Nature for Everyone: People with Differing Abilities in the Great Outdoors

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Andrew Haiar shooting

Gus Franks waited patiently in the blind. It was deer season in Ohio, and he was looking for his opportunity.

Suddenly, an entire herd of deer appeared through the trees. As they moved through the woods, Franks shouldered his shotgun. The first shot missed. He tried two more times. The shotgun was empty. His three-shell limit was spent, and the deer had fled.

But that was okay. As most hunters have learned, it’s not about bagging the game, it’s about the experience. And Franks loves being in the woods. Which is why he has attended a hunting event for people with mobility impairments for a quarter century.

Reconnecting to the outdoors

As a teenager, Franks learned to hunt with his dad. Together, they pursued rabbits and pheasants. But that pursuit became more difficult when, as a young man, he lost a leg in an accident.

In the end, it was family that brought Franks back to hunting—with a little help from the Izaak Walton League. In the late 1990s, his family rented the Tiffin-Seneca Chapter’s clubhouse for a reunion. A chapter member who was helping to host the event noticed Franks in his wheelchair and approached him to ask if he hunted. Franks enthusiastically said yes. That’s how he learned about the Tiffin-Seneca Chapter’s mobility-impaired event.

Over the years, he has attended the hunting event about 25 times, sitting it out only when he’s gotten sick at inconvenient times. Sometimes he brings home a deer. Sometimes he doesn’t. Either way, he values his friendships with the chapter volunteers and with the other hunters. And, of course, he enjoys carrying on a family tradition.

Like any other kid

One in four Americans has a disability—the only minority group you could join at any time.

Andrew Haiar is about to graduate from Mitchell High School. He’s got impressive extracurriculars on his resumé. For the past four years, he’s been competing in shooting sports with the USA Clay Target League (USACTL).

Haiar had barely arrived at Mitchell High in eastern South Dakota when he started seeing fliers about the USACTL. He already had experience shooting with his family, so it was an easy decision to get involved.

The clay target experience has been an important source of enjoyment and encouragement for Haiar.

“The most important thing I have learned from my involvement has been to try my best in everything I do,” the 18-year-old said, “and to never give up when things don’t go my way. I am grateful to have coaches who give me encouragement and help me improve.” More than just a sporting achievement, Haiar sees shooting sports as a lifelong interest.

Like Franks, Haiar grew up hunting with his family. Unlike Franks, he’s been in a wheelchair his entire life.

Grounding through nature

It’s important to understand what people with physical, cognitive or sensory limitations are capable of doing for themselves.

Deb Brisch always knew that she struggled to interact with other people. To recover from the stresses and challenges of social activity, she threw herself into physical work. She walked long distances to school, cared for horses and tackled camping trips in the north woods of Michigan.

At the age of 68, Brisch was diagnosed as autistic. Finally, she had validation for what she had already intuitively known for years: life is “too fast” for the processing capacity she had been given.

Now retired and living at the tip of Michigan’s mitten, Brisch treasures being able to get out in the woods on the edge of Lake Huron. She hikes alone, four or five times a week, for up to four hours at a time. Nature moves at a speed that makes sense to her. She says it provides an “outlet for the anxiety and tension that builds” when she’s with other people.

Recreating responsibly is important to Brisch. She always brings water and snacks, insect repellent and other hiking essentials. Her spouse knows where she is. These days, she stays in on icy days to reduce the risk of falling.

“I will continue to rely on outdoors hiking and solitude as the key to my sanity and physical health until I am no longer able to do so,” she told us.

We all need nature

Freya McGregor thinks Brisch is exactly right about the benefits of being outdoors. As the owner of Access Birding, McGregor is eager to talk about the importance of nature and how to make recreation more welcoming for everyone.

“There are so many health and wellness benefits that we can get from being out in nature,” McGregor said. More and more research shows that spending time outdoors lowers our blood pressure and improves our mood. Being in natural settings also helps to restore our attention, which is important for regulating our emotions, making good decisions, and focusing on important tasks.

