In the late 1970s, a woman named Maureen Fitzgerald went on a guided nature tour in Yosemite with her partner Dale Dahl, a deaf quadriplegic. Len McKenzie, the park’s chief naturalist at the time, was leading the outing, but there was no American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, so Fitzgerald stepped in. According to most accounts, this was the moment that would forever change the course of the park’s history—and legacy—for deaf travelers.
Following their experience, in the spring of 1979, Fitzgerald and Dahl wrote a letter to Yosemite, offering to work with deaf visitors full-time for the summer season in exchange for nearby lodging arrangements. McKenzie agreed, and at the end of that first summer, formalized the role by converting it into an official seasonal position known as the Deaf Services Coordinator.
Today, Yosemite is the only U.S. national park to have a full-time, permanent sign language interpreter on staff, under the hybrid park ranger/ASL interpreter role of Deaf Services Coordinator, which was established in 2016 (after funding was cut for the former seasonal-only Deaf Services Coordinator position a year earlier).
That’s not all: Yosemite also offers a public videophone in its main lodge, assistive listening devices (ALDs), and “deaf guest kits” available at its hotels. These kits include a visual notification device to alert occupants to incoming telephone calls and door knocks, and a vibrating alarm clock.
This summer, Yosemite has made history once again, by having the first-ever Deaf participant in the long-running Teacher Ranger Teacher (TRT) program, a popular national parks program that hosts visiting teachers (from June through mid-July) who help the parks with everything from curriculum building to working at the visitors desk to leading tours.
In another exploratory first this summer, tours lead by the Deaf TRT guide will be interpreted by a hearing person, meaning somebody will translate the guide’s signing into spoken words for the group. Meant to attract both hearing and Deaf participants, “It’s an opportunity for hearing people to see what’s possible,” says Kara Stella, Yosemite’s Deaf Services Coordinator (who is not deaf herself). “There’s a fear of the unknown, I think, with hearing people, trying to understand Deaf people. Deafness is not inhibitory in your mind or faculties in any way. It’s just that you can’t hear. So to model, ‘Oh, Deaf people are just regular people that use a different language.’ It’s a big deal.”
In the United States, 7.1 million adults older than 18 experience a serious hearing difficulty, including 3.4 million people who are deaf, according to a 2014 report on Americans with disabilities for the U.S. Census Bureau. About 3.4 percent of adults (8.2 million) use a hearing aid, and 2.5 percent of adults (5.9 million) still have serious difficulty hearing even while using a hearing aid.
And while Yosemite has made an investment in its Deaf Services program and annual offerings for visitors with disabilities, there’s a major gap between it and other parks, according to a 2014 study from researchers at the University of Minnesota titled “Interpretive Accommodations for National Park Service Visitors Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” which looked into how parks’ interpretive services were meeting the needs of visitors with such disabilities. Of the 224 National Park Service employees to respond to a question about whether their park had offered programs specifically for visitors with hearing disabilities within the past year, 74 percent reported they had not.
In large part, the study attributes this to a loop: Few deaf travelers visit these parks and request services because they aren’t aware that they are entitled to them. But without these deaf visitors, parks aren’t designing programs for them because they don’t see the population showing up.
Although deaf U.S. citizens or permanent residents qualify for a free Access Pass—which is offered by the National Park Service and gives lifetime access to more than 2,000 recreation sites across the country—arranging an interpreter at most national parks requires a request at least two weeks prior to a visit.
“Imagine for a moment that you are a deaf person that uses sign language, and you have a three-week vacation, and you’re going to stop at a park for one day, and you want to go through a program,” says Stella. “Are you going to invest the energy to fight over getting a sign language interpreter for one tour? Maybe, maybe not. The work that most deaf folks have to do is more than they want to do.”
Dr. Carol Riddick, chair of Physical Education and Recreation at the Washington, D.C.-based Gallaudet University, says that at the very least, parks can start by making changes to better benefit deaf and hard of hearing visitors. Some examples: Knock down many of the walls at visitors centers, which are barriers to fluid communication, and make sure informational videos are close-captioned. Riddick also says one of the ways parks can learn more about what deaf travelers want and need is by collaborating with state schools for the deaf. “It’s about including the diverse populations to see how they [parks] can improve,” she says.
This fall, Yosemite’s Deaf Services program will celebrate 40 years of existence. From October 11 to 14, hundreds of people will come to the park for the anniversary weekend, which will have activities like guided walks, a daily volunteer project, children’s activities, an art show, and more, all catering to the Deaf community. Five years ago, when the park celebrated 35 years of deaf services, the park saw around 150 participants; this year, it is expecting between 300 and 500.
In the National Park Service–produced video “Stories in Sign,” filmed during the 35th anniversary celebration, deaf visitors to Yosemite shared their experiences visiting the park. One man describes being awestruck by the giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove. Another woman, who had flown in from Guam, revealed she was overwhelmed taking it all in. “The interpreting program is incredible,” signed another visitor. “Without a second thought, we’ve been able to go to the museums, to any event, and can get beyond just the surface of things—we can really engage with the information, just like anyone else.”
Still, there’s more work to be done at Yosemite, says Stella, who envisions a future with more deaf people employed within the park and more deaf visitors coming to explore its reaches. Another 40 years down the road, Stella thinks, it would be nice for all rangers to be able to greet Deaf travelers without missing a beat, and signing, Welcome to Yosemite. How can I help you?