. They discovered a common passion to fulfill a need in their community: providing accessible areas for all to enjoy the environment.

“There are not many accessible outdoor education programs,” Bayles said. “I saw that need in the area.”

The two decided to partner with Terrence “TJ” Johnson, programs coordinator of Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, to make accessibility a priority.

They identified the Native Plant Garden Trail as the perfect location for the first event. Stretching three-tenths of a mile, this low grade, paved trail offers an accessible journey through a forest filled with native birds, insects and plants. 

Community members, many of whom face challenges that may limit participation in outdoor events, signed up for the program hosted in the TVA Muscle Shoals Reservation trails system. They arrived prepared to explore nature, learn new things and have fun. 

Exploring together

Excited chatter filled the group as the beginning of the event neared. Talk of snakes, bird calls and nature bingo spread through the group.

The clock struck 9 a.m., and the event began. Putting an emphasis on inclusion, the leaders spoke with the group about the accessibility of the trail and the learning that would come.

“We’re all learning together,” Maddox said. “We’re exploring together.”

As the group ventured into the woods, Damien Simbeck from TVA Natural Resources guided the group, sharing his knowledge with the participants. Heads turned, searching for objects to mark off on the bingo boards, and eyes followed the movement of birds overhead.

The group stopped several times along the path to learn new information or rest at some of the eight benches throughout the trail. The leaders called birds and passed around various plants. They focused on various sensory aspects of nature to allow all participants to enjoy the trail.

As the walk came to an end, the participants had a chance to touch, hold or watch a petting zoo of reptiles that included boa constrictors, a turtle and a gecko.

“I get chills every time I think about holding a snake,” said Tyler Patterson, a 30-year-old participant in the adaptive program at Muscle Shoals Parks and Recreation. Yet Patterson went for it, sliding his hands along 6-foot-long Brutus’ leathery skin and gently moving the boa along to the next participant.

As the group spent time with the animals, their smiles grew.

Although holding snakes and playing bingo is an amazing way to spend a summer morning, the importance of this day was realized in individuals venturing into the woods and learning new things, without concern for any mobility or sensory challenges they might have. 

Making everyone feel important

This event was the first of its kind for most of the participants.

“It was something that would make me feel more important to the community,” Patterson said.

Having a trail that is accessible to everyone is vital to diversity and inclusion in the Tennessee Valley region.

Finn Bayles, a 12-year-old from Florence, Ala., has a visual impairment. He said the event made him feel special and he enjoyed himself on the trail.

“Most trails aren’t accessible, and I think it’s good for people with special needs to do something fun,” he said.

Maddox couldn’t agree more that a focus on inclusion with diversity enhances a community and its natural resources.

“All people can enjoy accessible areas,” she said.

The coordinators of the program said the day exceeded their expectations as participants shared their joy at having experienced the accessible trail.

“I’m smiling from ear to ear,” TVA representative Bayles said. “It was so cool to see them learn.”

With the success of this pilot event, the coordinators plan to expand accessibility programming in the future. Focusing on small groups of individuals who have disabilities, such as school groups, is something they hope to do in the upcoming events.

“We will be continuing to make this a priority,” Johnson said.

Learn more about TVA recreation opportunities.

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