Aside from the scientific studies McGregor mentions, Brisch explains her own experience of why nature matters. “Being outdoors and solitary is essential for me to ‘change gears,’” she said, “and to keep myself functioning with minimal anxiety, giving me better health and helping clear my mind of distress of everyday living where my sensory experiences due to my neurology are overwhelming and stress-inducing.”

“We all deserve to access [those benefits],” McGregor said—including people living with disabilities. One in four Americans has a disability, she pointed out. Which makes them one of the largest “minority” groups in the country. And, as McGregor put it, “it’s the only minority group you can join at any time.”

Family at a fishing event - credit Jennifer SimmsFishing events for children or adults with disabilities offer one way to share outdoors experiences.

Advancing the League's mission

The fact that you—or someone you love—could become disabled is a powerful argument for taking action now to make outdoor recreation more accessible. It’s also true that connecting the largest possible number of people to outdoor recreation is simply part of the Izaak Walton League’s mission.

Our shared vision, created as part of our centennial celebration in 2022, expresses our intent to ensure that “the conservation movement reflects the diversity of America” and that “traditions of hunting, fishing and target shooting endure through growing participation by people of all backgrounds.”

Jennifer Simms understands exactly what we mean. As a nature educator with Montgomery County Parks in central Maryland, Simms is responsible for advancing a similar mission of making nature accessible to all.

When she arrived at the Meadowside Nature Center in 2020, Simms quickly realized her new workplace had some accessibility problems. “Meadowside is not near a bus stop,” she observed. “You can’t safely bike-ride here. So it’s hard to get here. You have to have a car.”

Simms also realized that people were coming to the park to enjoy the trails, but they weren’t aware of the value-added programs offered by the naturalists. She worked hard to plan more inclusive events—and to communicate to target audiences about them. Over time, her efforts paid off.

“I had a student who came to my SENSE-sational Summer Camp,” Simms recalled, referring to a free-range nature camp she started for special-needs kids. Before the camp began, the student’s mom and dad met with her about their child’s abilities and needs.

“He’s anxious,” the parents said. “He’s never been to nature camp. He’s never been to camp at all. He’s very shy.”

Jennifer assured the parents that the summer camp was a safe space, and the student thrived at camp.

“He came out of his shell. He loved it. And he has come back to almost every single program I have offered since then. He comes back all the time and does everything.”

An end in itself

Andrew Haiar, the high school student from South Dakota, gets to the heart of the matter on why outdoor recreation is important. “It gives me the chance to get outside and do activities that I enjoy,” he said simply.

Gus Franks, the hunter from Ohio, agrees that there doesn’t need to be any complex explanation for why everyone should have access to time in nature. “It gets me out doing something,” he said, about the deer hunting event. “That’s the whole thing.”

Already aware of the benefits

People with disabilities are already well aware that outdoor recreation is beneficial and just plain fun. They also know a lot about how to actually get outside and recreate.

Host an event for people with disabilities. Any effort to include that community is better than doing nothing.

Jennifer Simms, who was a special education teacher before she became a naturalist, underscores the importance of recognizing what people with physical, cognitive or sensory limitations are capable of doing for themselves. She encouraged event leaders to resist the urge to do things for attendees.

Instead, she said, teach these participants the same way you would teach anyone else, and let them try things for themselves. They will ask for help if they need it.

Franks easily recalled an example of event volunteers being too eager to help. At the Tiffin-Seneca deer hunting event, hunters gather at the chapterhouse for breakfast, then ride out to the blinds in carts meant to accommodate wheelchairs. One year, the cart didn’t quite work as intended: while rolling up the ramp, Franks fell over backwards. The volunteers panicked, he recalled. But he was fine. When you’re in a wheelchair, he pointed out, you learn how to fall.

