Guía de prevención y seguridad en Áreas Protegidas para personas con discapacidad

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Costa Rica Designs and Tests First Accessibility Protocol in Protected Wildlife Areas

Costa Rica, a Central American country, internationally known because of its wildlife protection efforts, was the right background for drafting the first: "Accessibility Protocol for Persons with Disabilities in Wildlife Areas."

The provisions of this instrument will allow persons with disabilities, locals and visitors, from all over the world to have full access to national parks, biological reserves and other areas of economical, scientific, ecological, cultural, recreational and tourism interest, which at present need to be freed of numerous barriers.

This Protocol is the result of a project started in October 2001 and was completed in February 2003. It constitutes a significant advancement in fostering access to natural sites and related facilities by persons with disabilities, including people with limited mobility. It was prepared by the Earth Council Foundation, with headquarters in Costa Rica, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, Fundecooperation (Netherlands Cooperation) and other public and private agencies. These organizations are expanding their actions toward the human rights for persons with disabilities .

The background of environmental protection
Costa Rica was an adequate laboratory for the beginning, application, and validation of a Protocol aimed at allowing millions of persons with disabilities the accessibility they need to enjoy a reality known only by illusionary photographs. In the last 30 years, Costa Rica, bathed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, has made evident progress in the protection of wildlife areas. There are 155 protected areas, 26 of these are national parks and are biological reserves. The National Wildlife Protection System covers 25% of the Costa Rican territory.

Fertile soil
Cecilia Montero, tourism specialist, who works for the Ministry of the Environment and has being a very active in fostering actions in the field of disability, told us: "Four years ago, our institution started a training program to improve disability awareness among our staff. The program included: disability issues and human rights, and the Costa Rican Law on Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities and other relevant legal instruments."

In 2002, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy created the Institutional Commission on Disability, and as established on the Equal Opportunities Law of 1996, it formulated the corresponding Internal Disability Policy. All these efforts are aimed at including the principles of equal opportunities and accessibility as part of the planning and operating of the protected wildlife areas, including the accommodations and services for local and international tourists with disabilities.

As time went by, interest increased, and new members from the Protected Areas staff joined the Commission: "Training continued and was strengthened with the participation of the Costa Rican Council of Rehabilitation and Special Education which further help us understand the importance of including disability as part of our everyday work," added Ms. Montero.

Origin of the project
Cecilia Montero remembers: "Rodrigo Jiménez Sandoval came to our Ministry and presented the protocol project on behalf of the Earth Council, where he provides consultant services. We became very exited with the initiative, decided to get involved, and the process culminated with the drafting of the Accessibility Protocol."

The next stage was to seek financial resources with the Earth Council. The initial funds were provided by the government of the Netherlands though the Fundecooperación (the local foreign cooperation agency of the government of the Netherlands). They provided the initial seed money for the project.

Moving toward the Protocol
Coordinated by Rodrigo Jiménez, project implementation began on October, 2001. Each of the project stages was organized into the following components and a Work Team was formed to guide the process for drafting the Accessibility Protocol, according to the needs of persons with disabilities and the specific conditions of each national park and protected area, as follows:

Component 1: Diagnosis to determine the obstacles that persons with disabilities encounter at trying to access national parks and other protected areas.
One of the main elements of this project was the participation of persons with disabilities, as the only way of achieving inclusion.  The Work Team visited many national parks and protected areas. In every community they visited, planned sessions and open interviews were conducted with persons with and without disabilities, senior citizens, women and men, and children with physical, visual, hearing, and mental disabilities. Gender, social, economical, and geographic aspects were equally considered on the diversity approach at all stages of the project.

In order to achieve a community outreach approach for this initiative, leaders of the movement of persons with disabilities and other members of communities near the protected areas participated in the diagnostic process.

Originally, the project had contemplated the participation of 135 persons with disabilities, distributed within 9 focal groups, in training and consultation activities. But, as the project activities became known and enthusiasm grew, additional activities had to be organized, involving an additional 459 persons. The majority of these additional participants were persons with disabilities and their families (319), staff of the national parks and protected area (120), plus 20 students from the Department of Industrial Design for the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, ITCR).

The complete diagnostic process (training and consultation) involved a total of 594 persons and lasted 6 months.

Component 2: The drafting of an Accessibility Protocol for Persons with Disabilities in Protected Wildlife Areas
The drafting process for the Accessibility Protocol required the development of sound methodology. This was achieved thanks to the committed cross-interdisciplinary participation of local experts.

The first stage was a review of existing literature. A metaindex was produced. This was an unplanned result which became an additional project resource.

The second stage was systematizing the recommendations from group members, including geographical diversity considerations and the adaptations which had to be incorporated to the beginning scheme:
- How to diagnose the barriers that persons with disabilities encounter when visiting wildlife protected areas in Costa Rica?
- The design of awareness modules on the right to accessibility, use, and enjoyment of national parks and protected areas by persons with disabilities.
- Legal norms on accessibility to parks and protected areas for persons with disabilities.
- Norms for developing an Accessibility Plan for National Parks and Protected Areas.
- Accessibility Norms for Physical Space (design and materials).
- Normas for technical assistance for access to national parks and protected areas for people with disabilities.
- Norms for Making Signals, Signs, and Information Accessible for Persons with Disabilities at National Parks and Protected Areas.
- Security Norm for persons with disabilities at national parks and protected areas.
- Interpretation Norms for persons with disabilities at national parks and protected areas.

Component 3: Validating the Protocol on Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in Wildlife Protected Areas.
This stage consisted of going to a previously selected area to test the instrument and its recommendations. It was conducted at Tampantí National Park in Cerro de la Muerte, the highest peak of Costa Rica, by park officers and 30 persons with disabilities. Once all the questions and comments were tested, the document was edited and published.

Component 4: Presentation of the Protocol and its accumulated experience at the Rio Plus ten Preparatory Conference and at other international events.
Project Work Team members have developed a series of documents which have been presented at relevant international gatherings, including the Rio Plus 10 Preparatory Conference in Bali, and the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rodrigo Jiménez told : "Besides some organizations of South Africa, our delegation was the only one presenting a project to combine disability and sustainable development. Thanks to these efforts we were able to have some resolutions on disability, poverty, and health included on the Earth Charter adopted by the Conference.

Good perspectives
This efforts have had some initial results. The Protocol is being used by the Ministry of the Environment and Energy to improve accessibility at important national parks and protected wildlife areas (Volcán Póas, Volcán Irazú, Carara, Manuel Antonio). The addition of access ramps, wide doors and many accommodations are being installed, in response to the questions and recommendations of this new instrument. Though there is a lot to be done, the process started in a promising manner.

Unfortunately, the active participation of the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, is not the rule among the majority of the Costa Rican government agencies, many of them do not comply with the corresponding long time approved accessibility and human rights legislation for persons with disabilities.

The strong support by the Earth Council before and during the drafting of this Protocol project, also allowed a double opportunity: First, there was an extensive horizontal participation and consultation with organizations of persons with disabilities and members of the civil society. Second, there was a good opportunity for the Ministry of the Environment and Energy and the National System of Protected Areas to jointly work for and with the disability community of the country.

For more information, please consult the joined document "Guía de prevención y seguridad en Áreas Protegidas para personas con discapacidad" (Spanish version).

(article by Luis Fernando Astorga Gatjens on Disability World)