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Shedding Light on Invisible Disabilities in Nature

I wasn’t particularly outdoorsy growing up. I was a sick kid. I experienced my first joint dislocation at the age of four, and was consistently injured, suffering from asthma, or otherwise sick my entire childhood. I had one disabled parent and one who worked full-time (and is now disabled), and my family lacked the money and time to make outdoor recreation possible. I did enjoy nature, though, and would spend hours in my yard examining plants and insects, watching birds fly, and gazing at the moon. These experiences taught me the value of “small adventures” and paying attention to the natural world that surrounds me every day.

I began exploring outdoor recreation in my early 20s, when I moved to western North Carolina and suddenly had the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in my backyard. I was anxious to learn about hiking, so I set out to gather all of the information I needed and find a community. Unfortunately, I encountered countless barriers. The groups I joined weren’t accepting of my disabilities and access needs. Thus, I couldn’t to find information about trail difficulty, hiking skills, accessibility, or other resources that were oriented towards disabled hikers. Park rangers were encouraging, but they didn’t have the resources they needed to be helpful, either.

Elwha Trail, Olympic National Park/Photo by Syren Nagakyrie

15 years later, there have definitely been improvements. There is growing awareness about access within the outdoor community and more resources are available. However, many of those resources are oriented towards wheelchair access and adaptive sports, which are very important and necessary, but they leave out much of the disability community. Experiences of disability are incredibly diverse and access needs vary; accessibility means different things to different people. 

People with invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses often experience a lot of prejudice. People think we’re lying and that we just want “special treatment” when we ask for disability accommodations. The general assumption in the outdoors is that someone is either able-bodied or a full-time wheelchair-user, and there is nothing in-between. Visual, hearing, and cognitive disabilities are often ignored entirely. This ableism (the devaluation of and discrimination towards disabled people; the perceived cultural value of being able-bodied) leads to the exclusion of people with disabilities and a lack of resources that meet our needs.

Ramp at Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park/Photo by Syren Nagakyrie

I founded Disabled Hikers to create the community and resources that I wish I had when I first started. As a Hello Ranger ambassador, I’ll share tips, trails, and facilities information, and other resources for disabled people in the national parks. I’ll highlight parks that are doing an excellent job at accessibility. I’ll also offer suggestions for non-disabled people about addressing ableism and creating a more inclusive community. 

My hope is that by expanding the narrative about disability and the outdoors, we can create a richer community of national park lovers and advocates. We all deserve to enjoy the benefits that time in nature provides; we all deserve to love ourselves and love the places we are in.

Header photo: Rialto Beach by sunset/Photo by Syren Nagakyrie

Syren Nagakyrie is the founder of Disabled Hikers, a community by disabled people for disabled people and allies. As someone with multiple invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses, they’ve found solace in nature since childhood, and shares stories of connection and belonging for people with disabilities while advocating for access and inclusion in the outdoors.

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