By Jeanne Herb
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 21% of New Jersey adults have some type of disability. CDC reports that people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases and conditions which are contributed to by a lack of or limited access to the social determinants of health. In New Jersey, adults with disabilities are more likely to face health disparities and are more likely to have depression, have obesity, smoke, and have diabetes and heart disease. Research underscores the physical and mental health benefits from access to nature and outdoor recreation. Being outside in green spaces supports an active and healthy lifestyle, which has shown to increase life expectancy, improve sleep quality, and reduce diabetes and cancer risk. Additionally, there are many mental wellness benefits associated with being outside in green spaces, such as lower risk of depression and faster psychological stress recovery. Studies have shown that being in nature can restore and strengthen our mental capacities, increasing focus and attention. However, research also points to the inequitable access to nature and outdoor recreation faced by people with disabilities.
In 2021, the New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Disability Services (DDS) launched the Inclusive Healthy Communities (IHC) grant program. The IHC Grant Program is designed to advance efforts that result in tangible and sustainable transformation of policies, systems, and environmental conditions (PSE) related to the social determinants of health to ensure that people with disabilities equally benefit from efforts to build healthy communities. The IHC grant program is rooted in advancing three core goals: health equity, policy, systems and environmental change, and authentic inclusion of people with disabilities. Now accepting applications for its third round of funding, the IHC program has supported a wide diversity of initiatives seeking to advance PSE change addressing social determinants of health to alleviate health inequities faced by people with disabilities. Grantees are involved in efforts that expand access to health care, nature and outdoor recreation, food security, workforce training opportunities, educational opportunities, and a variety of other areas. Read more about the IHC program at: www.inclusivehealthycommunities.org.
As an extension of the IHC program, a diverse group has come together to plan a fall 2023 convening on the topic of expanding access to nature and outdoor recreation for people with disabilities. The partners include the New Jersey Department of Human Services, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the Rutgers University Bloustein School, and Duke Farms. The convening will explore a wide variety of topics, including but not limited to: current policy obstacles and opportunities related to disability access to nature and outdoor recreation, strategies to educate people with disabilities about the health benefits of outdoor recreation and nature, development of a network of practitioners to expand opportunities in New Jersey to develop passive and active opportunities for people with disabilities to have access to nature and outdoor recreation, and to build a network of advocates to collaborate to advance systematic change with the shared goal of expanding sustainable access to nature and outdoor recreation for people with disabilities.
To prepare for the fall 2023 convening, the planning committee will be developing a series of white papers to inform discussions at the convening. With support from the New Jersey State Policy Lab, the partners are undertaking research and analysis to prepare a white paper on the specific topic about state policy challenges and opportunities to expand disability access to outdoor recreation and nature. This effort includes a collaborative effort among the partners to:
- Conduct research on innovation in state policies outside New Jersey that is specifically designed to advance access for people with disabilities to nature and outdoor recreation;
- Host three focus groups with people with disabilities to gain input on needs, challenges, and priorities for expanding access for people with disabilities to nature and outdoor recreation;
- Examine provisions in state programs that fund outdoors and nature-related programming to inventory what disability provisions currently exist; and
- Prepare a public white paper that outlines state policy challenges and opportunities associated with enhancing access for people with disabilities to nature and outdoor recreation.
Overall, the support of the New Jersey State Policy Lab will contribute to what is expected to be an impactful fall 2023 convening designed to advance health equity for people with disabilities through expanding access to nature and outdoor recreation.
Jeanne Herb is Executive Director of the Environmental Analysis & Communications at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.