Philip Woodward walks up the ramp to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, then leans down and presses the blue button so the doors swing open automatically.
Inside, he runs his fingers over the Braille lettering near the elevators. Woodward keeps a yellow tape measure clipped to his belt to measure the height of water fountains or objects protruding from the wall. He barely notices the whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling or any of the models of North Carolina native species on the first floor.
In visits to museums, parks, and theaters all across the state, Woodward’s job is to imagine the experience for one of the more than 662,000 North Carolinians with a disability. He calls it taking the accessible version of the tour.
Woodward has met many of the people he serves: not just people born without eyesight or hearing, but also veterans who lost a limb at war or people who never had problems before age started to deteriorate one or more of their senses.
He counts himself among the state’s disabled. Even wearing high-powered aids, Woodward hears only loud noises like thunder or a slamming door.
So he understands how slivers of the world can be closed off to people who can’t do something, whether it’s walking, seeing, or hearing.
Woodward loves movies, but he and his wife haven’t been on a date to a theater since they saw a captioned version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2006. Text on the screen can open that world back up to the hard of hearing.
Since 2009, Woodward has been updating a book called ACCESS North Carolina: A Vacation and Travel Guide for People with Disabilities. Its goal: Show people with disabilities what they may have been missing.
He keeps a box full of the earlier reprint, from 2007, in his car. He carries two copies around the museum, just in case he sees someone who could use it.
But that version focuses only on wheelchair accessibility. What about people like me, Woodward thought when he began his work on the project. Or people who can’t see?
The new book broadens the scope to show people with all kinds of disabilities how they can enjoy 356 of the state’s most iconic places, as well as lesser-known parks and destinations.
Last year, for example, Flat Rock Playhouse began offering audio-described performances for some shows. People who can’t see the stage wear an earpiece, and someone describes scenery, facial expressions, or other details to fill in the gaps between dialogue.
Special wheelchairs with wide wheels make it possible to roll along the beach, even dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean, without getting mired in the sand. The chairs are available up and down North Carolina’s coastline, from Kitty Hawk to Oak Island.
The state’s aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores has an exhibit designed with blind visitors in mind. The fish models speak when touched.
Golf carts at places like Castle Bay Country Club in Hampstead have seats that swivel outward for golfers who can’t stand.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park in tiny Scotland Neck has what may be the only wheelchair-accessible tree house in the state.
And a well-placed elevator makes it possible to take a wheelchair out on the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain.
On a Sunday night two years ago, Woodward watched his beloved Minnesota Vikings play the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. He held a phone with special software that transcribed every word broadcast over the public address system as the Panthers beat Brett Favre and the Vikings, 26-7.
To compile the book, Woodward mailed hundreds of letters across the state, along with a form that asks what features are available for people with disabilities. He also visited many of the places in person. In February 2008, Our State ran a list of “75 things every North Carolinian should do.” Woodward went to all of them to see if every North Carolinian could really appreciate them.
Woodward consulted with about a dozen people, showing them drafts or asking for ideas. All 450-plus pages are Woodward’s work.
Woodward says his hearing loss makes him want to understand the experiences of others with different disabilities. During a stint working at North Carolina State University’s disability services for students office, he was once given a meteorology textbook and asked to convert the pictures to Braille. So he taught himself Braille.
He helped develop a handbook for high school students with disabilities to help them prepare for college.
He believes the new ACCESS book wouldn’t be the same if he could hear.
“My disability gives me a different perspective that I otherwise might not have,” Woodward says. “It makes me empathize.”
Woodward’s preschool teacher noticed that he wouldn’t respond to her voice if he wasn’t watching her lips.
At Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, doctors said the 4-year-old boy had severe-to-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.
Some people who have hearing loss simply need a volume adjustment. Woodward, for example, can only hear loud noises. His ears don’t pick up the rustling of paper, or raindrops against a window, or a knock at the door.
Woodward’s type of hearing loss also distorts sounds.
