YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Yosemite National Park is leading the way in making sure everyone enjoys our national parks.
"We are the longest-running Deaf services program in the National Park Service," said Kara Stella, coordinator of the program and sign language interpreter. Yosemite is also the first national park to implement a full-time sign language interpreter on staff.
The Deaf Services Program at Yosemite recently celebrated its 40th year, the longest run for any program of its kind at a national park. "Because of the tradition, the 40 years of Deaf services here, there is a deep commitment to making sure that Deaf people have access," Stella said. That access comes in multiple forms, including a video phone that allows Stella to sign and communicate with potential Deaf visitors. She's also available to meet Deaf visitors to plan their visit, and she'll even go to any park program they want and interpret.
"That is a rare and miraculous thing for Deaf visitors who get to have easy access to all the programming," she said.
The park hosted a special weekend to celebrate the anniversary with more than 100 members of the Deaf community that included hiking, a bird walk, a tour of Yosemite Valley and much more.
"It's great, it's mind-blowing really," said Jan Epitacio, who attended the event with his family. Jan is deaf, while his wife Robin and children Essie and Lawrence are not.
"Our family is a signing family. That's how we communicate primarily," Robin said. "So we've had a lot of struggles in the past without being able to have access to an interpreter in various places. And occasionally it's a disappointment. But you know, this weekend, everything worked perfectly."
"Deaf people want to enjoy the same park, learn about the same things hearing people do," said Patti Haskins, who also attended the celebration. "And it's inspiring for Deaf people in the same way."
Chiletta Hodges-Stickler is Deaf but her son Joshua is not, and she says the inclusiveness for both hearing and Deaf people was a huge draw.
"A lot of times, if I go to a Deaf event my son is left out," she said. "But then, to have access for my son is wonderful because we're a family, we want to experience things together."
Michael Foust helped Stella organize the event as a volunteer. As a Deaf man, he recalled his first time in Yosemite.
"And so I got here and then I was like oh my gosh, I learned about all these different things," he said. "So that just blew my mind, and to feel that feeling I want to share it with the Deaf community, it's so important to experience that, to come and see what it's like."
Deaf visitors can also get a free lifetime parks pass and access Yosemite (and other parks) for free. If you or someone you know would like to get in contact with the Deaf Services Program about your next visit, you can video call or text them at 209-379-5250. You can also email them and learn more about the program here.