Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Magazine Features Helping Disabled People Find Belonging Outdoors
Areas like Gold Creek make it easier for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices to get out on trail. And trip reports from these hikes can provide vital information to others who want to get out on trail. Photo by Sasha Weiler.

Helping Disabled People Find Belonging Outdoors

Accessibility can benefit everyone who spends time on trail | By Syren Nagakyrie

Like so many others, I’ve found that being in nature has helped me get through the most difficult periods of life, but I’ve had to fight hard to access the outdoors. I didn’t grow up particularly outdoorsy. My family was poor — one parent disabled and the other working full time — and I was sick. I spent the majority of my childhood at hospitals and doctor’s offices due to illness or unable to walk due to disability-related injury. I couldn’t participate in physical education, field trips or summer camps.

But I still felt an innate connection with the natural world. I slowly walked through the yard, noticing the birds and bugs and flowers that surrounded me. When the scorching Florida heat kept me indoors, I gazed at the moon on cool nights. I didn’t have big adventure stories to share with the kids at school, but I did have the insights of close attention to the land.

Syren DH shirt.jpg
Syren Nagakyrie, the creator of Disabled Hikers, is working to build a community where all disabled people feel welcome and able to get outside. Photo courtesy Syren Nagakyrie.

This approach to experiencing nature is now popularized as “mindfulness” or “forest bathing” or “slow hiking.” But for many disabled people, slow, attentive experiences are the only way to experience nature. People often push past me on the trail, frustrated with my slowness on the way to their destination. What they don’t know is that while I’m paying close attention to my body, I’m also experiencing an entire world right where I am — noticing the life cycle of lichen, the small mammals in the brush, and the way the light and air feel on my skin. It is so easy to miss these things when people rush by.

Many people with disabilities don’t get to experience outdoor recreation at all. There is ample evidence that time in nature provides a range of physical, emotional and mental benefits and can enhance a sense of belonging. Yet the people who need these benefits the most – the disability community are often excluded from the outdoors. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The inaccessibility of built environments, the lack of affordable resources and information and the overall disregard of disabled folks by non-disabled people are the primary barriers to the outdoors, not a disabled person’s abilities.

When I started exploring outdoor recreation in my mid-20s, I quickly encountered all of these barriers. Groups I wanted to join said my participation was too risky, the gear I needed to support my body was too expensive, and finding information on accessible features was nearly impossible. These frustrations have remained consistent for nearly 15 years, but they came to a head when I moved to Washington state.

I was eager to experience the Olympic Peninsula when I moved here and immediately set to researching trails. While there is far more information available in Washington compared to many other states thanks in large part to Washington Trails Association I still could not find the detailed information that I needed. I often received information that was not accurate for my needs from non-disabled hikers. For example, when I asked for easily accessible coastal trails, hikers recommended the Kalaloch coastal trails and the Cape Flattery Trail as very easy. But each of the Kalaloch trails presented accessibility issues: a steep, slippery grade or piles of drift logs to navigate, which is impossible for someone with limited mobility. The Cape Flattery Trail has around 100 steps and 200 feet of elevation gain in three-quarters of a mile, which is not easy for someone with cardiopulmonary concerns or joint pain. (Thank you to the Makah craftsman who leaves walking sticks at the trailhead for donation. Note to disabled hikers: If you see sticks left at a trailhead, the trail is probably steep or slippery.)

hoh ONP flickr2.jpg
Knowing what to expect before going for a hike is critical for disabled people. Photo by Olympic National Park.

In the spring of 2018, I set out on a different segment of a trail system that I was already familiar with, expecting it to be an easy hike. I immediately encountered numerous barriers that weren’t listed in any of the guides, including steep stairs and a narrow, scree-covered path along a sharp drop-off. While these features are likely inconsequential to non-disabled hikers, they were a major safety concern for me, and I had no way of knowing they were there. Turning around would have been equally difficult, so I continued on, eventually making my way back to the car, exhausted and in pain.

If there is one thing that I wish all hikers knew, it’s that building accommodations and universal access into the community benefits everyone. 

The culmination of these experiences inspired me to start Disabled Hikers. As an organization by disabled people for disabled people, Disabled Hikers is working toward building a community of people who feel like they belong outdoors. We help to provide access to information and resources through detailed trail guides and reviews, lead group hikes for the community and advocate for accessibility and inclusion in the outdoors. Disabled Hikers is committed to creating space for disabled folks to take the lead and make their own decisions, because supporting individual autonomy while nurturing community interdependence is so important.

kalaloch beach work austin easter.jpg
WTA volunteers moved more than 255,000 pounds of gravel to improve the Big Cedar Tree trail. Improvements to trails, like this WTA work at Big Cedar Tree at Kalaloch, allow more people to access nature. Photo by Austin Easter.

If there is one thing that I wish all hikers knew, it’s that building accommodations and universal access into the community benefits everyone. There are many ways to create accessible and inclusive opportunities for outdoor recreation, and it starts with considering the way people approach disability and the outdoors. I am not advocating for paving over the wilderness. But I do ask non-disabled people to consider how they frame their outdoor experiences and think about who is being excluded. What does it mean if the epitome of outdoor recreation — extreme mountaineering or kayaking, for example — is something that few people can ever experience? (Side note: The few disabled folks who are able to accomplish such adventures are not doing it to inspire you.)