“In school, I could hear other kids talking or my teacher talking, but if I’m not in a position where I can read their lips and understand them, sometimes it just sounds like blahblahblah,” he says.
No one is sure what caused it, although it could have been a staph infection as an infant.
Woodward doesn’t remember any instant when the world became muffled. He may have simply thought everyone heard the world the way he did, the way children with bad eyesight think everyone sees what they see.
“I didn’t say, ‘Mom, Dad, I can’t hear.’”
Woodward’s parents decided not to send him to a school for the deaf and blind. Instead, he says, he became the first hard-of-hearing student to enroll in St. Christopher’s, a private, all-boys school in Richmond, Virginia.
He learned to thrive in a world designed for people different from him; always sitting in the front of the class, approaching teachers afterward with questions, relying on peer note takers in high school, brushing off the teasing from classmates.
He had to be his own advocate.
The summer after seventh grade, Woodward attended the Richmond Summer Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. It was the first time he had ever been around other deaf children. Everyone knew sign language, except Woodward. It was almost impossible to communicate. In 10th grade, he learned sign language and became a counselor at the camp the next summer.
His senior year, he took a two-week internship at the Virginia department for the deaf and hard of hearing. He began learning more and more about the difficulties of people living with hearing loss. And he began to care more about helping.
His freshman year of college, Woodward started a petition for William & Mary to offer sign language for academic credit. By sophomore year, he had 256 signatures. That spring, the linguistics department had a sign language class.
When Lyla Koch was looking at colleges, she heard about the petition from a friend at William & Mary. It was part of the reason she chose the school.
On August 21, 1999, Woodward was visiting another freshman orientation aide in Koch’s dorm. Koch had seen him signing earlier when the choir sang the alma mater. She approached him, wearing yellow pajamas with blue moons and stars on them, as he remembers it, and asked him to teach her sign language.
Of course he would.
Woodward, now 33, has never been shy talking about his disability. He sees it as a way to educate others.
“I don’t mind people asking, ‘Why does [the hearing aid] beep?’ or asking about sign language or asking me, ‘How much can you hear?’ or asking me, ‘How do you wake up in the morning?’ I’m happy to answer those questions.”
(He wakes up with a vibrating alarm clock.)
A few years after Woodward began teaching Koch sign language, he bet her that his Vikings would beat her Buccaneers. The stakes: Loser buys ice cream.
She became his first girlfriend.
When they got married four years after they met, friends released butterflies at the ceremony.
Woodward doesn’t wish for his hearing back. He did when he was a child, when being the only person in his world who couldn’t hear made him feel like an outsider. Now, it’s too much a part of his soul.
He’s too happy with his life to want to change it fundamentally. Woodward is probably the happiest person most of his friends know. He still draws smiley faces next to his name.
The only time his disability really bothers him is when he can’t understand his children.
They know he doesn’t hear well, and his wife teaches them to stand in front of Daddy and slow down when they need something.
But Bella sometimes has to repeat herself six or seven times, especially if she’s asking for fruit snacks, which is difficult to read on the girl’s tiny lips.
“The difficulty communicating with my kids doesn’t make me wish that I wasn’t hard of hearing,” he says. “But it makes me wish it was easier for me to hear them.”
On the third floor of the museum, Woodward pushes the automatic door opener to the “Terror of the South” exhibit, the one with two massive dinosaur skeletons. Nothing happens. Woodward pulls the heavy doors. It would be difficult to get in here in a wheelchair. A video in the room is one of the few around the museum with no captions. Woodward takes notes. He’ll email the museum the next day about the issues to see if they can be fixed quickly.
Woodward points out a map of North Carolina that shows its different soils from the mountains to the coast. Woodward stands back and snaps a photo of the map because it’s low enough for someone in a wheelchair to roll up and read. He does this often, taking pictures of things for reasons most visitors never consider. On this trip, he also photographs an orange ball that dulls the corner of a moth tank, stuck there so people won’t get cut by the protruding edge.
