Syren Nagakyrie, Founder and Director of Disabled Hikers

How the Founder of Disabled Hikers Is Advocating for Accessibility in the Outdoors

"Experiences of disability are incredibly unique, just like nature"

We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In 2020, we saw more people get outside, eager for a breath of fresh air after challenging spring, taking up new activities and blazing new trails. Now, in 2021, read our features to learn more about 15 outdoor skills you should masterthe best state parks across the country, a new trend of hotels opening near formerly remote national parks, and one person’s quest to make outdoor experiences accessible for all.

Nature has always been important to me, but it took me a long time to feel like I belonged in the outdoors. My family wasn’t what you might consider “outdoorsy”—we didn’t camp, hike, or take family vacations. One of my parents was disabled, the other worked full time (and is now disabled), and I was a sick kid, so outdoor recreation just wasn’t something that we did. I spent much of my childhood sick at the doctor, in recovery from an injury or trying to prevent one, and I couldn’t participate in things like physical education or summer camp.

I felt excluded from many activities that kids cherish and really didn’t fit in with my peers. But I did feel like I fit in with nature. I spent hours in my yard watching the plants and animals around me. When the Florida heat kept me inside during the day, I gazed at the moon at night. I learned to pay attention to the small things and recognize the diversity in nature. I felt inspired by how every plant, animal, and insect had their unique way of being. This connection with the natural world gave me a sense of belonging and was a balm for my lonely childhood heart.

In my 20s, I decided I wanted to learn more about nature and explore what my body could do in the outdoors. I enrolled in several educational programs where I learned about the natural sciences, went on group hikes, and had the opportunity to take my first real trips to new locations. They were inspiring experiences and gave me many tools for being outdoors. However, I also encountered numerous barriers as a disabled and chronically ill person and learned how to deal with prejudice and assumptions about my ability and intentions. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself at the time and often felt pressured to participate or be excluded from opportunities. I also didn’t have the language for what I experienced, but now I can name it—ableism.

In its simplest terms, ableism is the discrimination against and social prejudice towards anyone who is perceived to be disabled. It manifests in blatant and obvious ways, such as lack of accessible design, lower rates of employment and higher rates of poverty, and the exclusion of people with disabilities in everyday life. But ableism actually impacts all of us because it creates expectations around what and who is considered normal, smart, desirable, and productive. People who are disabled may be near the bottom of that list, but everyone gets ranked.

But I didn’t let that stop me. Nature continued to be a source of connection, comfort, and belonging, and I was determined to learn ways to be outdoors that worked for my body. When I moved to western North Carolina in my late 20s, the ancient Appalachian Mountains inspired me to try more of this thing called “hiking.” The terrain was very different from where I grew up, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked for me. I reached out to park rangers, hiking groups, and outdoor retailers for resources, but no one really understood how to work with diverse kinds of disabilities. I could find little information beyond wheelchair-accessible trails, and even that information was rare and inaccurate.

Now, 15 years later, I’ve had the privilege of living in some of the most beautiful places with world-renowned outdoor recreation. But it hasn’t been easy to find the information and support that I need. More programs are available now compared to 10 years ago, but the conversation about disability in the outdoors has largely focused on adaptive sports. While that is very important, it has left out a sizable portion of the disability community. Experiences of disability are incredibly unique, just like nature, and accessibility means different things to different people.

Syren Nagakyrie, Founder and Director of Disabled Hikers

Eddie Bauer/Elise Giordano

What People With Disabilities Need in the Outdoors

Disability is so diverse that it is difficult to give a single set of guidelines for what disabled people need in the outdoors. But I can offer a few suggestions as well as tips for hikers with disabilities:

Information needs to be clear, detailed, and easily accessible.

Trail access information should include length, grade, cross-slope, surface material, and types of obstacles such as stairs or bridges. This information needs to be available for all trails, not only wheelchair-accessible ones. Similar information should be provided for transportation and parking areas, picnic sites, facilities, and other buildings.

You can typically find some information on the land manager websites, e.g., the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, State Parks, etc. You can also call the park or forest service for current information. State trail coalitions are another resource. There are also numerous hiking apps such as AllTrails with maps, user-submitted reviews, and vetted trail information. If you use one of these apps, you can help by submitting reviews with good, objective information and current conditions.

Information needs to be provided in multiple formats.

Braille and audio description for people who are blind; programs with sign language interpretation for those who are deaf or hard of hearing; plain language and simplified graphics for people with cognitive processing disorders or intellectual disabilities.

Hiking tools can make a huge difference for some disabled hikers.

Learning how to properly use hiking poles changed my hiking experience entirely—I even use them in place of a cane sometimes! I use a small water filtration device to drink from natural water sources—there are specific filters for outdoor use, such as Lifestraw or Sawyer. This reduces the weight I have to carry, and I make sure I have a pack that fits well. Wearing appropriate footwear and clothing suitable for the environment helps my body work a little less hard. You don’t have to buy expensive clothes but try to avoid cotton and heavy jeans, wear synthetic fibers in the summer and layer your clothing if you can.

Unfortunately, adaptive outdoor clothing is more difficult to find. More adaptive tools and equipment are entering the market, but they are costly; parks and organizations could invest in things like adaptive wheelchairs to remove one of the barriers to accessing trails.

Removing the barriers to outdoor recreation for disabled people ultimately comes down to cultural change. There is a lot of talk about the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of being outdoors, but the people who are most in need of those benefits are the most excluded. It is so important for people in the outdoor industry to examine the ableism inherent in outdoor recreation, pay attention to disability communities and advocates for accessibility, and ask what we need to feel comfortable in the outdoors. Disabled people are already a part of nature, and we have as much of a right to enjoy the outdoors as anyone else. My hope is for a future where everyone can find their own sense of belonging in nature, whatever that means for them.