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Redefining Getting Outside

Making the Outdoors More Accessible To People With Disabilities

I grew up in a rural New Hampshire town that prized athleticism. My parents were both athletes and spent weekends taking my sister and me hiking or skiing in the White Mountains. After my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I began to see the outdoors in a different way: considering how accessible a trail would be for our family, rather than how fast we could travel across it. To help share what we’ve learned, I outline some tips for assessing adventures and getting outdoors. 

Nature had always surrounded me while I exercised, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. The experience of being in nature always came second to beating my best time, summiting the next peak, or keeping up with my friends on the trail. It was after college that my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I started to reflect more on the purpose of my exercise in the outdoors. Parkinson’s affects movement, causing muscle stiffness, difficulty moving and walking, problems with coordination, fatigue, and poor balance among other issues. 

My dad and I had always hiked, biked, and swam together. After his diagnosis, exercising with him changed by necessity.  At first, slowing down was hard for me. When faster hikers passed us on the trail, I’d find myself a few steps ahead of my dad, craving the rush of going fast again. Then, my dad would ask me a question and I’d slow down again. 

There wasn’t some watershed moment where my mindset changed, but after walking many more slow miles, I had time to reflect, to notice the fresh raindrops hanging on the tips of spruce needles and the insistent call of the blue jay through the fog. I had time to be with my dad. The most important part of hiking, the time we spend together, hasn’t changed. Now, we go fewer miles, take more breaks, and walk much slower. Instead of pushing past our boundaries, we honor them. 

Challenges to Accessibility

The outdoor community has a lot to work on with regard to accessibility. From jokes about people not carrying their own gear to scoffing at those who drive to roadside viewpoints rather than travel on foot, there are many examples of casual exclusion. 

It’s common for people with disabilities to have trouble accessing the outdoors due to barriers such as lack of infrastructure, lack of resources/information about accessible places, and the hostility sometimes found in the outdoor community toward the disabled. 

The change begins with a mindset. What does it mean that the “best” hikers, climbers, and cyclists are the ones who go the farthest and fastest? The emphasis of being outside needs to shift from being a powerful “winner” to enjoying your experience. Taking an afternoon walk on neighborhood trails is just as valid as skiing around crevasses.

Building Awareness & Accessibility

Building accessibility in the outdoors starts with each of us. Here are some ways you can help make nature more accessible to those with different abilities than you.

  1. Talk to disabled people about what they need, and then advocate for those needs in your local community. Listen to those needs when you plan your next adventure with them. 
  2. When you write trip reports, mention how accessible the trail is so disabled people can know if it’s accessible or inaccessible for them. You can note things like accessibility of bathrooms or other amenities at the trailhead, places to rest next to the trail, significant obstacles such as downed trees on the trail, and give context about what “easy” or “hard” means for you. Everyone has a different level, so being transparent about your level will help others judge whether this hike is for them.
  3. If you’re involved in a local trail maintenance group, work to improve signage at the trailhead. The more information you include about mileage, grade, and location of resting spots, the better decisions disabled people can make about how far they’d like to go or not go at all. 
  4. Remember that being able-bodied is a temporary condition. Everyone will likely encounter the challenge of disability in their life. Keeping this in mind can help you develop empathy for those around you as well as yourself.

Slowing Down & Savoring The Hike

  1. Carry a pocket identification guide or download apps like iNaturalist to identify plants and animals in the area. 
  2. If you’re hiking in a group, choose one plant or animal at the beginning of your hike and count them as they appear. Depending on who you’re hiking with, it could become a friendly competition to spot the highest numbers. 
  3. Take photos as you go. See if you can capture the essence of whatever catches your eye and share photos with your friends at the end of your excursion.
  4. Let your feet on the ground, on the pedals, on the rock crevice be the center of the experience. 
  5. Let the conversation be the center of the experience. 
  6. Let your breath be the center of the experience.

Bethany Clarke is a freelance writer and public school teacher with work in She Explores and Peach Magazine. You can find her art and hiking adventures on Instagram @bethanymclarke