There’s a room filled with butterflies on the top floor of the museum, including monarchs like the ones Woodward’s friends released after his wedding.
A teenage girl working at the museum explains the rules to the small group waiting to enter. She asks people not to touch the butterflies and tells them to shake their shirts to check for stowaways before exiting.
Woodward approaches her once the door to the room opens.
“Are these rules written anywhere?” he asks. “Could someone type them up for people who can’t hear?”
His politeness and upbeat demeanor are disarming, and the girl promises to pass along his suggestions to her boss.
Coming from Woodward, it doesn’t sound like an official request from an access specialist for the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
He’s not just saying the printed rules would help a hypothetical person who may show up tomorrow, one of a faceless 662,000.
He’s saying, “They would help me.”
North Carolina for all: Excerpts from the ACCESS guidebook
Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home, Asheville
A wheelchair lift added during a 2004 restoration provides access to the first floor of the historic house for visitors with mobility disabilities.
Appalachian Ski Mountain, Blowing Rock
Appalachian Ski Mountain has sit skis and outriggers for skiers with mobility disabilities, and the Special Olympics are held here four times a year. French Swiss Ski College provides instruction for all skiers.
Mount Mitchell State Park, Burnsville
A four-passenger ATV is available upon request to transport visitors
with mobility disabilities to the observation deck.
The Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee
The museum provides an audio-described tour with one week’s notice for visitors with vision loss, and certain exhibits have tactile elements for a tactile tour.
Grandfather Mountain, Linville
In June 2010, a new Top Shop building with an elevator opened, giving visitors with mobility disabilities direct access to the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Before its opening, visitors had to climb 50 steps to access the bridge.
Wheels Through Time Museum, Maggie Valley
This wheelchair-accessible motorcycle museum displays an antique wheelchair and a motorized wheelchair similar to the one President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used.
Cradle of Forestry in America & Forest Discovery Center, Pisgah Forest
The center has a Braille trail map and a tactile pillow tree wall for visitors with vision loss. The center partnered with the Autism Society of North Carolina to develop an Adventure Zone trail that opened in April 2010 with activities accessible to autistic visitors.
Flat Rock Playhouse, Flat Rock
The theater offers assistive listening devices (FM receivers) for patrons who are hard of hearing and will provide a sign language interpreter upon request for patrons who are deaf. The theater instituted audio-described performances in 2011. (Audio description is a narration service for individuals who are blind or have low vision. The audio describer provides an ongoing dialogue of visual events taking place on the stage.)
Horne Creek Living Historical Farm, Pinnacle
The site is not fully wheelchair-accessible but provides golf cart transportation and tours to visitors with mobility disabilities upon request. A Braille information brochure is available for visitors with vision loss.
Chimney Rock State Park, Chimney Rock
The wheelchair-accessible, 26-story elevator is closed for modernization but will reopen this year. The Chimney Rock itself is not accessible to visitors with mobility disabilities because of the 44-step climb to the top, but the elevator still takes those visitors to an area where they can enjoy the views.
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
The stadium offers listening devices and hand-held closed-captioning devices that caption everything spoken over the public address system for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing. These devices are available for loan, free of charge, at the guest-relations booth.
LifeSpan’s Blue Sky Nature Center, Troutman
LifeSpan, a nonprofit organization that serves people with disabilities, developed a wheelchair-accessible Blue Sky Nature Center to meet the needs of children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities. It includes a quarter-mile walking trail with a ramp to a lookout deck and benches that provide areas to rest.
Zootastic Park, Troutman
The zoo is wheelchair accessible except for some gravel paths, and a qualified mental-health professional is on staff to assist groups that include visitors with mental disabilities.
Morrow Mountain State Park, Albemarle
The park has an accessible picnic shelter, an accessible fishing pier, six accessible campsites, one accessible group campsite, and one accessible vacation cabin. All of these attractions are wheelchair accessible.
Kids Together Playground at Marla Dorrel Park, Cary
This playground has a ramp up one of the main climbing structures, two special swings for children with physical disabilities, and wheelchair-accessible sand tables.
