Like so many others, my sister Lauren finds that being in nature has helped her get through some of the most difficult periods of life, but she’s had to fight hard to access the outdoors. We grew up in Pennsylvania — our parents divorced and both remarried, each working full time — and my sister was born with a congenital disability called spina bifida. She spent most of her childhood at hospitals and doctor’s offices or unable to run and play the way the rest of her siblings did. She couldn’t participate in soccer, field hockey or summer camps in the same way either.
But Lauren still felt an innate connection with the natural world. And living in Pennsylvania offered countless places for her to watch birds, bugs and wildlife surrounding her. When we visited our Dad on the weekends, he took us fishing at nearby ponds and lakes. In the summers, we’d catch lightning bugs in the yard and ride through the woods on the back of ATVs. As one of seven kids in the modern mixed family we grew up in, Lauren never complained and instead pushed past the adversity to do the outdoorsy activities we all loved.
“No matter where we are, a love of nature brings us all together,” says Lauren Zinicola, my sister who now lives outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It may be more challenging for me, but it’s worth making the effort to enjoy being outdoors.”
Now that Lauren is 40 years old, we have conversations about the healing effects of getting outside and how nature can help with heartache, calm nerves and ease depression. We lost our beloved stepdad this year and in different ways, both of us have found solace walking in the forest and sitting quietly by the river.
Lauren would never use the term “forest bathing” the same way some have popularized the idea of soaking in nature the way one would sit in the tub, but she knows the familiar positive, therapeutic effect on health and wellbeing it brings. Anyone, but particularly someone living with the limitations of a physical disability, can benefit from the mood boost and other health effects of being in the fresh air. But for many disabled people, a slow, attentive experience is the only way they can experience nature.
Lauren, an avid angler, looks for fishing spots along the Susquehanna River with her husband and friends that are flat so she can walk without falling. She wears braces on her legs so she avoids curbs, gravel pathways, steep staircases, big rocks and mud that make it hard to access fishing. And she’s the first to point out that it takes her a bit to get from the car to the water’s edge, sometimes garnering stares from curious children along the way.
What they don’t know is that while she’s paying close attention to every step, she’s also experiencing everything around her as she walks slowly to the fishing spot — noticing the birds chirping, the chipmunk skittering by and the way the air smells sweet of honeysuckle flowers. It’s so easy to miss these things without taking your time to get to your destination.
Many people with disabilities don’t get to experience outdoor recreation at all. And this is a problem for a few reasons. The U.S. Census reports that 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability. That’s a lot of people who may not be able to connect with nature, which is crucial to wildlife conservation. There is also ample evidence that time in nature provides a range of physical, emotional and mental benefits and can enhance a sense of belonging. Yet the people who need these benefits the most — the disability community — are often excluded from the outdoors. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The inaccessibility of buildings, the lack of resources and information, and the overall disregard of disabled people by the non-disabled are the primary barriers to the outdoors, not a disabled person’s abilities. These challenges are nothing new to Lauren, since she’s been exploring nature her whole life, but she has encountered all of these barriers on more than one occasion.
“It’s frustrating because there are simple things that parks and public spaces can do to make the experience less threatening,” says Lauren, a special education teacher in Harrisburg. “If there’s one thing I know about these challenges, it’s that I get tired of having to always be my own advocate. At the same time, I’m proud that I am comfortable advocating for myself. I’m not afraid to reach out to the parks and suggest ways they can improve accessibility. More often than not, they make changes.”
The biggest thing Lauren wishes all outdoor enthusiasts knew is that building accommodations and universal access into the community benefit everyone. There are many ways to create accessible and inclusive opportunities for outdoor recreation, and it starts with considering the way people approach disability and the outdoors. She is not advocating for paving over wilderness areas. Lauren just hopes that non-disabled people will better consider how their outdoor experiences compare with hers and others in the disability community and to ask who might be excluded. What does it mean if the stereotypical outdoor recreation experience — rock climbing or windsurfing, for example — is something that few people can ever experience?
Going back to my sister’s preference of simply enjoying time in nature, fishing or sitting quietly, I started to consider my own experiences trail running, backcountry camping and mountain biking. I think about how access to nature could improve if all people valued quality over quantity. Does everything have to be an extreme adventure? My achy knees would certainly say no. To be an outdoor enthusiast doesn’t only mean using nature as a resource, the number of miles paddled or crags climbed. These polar narratives can be harmful — to disabled and non-disabled people alike. Taking a walk in your neighborhood is just as valid as hiking the Appalachian Trail. Both can have just as much to teach about being in nature.
People like Lauren have a lot to teach people like me about slowing down, caring for ourselves and each other, and making sure everything we offer is as accessible as possible.
“I encourage everyone to talk with disabled family members and people in their community about what they need,” says Lauren. “All you have to do is ask. You can help advocate for accessible buildings and trails in local parks, improve signage, add handicap parking spaces and provide more information to the community.”
Lauren has taught me many things throughout our lives, but when it comes to nature, she has shown me two essential truths: slow down and soak it in.
Since the pandemic began, in particular, when I’m outside, I focus more on what I see, smell, hear and feel. In the past, it was easy for me to hop on my bike and rush through the experience. She’s taught me to walk at a leisurely pace and let go of the need for achievement. She’s taught me to really explore what my senses are telling me. The more we can all concentrate on what’s around us, the more fully we’ll enjoy it.
In the end, it’s not about the destination. It’s the journey.
This is a blog written from the experience of Defenders of Wildlife’s Rachel Brittin. We understand that the privilege of access to nature is not universal, and as recent events have illuminated, neither is the privilege of safety in neighborhoods or equal treatment under the law. When people of color cannot walk, drive, jog or birdwatch freely in the communities – where we all live – how can our natural spaces ever deliver benefits equitably for all? We are committed to active anti-racist practices and doing what we can to ensure a safe and healthy future for all of us.