The Survivor Helping Others Thrive
Kareemah Batts On Adaptive Climbing
“We are climbers first, disabled second.”
This powerful declaration by Kareemah Batts fuels her work at Adaptive Climbing Group (ACG), a nonprofit organization she founded to offer adaptive athletes a place to climb & connect. ACG is part of our Breaking Trail initiative—advocates Backcountry is partnering with and supporting to make the outdoors more inclusive. Read on for Kareemah’s take on getting climbers on the wall, facing disability and other barriers, inclusive practices, and more.
What do you love about climbing?
What I love most about climbing is what it represents and portrays that translates to human relationships and approaches to life. If you are trusting your belayer with your safety/life; Learning trust through that relationship is prolific. It can also translate to learning to trust in yourself, pushing beyond your own thought process of “ can I, will I?” For me, personally, when I am climbing it’s a time when I feel the most vulnerable, the strongest, and the most defeated. I wonder if I am addicted to that mayhem of feelings in the process of attempting to send a climbing route.
What’s your favorite place you’ve ever climbed?
The climb that always stays in my mind is the one that scared and challenged me the most. I think it’s when I fell in love with the sport. It was a decade ago, on the second pitch of “The Bastille” in Eldorado Canyon (CO).
Tell us about your personal experience becoming a paraclimber.
Adaptive climbing (as it’s mostly known in the U.S.; paraclimbing internationally) is climbing for people with disabilities. We spend a lot of energy reminding able-bodied folx that we are people first. When I was climbing in Colorado for the first time, I was in a group of people of various abilities. We were all cancer survivors and fighters, however, we focused on the climbing aspect of why we were there, not our illness or disability. I was much more relaxed sharing a common sport with people going through the same journey as me. It made the experience more fun than I had prior to cancer. In my work, I try to mirror that experience.
Tell us about Adaptive Climbing Group.
Adaptive Climbing Group is a nonprofit program that advocates for equity in the sport of climbing for people with disabilities. The program leaders and participants are involved in a volunteer capacity, contributing to a community-controlled initiative. Aspects of programming occur all year long, every week. We operate in all aspects of the experience of the sport: indoor and outdoor recreation and competition. Adaptive Climbing Group concentrates on metro areas for indoor climbing programs to address the accessibility of participation in the sport on a socioeconomic level which has intersectionality in the disabled community.
ACG does this through operating people-centric programming that is affordable and accessible for participants/volunteers. It’s the first of its kind, and incongruent with other parasports programs I’ve participated in that are usually founded by able-bodied individuals, have sparsity in the frequency of offerings and leadership development among its participants.
How does adaptive climbing intersect with other personal factors (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, etc.)?
In America, the intersectionality of being let’s say a woman, a first-generation American citizen, or even a person in the transition of their citizenship, have played big roles in how I choose to frame programming of Adaptive Climbing and how I approach Diversity, Equity and Inclusion solutions and advocacy in the past decade. I remember hearing from numerous caucasian para-climbers when I first started helping other climbers participate in the sport recreationally and professionally, saying I “do too much” for the climbers. Those same people can not identify with the barriers that exist for a lot of us.
Because I wanted all paraclimbers to equally be sponsored, and remove as many barriers as I could so they could participate in the sport no matter where they came from or what they came in with, everyone had the same opportunity. Sometimes I wonder if that is the reason why our athlete representatives seem to be such a complex and diverse group of individuals in both their disability identity and everything else.
Our competitive athlete team has consistently qualified to represent USA Climbing in competition in international competitions. I also want all of them to be respected as athletes, and I have certain standards for their presentation. I understand that the intersectionality and representation that we contain means that we are being looked at differently and more scrutinized than others. It makes me work even harder and more fervently than anything else that I have ever done.
Have you seen Adaptive Climb Group and other paraclimbing teams be treated differently by the climbing world – gyms, publications, etc?
Yes. The way Adaptive Climbing Group or even competitive paraclimbers have been treated differently is the way all people with disabilities are treated differently. We lack equity in para-sports. There are a lot of able-bodied people in leadership or founding sports programs for people with disabilities, and at times they miss the mark on true allyship and equitable access. They tend to make decisions on our community and access to sports without our input. It’s the most important and the most frustrating part that hinders or slows the progression of our participation in this and other sports. Think about it….would you want a man leading a women’s studies department at a college or a women’s empowerment organization? So why is this not in the levity of programs, degree programs, services, or organizations serving people with disabilities? Who knows better to address the needs of women? Who knows best to address the needs of people with disabilities?
Have you or your participants struggled with identifying as an adaptive athlete?
Yes, many people of all abilities struggle with this answer. I struggle with this answer every day. Especially, since I don’t get chosen to be a sponsored athlete EVER. Even when I was competing certain bodies and races were chosen over me. After so long, I finally accepted that I am me—fully and ultimately—and my athleticism (though slight, or even waning over the years) is amazing. I get impressed with every movement and wish everyone could have the same feeling I do right now. Praise every step forwards and sideways, because YOU did it.
What do your participants take away from climbing with ACG?
We are climbers first and disabled second—that is the mantra I operate on. I find that paraclimbers like all climbers find a social belonging and comfort in being surrounded by people who understand or are open to how they individually fill space in their unique ways. To be comfortable to share, to not have to apologize for being who they are completely is an ultimate humankind goal.
Our able-bodied participants take pride in our Disability Etiquette instruction, which makes them better allies to the community of people with disabilities. We tend to attract a lot of therapy or healthcare professionals and students. I am proud to report we are turning these people into the type of allies we needed years ago.
Is there a difference in the way you see your participants with visible vs invisible disabilities treated in the climbing/outdoor community?
As a below-knee amputee, I have the ability to mask my disability with certain clothing if I choose, and at times I have inadvertently because I just love fashion. Once revealed, people talk to me differently. I go from being a woman of color to a person with a disability ONLY. This leads to not being invited to go hiking or climbing with the same people who might have had a previously mentioned invite. Able-bodied folx assume or don’t want to deal with what may or may not be needed to go outdoors with people with disabilities. I’ve also noticed people talk to me differently about people with disabilities when they assume I don’t have one.
Being a person with a disability is not a monolith. There is such variety, intersectionality, and nuance on how it is approached, accepted into our daily lives. Even 2 people with the same diagnosis or limb difference will have a different journey in that area of their lives.
The burden that those with “invisible” disabilities have to overcome is about being more forthright in its presentation and explanation, which I imagine is a bit tiring. Humans are naturally visually/hearing/touch-oriented discoverers. Since they go to those senses first when receiving information, those with more physical impairments will take the forefront in conversations to accessibility by default. Also, it is by society and law that determines what is and isn’t a disability….woo that’s a whole nother conversation? I mean are we disabled, or is our society?
Did the events of 2020 and beyond change anything for you or ACG?
The pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020 ushered in more progressive practices and the exit of old ways of processing information, data, and even bureaucratic processes that inherently not only slowed the amount of what could be done in a given time, and “required” in-person monitoring. Now, the same work and processes are done more quickly, more inexpensively in some cases, and with less rigamaroo.
This in turn made everything from doctor visits to shopping more accessible. I also like the fact that companies are finding processes like curbside pick-ups, so you don’t have to exit your vehicle; or telehealth appointments have made folx who navigate mobility differently, able to have more independent access to services, and work opportunities.