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Accessible Outdoors in the Time of Quarantine Hikes | Disabled Hikers Storytelling Project

Updated: Jan 30

written by Haley Diaz

Content Notes: chronic pain, hiking, accessibility, ableism, quarantine

Hiker wearing backpack and carrying  a cane on grassy trail.
Haley on a trail, wearing a pack and bracing with a cane. She is looking into the grass and smiling.

I am a person who currently spends a lot of her life in unmanaged pain. When you’re experiencing pain like that, an hour in sunlight and wind and leaves is powerful stuff. Even when my pain wasn’t this severe or consistent, a day in open space after weeks or months of being restricted and cautious was almost magic.

I know that means something different to a lot of people right now.

There are two parts to this. First, I believe that nature is medicine. But so are all the pharmaceutical bells and whistles. My life relies on supplies. Sterile, single-use packaging. Medication and ice packs and creams and salves. I am so grateful to have those things (especially now). But it doesn’t make the task of packing my gear any easier; I know that if I forget one single item it means the day is over. The fact is, I can’t pop out for a quick walk through the woods. I can’t simply escape into nature for a bit when things feel constrictive.

And that leads to the second point, that many of the parks that I loved before I got sick are inaccessible to me now. Whether or not I remember to pack the right meds, whether or not they are closed to visitors or too full to be safe, I cannot see those beautiful places.

If I have a “good day” and I want to escape into the woods, it takes level paths, well-maintained trails, and easy grades. I need nearby parking and accessible bathrooms. Benches too, please.

Woman sitting in car with adjusting medical tubing on chest.
A photograph of Haley, a white woman with short blond hair. She sits in the passenger seat of a car, wiping the end of a line with an alcohol wipe. She holds the end of another line between two fingers.

What’s complicated about access is that it doesn’t mean just one thing. My list is not the list of every disabled person. People tend to ignore that when we talk about access. Different disabled people need different things. Braille. Sign language interpretation. Large print. Loaner wheelchairs. Guides. Cement walkways. Ramps. Hand rails. There is no disabled monolith. But what we all need (and what seems most rare of all) is information about where to find the stuff we need — or whether it’s available in the first place.

And yet conversations about disabled hiking often assume that access means wheelchair access. So, they turn to the idea that disabled people want to pave the wilderness. Non-disabled hikers ask, full of bristle and outrage, how I expect to balance my niche needs with the needs of the many to access untouched majesty. Partly, it is a misunderstanding (that I can only call intentional) of how much white people have already touched this land. Partly, it is a belief that disabled people are a stark, teeny minority and not at least twenty percent of the population.

If the conversation isn’t battling strawmen who threaten to pave paradise to put in accessible parking, it’s a conversation about tricked out wheelchairs that can climb steep hills or go up the stairs. And while having the right tools is a beautiful thing, it matters that the cost of one of those chairs could fund a more accessible trail that far more disabled people could enjoy. Suggesting that I (or any other disabled person) just need to do x, y, and z (Start A Go Fund Me! Talk To This Very Nice Non Profit Run By Ableds Who Want To Help You!) to get a chair that would save nondisabled people from having to change anything about their outdoor experience is unrealistic and ableist.

If you love the outdoors, if you are missing the parks right now, if you are privileged enough to have this be the first time you’ve lost access to them, I invite you to seek out folks who are doing access work already. Listen and follow their lead. Pay them for the work they are doing. And notice, as the world opens up, who is missing in those beautiful places.

You can follow Haley (she/her) on Instagram @haleyrdiaz

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