US Virgin Islands Daily News , Article By TANYA MANNES

ST. JOHN - The U.S. Virgin Islands could pioneer the concept of accessibility among Caribbean destinations by adapting the territory's beaches, National Park trails, hotels, taxis, airports and restaurants to the needs of disabled tourists, officials said Friday.

Just in time for the 15th anniversary this week of the Americans With Disabilities Act, V.I. government and business leaders gathered at the Maho Bay Camps dining pavilion to discuss accommodations for disabled travelers.

The panel discussion, titled "Building a Destination for All 2005," was the culmination of a yearlong project to make the Estate Concordia resort, and by extension the island of St. John, more user-friendly. Concordia, a resort developed by Maho Bay Camps founder Stanley Selengut, was modified with elements including wide doorways and walkways, large bathrooms with spacious shower stalls and utilities within easy reach.

Officials hailed the effort as a significant step toward serving a lucrative market - $13.6 billion annually, according to the Travel Industry Association of America - of travelers, including seniors and pregnant women, who have some form of limited mobility.

Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, chairwoman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said the territory is poised to be a leader in the region.

"The development of Estate Concordia and the renovations at Maho Bay have transformed the United States Virgin Islands into an inclusive island destination," Richards said. "We are sending a forceful message to the rest of the Caribbean and the world that we mean business - tourism business."

Richards said the territory still has much work to do, and a key concern is getting more accessible forms of transportation, such as wheelchair-equipped vans, for tourists.

In October, a group of 15 students from the Rhode Island School of Design visited Estate Concordia and were faced with a challenging assignment - to update plans for the resort's common areas, including a pavilion, a restaurant and an art center, to make them more accessible. Construction took place this year.

The students were guided by Kat Darula, an adjunct professor for the school who runs the accessible-design business Multi, Design for People, along with Rosanne Ramos.

Darula and Ramos organized Friday's forum in cooperation with Maho Bay Camps.

A group of volunteers with various disabilities stayed at the resort and visited other St. John locations this week and reported their findings at Friday's forum. They shared several observations:

- Ileana Rodriguez of Miami said that gravel parking lots can damage delicate wheelchairs.

- Eric Lipp, director of the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, said that the V.I. National Park needs more guides and signs in Braille to assist vision-impaired visitors.

- Tom Muxie of Boston said he enjoyed St. John's beaches but found them inaccessible in his wheelchair without being physically carried from a vehicle. He also said that water-saving faucets, which are spring-loaded, are hard to use with only one hand free and suggested a lever-type faucet.

Selengut spoke about how he has coped with a recent disability, macular degeneration. He said he began purchasing devices - a talking watch, for example - to help him cope. "People with disabilities will do almost anything to lead a happy, productive life," Selengut said. "I am convinced that if we develop the facilities for them, they will be willing to pay a premium for them."

Senate President Lorraine Berry pledged her support. "We must work tirelessly to remove barriers to travel for persons with disabilities, and we must commit our resources to promoting St. John as an accessible travel destination," Berry said.

St. John Administrator Julien Harley said he hopes St. John will become a model for other destinations. "Some might say this is a small step, but I think it is a huge undertaking," Harley said. "We started something, and let's keep going."

Other panelists: V.I. National Park Superintendent Art Frederick, Friends of the Park President Joe Kessler, St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce President Thaddeus Bast, V.I. Taxi Association President Winston Parker and recreation specialist Meredith Bass. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen sent a representative.

Darula and Ramos said they plan to hold another conference next year to discuss accessibility throughout the territory.

- Contact Tanya Mannes at 774-8772 ext. 317 or e-mail tmannes@dailynews.vi.

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