Three years ago, an outdoor lover in the Pacific Northwest went on a painful and frustrating hike and is now using that experience as a way to make the park more welcoming, especially for the millions of people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses. How can parks offer a truly accessible experience to people with different interests, needs and ability levels?
At least 41 million people in the United States, more than one in eight, live with some kind of disability, and some estimates put this figure even higher. For those who may be grappling with anxiety, fatigue, pain and other chronic conditions, the idea of encountering physical hurdles on a trip can be enough to avoid a park altogether, causing people to lose out on the kinds of life-changing experiences that so many of us take for granted. Host Jennifer Errick explores some of the factors that go into accessibility planning and how to be welcoming to people of different ability levels with guests Syren Nagakyrie, activist and founder of Disabled Hikers; Jeff Doryland, deputy facility manager and accessibility coordinator at Olympic National Park; and Jeremy Buzzell, manager of accessibility for the National Park Service. Visit the Disabled Hikers website at https://disabledhikers.com. Learn about accessibility at Olympic National Park and get detailed descriptions of the park's front-country trails at https://parkb.it/olympicaccess. Explore accessibility features across the National Park System at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/accessibility/. Learn about Syren Nagakyrie's upcoming book, "The Disabled Hikers Guide to Western Washington and Oregon.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Sound effects by Jeff Rice.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org.
Hiking with Spoons
Jennifer Errick: Three years ago, an outdoor lover in the Pacific Northwest went on a painful and frustrating hike and is now using that experience as a way to make the park more welcoming, especially for the millions of people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses. What could a truly accessible park system look like? I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.
What if there were an iconic view or a historic monument or an entire park that one eighth of the population couldn't enjoy? A place where thousands of visitors felt unwelcome and had trouble even entering, let alone appreciating?
At least 41 million people in the United States, more than one in eight, live with some kind of disability. That's about 13% of the population, though some estimates put this figure even higher. That's a substantial cross section of Americans, spanning every race, gender, income level, and geographic region. A staggering number of people who may regular really experience barriers to enjoying public lands just for being born into bodies that are different from other peoples. The challenges disabled and chronically ill visitors may experience run the gamut from difficulty using screen readers, to access trip planning information, to trail conditions that make canes and wheelchairs hard or impossible to use, to the glares and dismissive comments of other visitors when someone is perceived as moving too slowly or just being different.
It's ironic because national parks are places of healing. Studies have shown that time in the outdoors has documented benefits to both physical and emotional health, everything from lowering blood pressure to improving mood.
But for those who may already be grappling with anxiety, fatigue, pain, and other chronic conditions, the idea of encountering physical hurdles on a trip can be enough to avoid a park altogether, causing people to lose out on the kinds of life-changing experiences that so many of us take for granted. The breathtaking vistas, the moments of solitude and reflection, the chances to connect with history. All of the reasons that national parks and other public lands are so special.
Fortunately, there are many people both outside and inside the National Park Service who are working to move physical barriers and make better information available for all travelers. And in the Pacific Northwest, one visitor's bad experience at Olympic National Park turned into a productive partnership that is helping to improve accessibility throughout the park. It also sparked an advocacy mission that is building community for disabled people around the country.
Syren Nagakyrie, who uses they, them pronouns, has struggled with multiple disabilities their entire life, including conditions that can cause unpredictable levels of pain and fatigue, among other symptoms. These disabilities aren't visible, and they affect what Nagakyrie can feel comfortable accomplishing on any given day, forcing them to devote extra time and resources to planning outdoor trips.
Syren Nagakyrie: I have always really loved nature and being outdoors, but I never felt welcomed within outdoor recreation community or really welcome in the parks and things like that. It was always a big struggle for me to find places that I could go and places that had good information available. And it took me a long time to even get to the point where I knew what it was that I needed in the outdoors, because I just wasn't exposed to it. There was no one around to help me figure out how to do this in my body.
Jennifer Errick: Not only did no one encourage Nagakyrie, people actively discouraged them.
Syren Nagakyrie: Definitely there have been many times where I have joined hiking groups or outdoor groups with the expectation that it was a beginner group or welcoming to people who needed easy hikes or things like that. And I would join this group and start hiking. And I, of course, hike very slowly. I have to take a lot of breaks. I always carry a pack with lots of supplies and trekking poles and all of that. And often, the group would be really impatient with me. They would tell me, "Well, if you can't keep up, then why don't you just hang out here and we'll meet up with you on the way back." They wouldn't provide the information that I needed ahead of time.
