Disabled Hikers follows the important movement of folks from marginalized communities challenging the stereotypes that are consistently reinforced on billboards, TV, movies, and magazines: that hikers are white, straight, thin, young, affluent, and able bodied. Groups like Unlikely Hikers, Wild Diversity, Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, and Disabled Hikers are working to dispel that myth and showcase the diverse groups of people who access the outdoors like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQ folks, people of all body sizes, and disabled people. And, just as importantly, call attention to the barriers these communities face that make the outdoors less inclusive.
Disabled Hikers, led by Syren, offers group hikes (both private and public) for disabled folks, and detailed trail information on their website that examines hiking destinations, centering the needs of disabled and neurodiverse people.
Syren wanted to create a safe space for disabled folks to experience the outdoors. Hiking with able bodied people can be challenging. Both because of the pace, and because it can be uncomfortable and frustrating to have to remind the group that they have different physical abilities. A Disabled Hikers outing removes those barriers and takes into consideration everyone’s different needs.
How does Syren do it? Before any group hike, they ask participants privately about access needs and if they have any concerns or questions. This gives the person privacy if they choose it. Then each group hike starts with a check in, allowing space for people to say what their access needs are, their expectations for the hike, and what they are and aren’t comfortable with. The group pace matches the pace of the participants. If one person needs a break, the whole group stops.
And on a hike, the topic of conversation might be lichen hanging off a Doug Fir, or it might be a subject that’s often taboo for disabled people to talk about. Their bodies. “Medical talk and talking about our bodies is welcome on group hikes,” said Syren. “For disabled people, a lot of people don’t want to hear about our health problems or what our access needs are. It’s all around encouraging people to ask for what they need and build a supportive community.”
With Disabled Hikers, it’s just another part of creating an environment where disability is a normal part of life.
Another core tenant of taking part in a group hike is following what should be a very simple rule: Not to offer advice or assistance without asking first. “Disabled people often experience people who may have good intentions but who insert themselves into our lives and offer help and assistance where we don’t need it because they assume we are not capable and that’s not true,” said Syren.
An easy example, grabbing hold of someone’s wheelchair to push them without permission. Or giving medical advice without asking if it’s wanted. The simple rule of asking first gives priority and bodily autonomy to the disabled person who can ask for help or not as needed.
Like many disabled folks, Syren belongs to more than one marginalized community, identifying as disabled, neurodiverse, queer, and poor. When it comes to making space for disabled people who are multiply marginalized, it’s always evolving. Syren said, “One of the perspectives I’ve developed as a disabled person is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anything. Access needs vary widely and sometimes conflict, experiences of disability are very different, and often impacted by other marginalized identities and privileges. So when it comes to making space for multiply marginalized disabled folx, it is an ongoing process.”
Each group hike starts with a land acknowledgement and a space for people to list their pronouns. As a white person, Syren notes that they don’t always understand the experience of people who are marginalized racially, so they try to create a space of learning for all participants which comes down to sharing and being open to other people’s experiences.
Syren also strives to meet the needs of neurodiverse folks by using clear language. And to folks who experience poverty or financial hardship by offering group hikes on a donation basis. Private hikes are provided for the cost of Syren’s travel and an optional donation. Syren notes that as a poor disabled person, it’s not easy, but it’s critical to the mission of Disabled Hikers to be fully accessible. And it makes donations all the more important to make the work possible.
A big question that always comes up in any conversation about disability and access to the outdoors is this: What are the barriers? Syren provided the start of what is a very long list.
- Drastically Improve Signage: “A big one for me is signage. I try to encourage parks to improve their signage and list information about the trails at the trail heads like elevation gain, the material of the trail, and a map, so that information is right there and people can make a decision when they are at the trailhead and ask themselves, ‘Is this going to be accessible for me or not?’”
- Visual Barriers at Seat Height: “I encounter a lot of trails that are marked as ADA but if you were at sitting height you wouldn’t be able to see anything except a wall. Sometimes I’ll come to a view point and there will be a solid rock wall at sitting height. It makes it really inaccessible for wheelchair users.”
- Widening Trail Entrances: “I encounter a lot of places that would be accessible for people using wheelchairs or walkers if the entrance around it was a little wider. At Olympic National Park there is a closed road that offers a really nice walking and biking path but the barrier around it was too narrow to allow people to pass. So they just widened that a little bit and now it’s accessible to both wheelchair users and walkers.”
- More Seating that’s Marked on the Map: “One of the things I wish that parks could do to make things more accessible is put in a few more benches so people can sit down and then mark those on the map so people can know when they can expect to sit somewhere. If I know I’ll be able to sit every 300 feet or so, that makes a huge difference.”
Now, Syren is working on a new project, a book tentatively titled, “The Disabled Hiker’s Guide to Western Washington and Western Oregon: Outdoor Adventures Accessible by Car, Wheelchair or Foot”.
In this book, Syren will feature 50 to 60 hikes, providing information that broadens the definition of what a disabled hiker looks like. They reflect that so many of the resources for disabled people are directed at wheelchair users, but that single definition leaves a whole lot of people out of the conversation.
Syren’s book will provide information like elevation gain, length of elevation change, tread, and material of the trail. And then obstacles that normally go unnoticed by able bodied people like slippery rock areas or stairs or downed trees that need to be maneuvered around. Syren explains that for a disabled person, any one of those things could make the trail too much so they aim to provide as much detail as possible.
But it’s not all about trails. Syren explains, “I also think it’s important for people to know they can experience the outdoors without ever even going out on the trail. If that is inaccessible for them or they are having a string of low spoon days and can’t go hiking. I spend a lot of time just sitting at my window looking at trees and birds, or go to the local park and sitting there for a while, listening to the wind. Little things like that really help me stay connected to the outdoors when I don’t feel like I can go out for an ‘adventure’ and recognize that that’s as valid and important as anything else.”