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‘I Wanted That Self-Reliance Back’: Disabled Hikers Forge a New Path

Beneath the wooden boardwalk where Syren Nagakyrie, 40, was on a hike through Lettuce Lake Conservation Park in Tampa, Florida, dark shadows of fish moved in the vegetation-clogged waters, while red-eyed herons strode between the cypress roots that stuck out from the water like knobby, twisted knees.

Nagakyrie, who is nonbinary, pointed out a turtle sunning itself on a log. But to see the wildlife, Nagakyrie’s mother, Vickie Boyer, 59, had to lean out of her wheelchair and peer through cracks between the wooden railings. The short wooden boardwalk loop, near Boyer’s home in Riverview, Florida, was supposedly on an accessible trail. Nagakyrie jotted down the railing’s height measurements in a notebook. It was 42 inches, 6 inches higher than what someone using a wheelchair could comfortably see over.

While some organizations offer to have non-disabled people carry, push or otherwise help people with disabilities navigate the outdoors, Nagakryie, who has conditions that cause chronic pain and fatigue, reflects a growing movement of disabled people pushing for more independent access to the great outdoors, taking steps themselves by publishing trail guides, establishing nonprofits to empower others through equipment, advocacy and training, and testifying before Congress.

Growing Interest in Outdoor Recreation

As a result of the pandemic, more people nationwide have turned to outdoor recreation. A March 2021 report commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association found that 53% of Americans older than 6 participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 — the highest rate on record. Many destinations managed by the National Park Service also welcomed record numbers of visitors in 2020.

As visitation increases, so do the number of visitors with disabilities, said Jeremy Buzzell, an accessibility program manager with the National Park Service.

Last April, several disability activists testified at a hearing on Capitol Hill, in front of members of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Park Service, to push for greater accessibility in outdoor spaces and call attention to barriers in public parks.

Buzzell said that parks across the country are receiving increased requests for more accessibility information, and the demand prompted the agency to form an Accessibility Task Force and launch a five-year strategy in 2015 to improve accessibility.

More national parks are partnering with local disability organizations to get accessibility, Buzzell said, and the agency is assessing trails to see if there are improvements that could be made — such as increasing the width of a trail or removing obstructions or steps — that could increase access.

“Very often, even if a trail is not able to meet the letter of the law as an accessible trail, we can still change things to make it more accessible,” Buzzell said.

Hikers Want More Information

Some outdoors enthusiasts have begun to write their own trail guides for national, local and state parks, such as Nagakyrie. They founded a project called Disabled Hikers to empower others and share detailed trail guides they write. A native of Washington state, they have already completed close to 200 trail guides, most of which are clustered in the Pacific Northwest.

Nagakyrie was inspired to start this project after struggling to determine which trails they could hike — sometimes trails that were labeled easy presented challenges like stairs or rocky, uneven surfaces that a non-disabled person might not think twice about.

“I’m not out here to tell any individual ‘yes or no, you can or can’t do this trail,’ ” said Nagakyrie, who on the hike in Florida recorded details about the width of the boardwalk, the height of the bump between the boardwalk ramp and the ground, the steepness of the ramps and the type of surfaces on the path to the boardwalk. “I just want to provide information so they can make that decision themselves.”

Rather than only sticking to paved trails, they argue that any trail can be more accessible if disabled hikers are equipped with the right information — and even trails labeled “accessible” can present challenges that park staff don’t always recognize.

Some trail guides are already available for free on the Disabled Hikers website, but Nagakyrie also plans to publish a guidebook, which is available for pre-order. Each trail is given a rating of how many “spoons” it takes to complete, in reference to a popular term used by those with chronic fatigue to describe how much energy they have to complete a given task. The more spoons a task requires, the harder and more energy-consuming it is.

The trail descriptions also include in-depth descriptions that start from the parking lot. Details Nagakyrie provides include trail width, steepness, surface material, landmarks, obstacles like roots or boulders, places to rest, accessible bathrooms, cellphone reception and water sources.

Collaborations to Improve Access

This is the type of information Georgena Moran would like more available on websites for national, state and local parks. Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two decades ago, Moran, 64, has held on to her identity as an avid outdoor enthusiast. A former canoe racer and scuba diver, she uses her chin to drive her power wheelchair on hikes near her home in Portland, Oregon. She particularly loves to get off paved trails.

“My adventurous spirit never died because my disability increased,” she said. “I still want to go out and challenge myself as much as possible.”

While she usually brings an able-bodied companion the first time she tries a new hike, she said that going on hikes independently is equally important for her to connect with her spiritual self.

“It’s a way of re-rooting,” she said.

But simple obstacles can prevent her from even getting onto a trail — sometimes there is no available handicapped parking, or curb cuts for her to get out of the parking lot. At the trail head, she has found concrete barriers designed to keep out cars and ATVs but that also block her from entering.

Experiences like these pushed Moran to start Access Recreation, an organization that created guidelines for the type of information parks should provide disabled hikers. The group wrote sample trail guides for around three dozen trails in Oregon with the intention of getting larger organizations involved.

Access Recreation is now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to improve accessibility at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge outside of Ridgefield, Washington, with the aim that it will serve as an example for other parks. Juliette Fernandez, a project manager with the Wildlife Service, said the agency is collecting and publishing better information about the trail, as well as installing new signs at the park that blind people can read through touch.

“We can really move mountains with very subtle touches,” she said.

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