Jerry Berrier wanted desperately 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, walks down the 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.
A photograph of two people looking out onto a saltmarsh on the All Persons Trail at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod. Photo: Courtesy of Mass Audubon
Berrier’s efforts began in the early 2000s at Mass Audubon’s Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, where he joined an advisory team to resurrect an overgrown braille trail. The group put together a list of ADA-friendly features and mapped out a new boardwalk that ran through forests, fields, and wetlands. Mass Audubon took on the recommendations and even tested them out with individuals with impairment issues. “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.”
The boardwalk, which opened in 2008, was the first in Mass Audubon’s one-of-a-kind network of hikes. The nonprofit now has 11 All Persons Trails across the state, complete with rope guides, tactile signage, and sensory stops. Berrier’s influence is clear throughout: His voice narrates the audio tours at each site, along with the sounds of common local birds.
Since Mass Audubon’s program took root, other nature organizations have looked to add accessibility. “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 and collaborators like Berrier have developed. Her biggest suggestions? Secure funding (making ADA-compliant trails can get pricey), recruit testers, and provide training to a center staff to ensure they feel equipped to help visitors with a wide range of abilities.
Until All Persons Trails take off nationwide, birders may want to look for accommodating spaces close to home, says Marcy Marchello, a program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. She recommends finding trails with wheelchair-compatible parking lots and graded surfaces. If a trail doesn’t have benches, an easy cheat is to bring along foldable chairs.
A photograph of a visitor at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center touching an interactive display on butterfly life cycles. Photo: Courtesy of Mass Audubon
For those leading hikes for a crowd with disabilities, pace is just as important as the setting. “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 started later than the normal birding walk, and we ended earlier [to allow] more time to get up and get going in the morning,” she notes.
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 holds throughout New England, he makes sure to teach his 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.”
Read more: audubon.org