The emphasis on quantity over quality in the outdoors, for example, getting the most miles in the least amount of time or accomplishing the most extreme adventures in remote places, reinforces harmful narratives about productivity and nature as a resource. These narratives harm all of us — disabled and non-disabled people alike. Taking a stroll through an urban park on a lunch break is just as valid as backpacking in the wilderness, and indeed may have just as much to teach about being in nature.

Disabled folks have a lot to teach people about taking life slow, caring for ourselves and each other, and making sure everything we offer is accessible to all. The sidebars to this article include some suggestions for making outdoor spaces more accessible. I encourage you to talk with disabled people in your community about what they need. Advocate for accessible structures and trails in local parks, improved transit options, and more information and resources for the community.


How You Can Help

Trail information that disabled people need

When you are providing information about a trail, in trip reports for instance, here is the information that will help disabled people decide if the trail is right for them. You may not be able to provide all of this information. The most important thing is to be as specific and detailed as possible. Disabled people need to know what is accessible and inaccessible about a place.

Getting there: Road conditions, type of roadway, how curvy or narrow. Information on number of accessible parking spots and available amenities (accessible restrooms, potable water, picnic areas) at the trailhead. This information is often overlooked, but for people driving accessible vans or those who have difficulty navigating roadways, it is essential. Include public transportation options. Note if cell phone service is available — this is an important safety consideration.

Trail design and conditions: Cross-slope and running slope, width, surface of the trail. Obstacles and barriers such as rocks or downed trees; information on muddy or slippery areas. Provide details on boardwalks, bridges or stairs (how many, how long, how steep, what material). Make note of places to rest (benches, tables, a particularly nice log).

Elevation: Detailed elevation information along the entire trail, to include length and grade of each elevation change as well as total elevation change. Provide an elevation profile. If it is a loop trail, list the direction of the elevation change.

Segments and trailheads: Detailed information for each segment with the access point clearly defined.

Difficulty: Be specific about what “easy” or “hard” means for you. Give context for your opinion — are you an average non-disabled hiker, an experienced trekker, or someone who climbs 14,000-foot peaks on the weekend?

Elwha Hike_gate syren.jpg
People on a Disabled Hikers trip pass through the gate blocking the Olympic Hot Springs Road. A park ranger had to open the gate to allow access. This event led to the widening of the path around the barrier. Photo by Syren Nagakyrie.

Simple changes that improve access

Improved signage: Provide information at trailheads about the surface, grade, width and elevation of the trail, along with a map. This gives disabled people the opportunity to make a more informed decision right at the trail. Include Braille and audio descriptions when possible.
Install benches and mark them on the map: A safe place to sit that doesn’t require going off-trail makes a trail much more accessible. Knowing when I’ll be able to sit makes a huge difference in whether I attempt a trail or not.

Widen trail barriers: Many trails would be accessible if the entrance was wider or the gate adjusted to make maneuvering easier. It is understandable that land managers are concerned about illegal use, but it also prevents use for people who use mobility aids or are unable to navigate tight corners.

Barriers at sitting height: Visual barriers at sitting height are a common experience on allegedly wheelchair-accessible trails. Have at least one area with a lower barrier or install a barrier you can see through. Note barriers on information materials — it is very frustrating to make the effort only to be blocked from seeing something.

Notes on language

The majority of the disability community prefers identity-first language, such as disabled person. Person-first language is also acceptable, such as person with a disability. Please avoid all euphemisms such as “differently abled,” “special needs,” or “handicapable.” Do not refer to wheelchair users as “wheelchair bound”; wheelchairs are a source of mobility and freedom, not something people are chained to.

When referring to features such as restrooms or parking spaces, it is preferable to describe them as accessible rather than handicapped, for example, an accessible bathroom stall. Handicapped is considered a slur. Cripple is also considered a slur when used by non-disabled people, but it is being reclaimed by the disability community. Physically disabled folks may use the word to describe themselves. When in doubt, always ask someone which words they prefer, and follow their lead.

bench green lake Katie Hoynes.jpg
A hiker takes a scenic rest along the Green Lake tail. Photo by Katie Hoynes.

Hiking Mindfully

Mindful hiking can benefit everyone, especially now that many hikers must stay closer to home. Here are a few tips for paying attention to the small things in nature, whether on a stroll around your neighborhood or in the backcountry.

Breathe: Start every walk or hike with a few deep, calming breaths. Take a moment to look around you. What trees, plants and animals are present?

Feel: Feel the way your feet touch the ground. Know that whether you are on sidewalk or trail, the ground is under your feet (even concrete is made of earth). How does the wind or sun feel on your skin?

Notice: Challenge yourself to notice as many of one plant, animal or fungus as you can – how many birds, how many dandelions, how many mushrooms? Find the nearest tree and commit to standing or sitting there for a few minutes every day. Notice the bark, the way the tree moves, the plants and animals that interact with it.

Gratitude: Nature surrounds us wherever we are, even in the city. Make a practice of thanking everything and everyone that is working to keep you alive — the trees producing oxygen, the earth filtering clean water, the plants producing food and the incredible biodiversity of the planet without which we could not survive.

Syren Nagakyrie (they/she) is a long-time disabled activist and community builder. They are the founder of Disabled Hikers, Syren is also the author of “The Disabled Hiker’s Guide to Western Washington and Oregon: outdoor adventures accessible by car, wheelchair, and foot,” to be published by Falcon Guides.