Carolina Basketball Museum, Chapel Hill
The museum is wheelchair-accessible and offers captioned highlight videos for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.
North Carolina Zoological Park, Asheboro
The North Carolina Zoo’s carousel has a wheelchair-accessible swan bench, and the Acacia station giraffe deck is wheelchair accessible to allow visitors with mobility disabilities to feed the giraffes.
Discovery Place, Charlotte
Renee Wells, an Americans with Disabilities Act consultant who is well known in the museum world, helped Discovery Place complete a full renovation that improved accessibility.
Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), Durham
With an advanced request, DPAC will provide up to three sign language interpreters for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing. DPAC also offers Braille menus and audio description for people with vision loss.
Duke Eye Center Touchable Art Gallery, Durham
The gallery provides a tactile learning experience and a way for visitors with vision loss to learn about and appreciate different forms of art.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, Greensboro
The visitor center has a closed-captioned film and a 20-minute tactile-map program for visitors with vision loss. The tactile-map program includes Braille battlefield maps and eight buttons that visitors can press to hear the stories about the famous Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh
This wheelchair-accessible museum has a curator of special populations who provides programs for visitors and school groups with disabilities and offers a touch kit with tactile objects for visitors with vision loss.
International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro
Most of the videos in this two-year-old museum have closed-captioning, including a video projected onto a round table in the lunch counter room. The museum also provides a sign language interpreter for tours, upon request.
Blue Jay Point County Park, Marsh Creek Park, and Pullen Park, Raleigh
Each park has play structures with ramps to provide wheelchair access.
North Carolina Transportation Museum, Spencer
The ACCESS North Carolina program provides a wheelchair lift for the train ride.
Governor Charles B. Aycock Birthplace State Historic Site, Fremont
The Governor Morehead School for the Blind provided 12 Braille copies of the site’s brochure, so an entire group of people with vision loss can take a tour and use the brochures. The site offers tactile tours that allow visitors to touch reproduction items.
Clemmons Educational State Forest, Clayton
Clemmons and North Carolina’s other Educational State Forests offer a Talking Tree Trail that provides audio information for visitors with vision loss.
Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences, Rocky Mount
The new children’s museum in the center has exercise equipment that children with disabilities and visitors of short stature can use.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Scotland Neck
The park has North Carolina’s only wheelchair-accessible tree house.
Fort Macon State Park, Atlantic Beach
Because the fort cannot be made wheelchair-accessible through physical improvements, the ACCESS North Carolina program funded the production of a captioned and audio-described video that provides a virtual tour. The bathhouse offers two all-terrain wheelchairs to help visitors with disabilities access the beach. (Many other North Carolina beaches also offer all-terrain wheelchairs.)
Beaufort Historic Site, Beaufort
A portable ramp is available to provide access to all buildings. Visitors with disabilities should call at least one day in advance.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills
The park gives personal attention to visitors with vision loss by letting them go inside the ropes for a closer look at the airplane, put on gloves to touch the plane, and go inside the living quarters and touch objects.
Morehead City Waterfront, Morehead City
The waterfront has a mahimahi sculpture with the words “Dolphin (Mahimahi)” in Braille.
The Ability Garden at the New Hanover County Arboretum, Wilmington
The garden has a wide variety of tools to make gardening accessible to everyone, and the staff has experience working with people with physical and mental disabilities.
Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, Winnabow
The ACCESS North Carolina program funded an accessible pathway to the fort and a boardwalk with a 40-foot-long bench around the fort.
Find a copy
The updated version of ACCESS North Carolina is scheduled to be released this month. Copies will be available at any of the state’s nine welcome centers, or by phone at (919) 733-0390, or by email at email@example.com, or by mail at ACCESS North Carolina/NC DVRS at 2801 Mail Service Center Raleigh, N.C. 27699-2801.
John Ramsey lives in Fayetteville and works as an enterprise reporter for The Fayetteville Observer.