Steve Wright, an organizer of the Tiffin-Seneca event, had a similar story about the skills of wheelchair users. At one year’s event, a young hunter was unable to get onto the cart. His track wheelchair, designed to drive over tough terrain, simply didn’t fit.

This didn’t turn out to be a problem. “He just took off and drove [the wheelchair] out there and backed it up in the blind like he’d done it every day,” Steve said.

Freya McGregor, the disability expert currently based in Alabama, pointed out that traits that get labeled as disabilities can sometimes be advantages. While some neurodivergent people, like Deb Brisch, experience slow sensory processing, others report keen powers of visual and auditory observation. That’s useful for an activity like birding, in which by definition participants want to detect the presence of birds, and where noticing details about birds is often considered part of the fun. This kind of sensory sensitivity “could be really disabling in another situation,” McGregor said, “but in birding it’s a real strength.”

Hidden challenges

On the other hand, people with disabilities can get stuck on obstacles that are difficult for people without disabilities to anticipate.

For example, every angler knows it’s important to stay quiet to avoid scaring off the fish. You would think that staying quiet comes easily for Deaf people. But in fact, Simms, the nature educator in Maryland, explained that “it’s not uncommon for Deaf individuals to get each other’s attention by stomping on the floor.” When teaching Deaf kids to fish at a recent event, Simms reminded them to signal to their friends in other ways, like by waving, to avoid creating vibrations on the dock that would drive away their quarry.

McGregor identifies as disabled in addition to being an occupational therapist, accessibility educator, and researcher. She mentioned steps as an obstacle that allies can get better at spotting. It’s easy to see that an entire flight of stairs is a barrier for a person with a mobility impairment. But other kinds of stairs can pass unnoticed as able-bodied people traverse them without thinking. If a trail includes a small bridge that visitors must step up onto in order to cross a stream, that trail is not accessible. Likewise, if a trail is completely flat in itself, but the only entry point is two steps leading down from the parking lot, that trail is not accessible.

Social story - credit Janette RosenbaumA social story created by Jennifer Simms helps explain what a new outdoor experience will be like for people with special needs.

Simple fixes

The good news is that obstacles that are easy to miss can also be easy to fix. Not every trail needs to be completely flat; there is value in more challenging hiking experiences. But every trail can be made more accessible through better information.

McGregor explains how to provide appropriate information for outdoor activities. She recommends providing specific, concrete information about the property, trails, parking and facilities available—on websites, event descriptions or kiosks on site. This helps people learn about recreation opportunities before they even travel to a park. It’s easy, free and useful for everyone.

Another way to provide information is a “social story.” Simms explained that a social story is a booklet that helps people understand what a new experience will be like. Built around photos, clear language and simple statements starting with “I,” a social story can also be created on a website. By reading the social story in advance, people can understand what they will do and how they will do it when visiting an unfamiliar place or trying a new activity. This is tremendously useful for people who may need accommodations and adaptations—or for anyone who feels more confident and comfortable when they know ahead of time what they are going to be doing.

Perhaps the simplest way to broaden participation in outdoor recreation is to simply expand the definition of outdoor recreation. McGregor criticized the term “birdwatching” as implying that “blind people can’t enjoy birds, because you must WATCH a bird.” She then challenged the emphasis among many birders on identifying birds in order to find the most, or most interesting, species.

“My definition of birding is the act of enjoying wild birds,” she said. “So if you enjoyed a bird, you’re a birder.”

The next level

Beyond these simple fixes, disability allies— including League chapters—can plan whole events specifically designed for people with special challenges.

Simms did exactly that when she organized a kids’ fishing event for the Deaf community. At the nature center where she works, it has always been possible for people with hearing impairments to attend programs by requesting a sign language interpreter in advance. But she noted that this required Deaf participants to plan ahead and make commitments in a way that hearing people didn’t have to. She wanted to host an event where an interpreter would simply be present—no request necessary.

Having experience with special-needs education, it became obvious to Simms that event leaders with a background in nature should partner with educators. Organize the logistics of an outdoor event and ask a teacher to lead the program, she advised—or simply invite a teacher to use your chapter grounds for a nature education event they are already planning.

Visitors using accessible trail - credit Janette RosenbaumVisitors use an accessible trail to Glacier Point overlook in Yosemite National Park.

Build it and they will come

Starting with fishing trips for wounded World War II veterans, the Izaak Walton League of America has a long history of helping people with disabilities to enjoy the great outdoors. That tradition continues today at many chapters throughout the U.S.

Steve Wright, who has variously been the president, the vice president and the youth programs coordinator at the Izaak Walton League’s Tiffin-Seneca Chapter, initially was simply a member who enjoyed using the shooting range at the Fremont Chapter, which is located in northwest Ohio.

Many years ago, he attended a festival where he met the then-president of Tiffin-Seneca, and before he knew it, he was agreeing to teach a hunter’s education class at Tiffin-Seneca. From there, he also agreed to take on leadership for the mobility-impaired deer hunting event that had been started by other chapter members.

In the late ‘90s, the chapter had partnered with a nearby farm that owned 60 acres and a handful of blinds. That provided the basic amenities that any hunter needs: access to land and a particular spot from which to watch for game. All the event leaders needed was a way of making those amenities usable for hunters who couldn’t walk.

Larry Manecke solved the problem by building carts that could tow a hunter, wheelchair and hunting gear included, to a blind. Then, the event leaders built a new blind, repaired the aging original blinds, and began to advertise their event.

Pretty soon, the chapter had to implement a lottery system, as the number of wheelchair-using hunters exceeded the number of available hunting spots. Hunters came back year after year. Other organizations copied Tiffin-Seneca’s playbook. The chapter formed a partnership with the Ohio Department of Wildlife and secured a grant that helped to pay for construction materials (for the carts and blinds) as well as breakfast and lunch for the hunters and other expenses. A growing number of volunteers chipped in as well.

For other League chapters interested in hosting similar events, Wright offers two pieces of advice and one justification. First, host an event for people with disabilities. Any effort to include that community is better than doing nothing. Second, engage your volunteers; expand beyond your core group to activate more chapter members and get them involved in advancing the mission.

As for the why, “it makes me feel really good,” Wright said. “We just do it because we enjoy doing it and we like to see the hunters enjoying themselves.”

Patience pays

Simms, the nature educator, had one additional piece of advice when it comes to working with this community: be patient. When you are planning an event for people with disabilities, think about where your target audience is getting information, and put your advertising or word of mouth there. And, she said, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a lot of attendees on the first try. It can take a little time for a new audience to become aware of your events.

Outdoor recreation is an end in itself. Likewise, McGregor pointed out that accessibility is not about speeding to some measurable result. “Doing work that increases access and inclusion not only is the right thing to do,” she said, “but it feels really good as well. Doing work that means more people can share [what gives them] joy feels really good. People will tell you, ‘Thank you for doing that. That really mattered to me.’”

Improving Access: Getting the Details Right

When you think about accessible outdoor experiences, you probably don’t think about Craters of the Moon National Park. For one, it’s in a remote region of Idaho. For another, it encompasses an inhospitable jumbled landscape of volcanic craters and the rocks flung out of them in past eruptions. Water and shade are in limited supply.

Nonetheless, Craters of the Moon—a place so otherworldly it’s the only national park named after something in space—has exactly the kind of informational signs recommended by Freya McGregor, owner of Access Birding. Posts at trailheads enumerate the length of the trail, the elevation change, the grade (both moving forward and from side to side) and the width of the trail (both average and minimum).

The same information is available on the park’s website, so visitors can plan wisely. See this excellent example of trail descriptions in the park’s website.

Top photo: Andrew Haiar competes in the USA Clay Target League.