Jennifer Errick: Hiking solo could be problematic too. Nagakyrie told me about times when other hikers accused them of being too slow or asked why they were outdoors alone or on the trail in the first place, as though they didn't have the same right to be there as anyone else. I was particularly surprised to hear that they had even encountered people on public trails who were physically threatening.
Syren Nagakyrie: Yeah. They would be trying to pass me and just come up really fast behind me because I was moving slowly and just like shove their way past me and either like put me into the bushes or pushed me off the edge of the trail.
Jennifer Errick: In 2018, after years of frustration, Nagakyrie decided one day to take what they thought would be an easy hike.
Syren Nagakyrie: It all kind of just came to a head. One day I was out hiking in Olympic National Park and was starting out on a different trail segment of a system that I was already familiar with. And this segment had been listed as easy, but as soon as I started on it, I encountered like really steep stairs and steep drop offs and really slick and scree covered areas and all this stuff that wasn't listed in any of the information that I read anywhere. And all of that really presented a real danger to me.
Jennifer Errick: Nagakyrie eventually reached their destination, a beautiful waterfall, but they were exhausted. Their body was in pain. And the whole trip felt like an aggravating ordeal instead of the kind of peaceful, satisfying experience that outdoor lovers hope for on the trail.
Syren Nagakyrie: I just sat there for a moment and was just feeling my body and how frustrated I was. And also like watching this waterfall and this gorgeous creek flowing through, and in that moment, was kind of inspired and thought, why don't I do something about this?
Jennifer Errick: What they did was create a new online community, Disabled Hikers. At disabledhikers.com, Nagakyrie now shares comprehensive accessibility information with other travelers. They advocate for policies that make public lands more inclusive and they offer group hiking opportunities that allow participants to socialize outdoors without the pressure to do anything beyond their ability. On Nagakyrie’s hikes, everyone goes as fast as the slowest participant, and whenever someone wants to rest, everyone rests.
Disabled Hikers began primarily as a way to share detailed trail guides so that other hikers could know what to expect at a park and feel confident that an outing was within their abilities. It's grown to include a variety of accessibility resources, a blog sharing the voices of other disabled outdoor enthusiasts, and plans to create a chapter-based system that covers more of the country's parks and trails. At present, the site features mostly West Coast destinations. Nagakyrie soon hopes to expand the focus to other regions through the help of their network of advocates.
This community for disabled outdoor lovers wasn't the only positive outcome from that disappointing hike. Nagakyrie also shared their feedback with park staff and began helping them to provide better information for hikers at Olympic.
Jeff Doryland: More than ever before, it's very important that we're serving all of the people who want to enjoy national parks and they have access to as much of the outdoors as we can provide and as much of the indoors as we can provide.
Jennifer Errick: That's Jeff Doryland, deputy facility manager and accessibility coordinator at Olympic National Park. He supervises the maintenance work throughout much of the site, including its roads, trails and buildings, and helps oversee rehabilitation projects when the park improves facilities such as visitor centers, campgrounds and parking lots.
Jeff Doryland: There is always a lot going on out in the park. And for me personally, where the work is concerned, I feel like my primary job is to make sure the people are safe and happy.
Jennifer Errick: At Olympic, that's no small task. The diverse terrain includes mossy rainforests, wild beaches and steep, rugged mountains. And he and his team must consider how people use both outdoor and indoor spaces in a range of environments, ensuring that these spaces are as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, includes everything from widening restroom stalls and campsite so that people with wheelchairs and walkers can use them more easily to putting extra benches on popular trails so that visitors with fatigue or mobility issues can stop and rest more frequently. And it's not enough to have a parking space that's accessible and a trail that's accessible. If someone can't actually get from their parking spot to the trail head, the other benefits are moot.
Jeff Doryland: The big challenge is creating the access paths that that get someone from their campsite to the bathroom. And if we have an amphitheater where we provide interpretive programs, then having an accessible path to get from the campsite or the bathroom to the amphitheater and then ensuring that the amphitheater itself is accessible. It generally occurs over multiple years and multiple projects and we just try to keep making continual improvements.
Jennifer Errick: One of the ways Doryland collaborated with Syren Nagakyrie was over a connection point like this one. In the Elwha Valley near the north entrance of the park, staff had gated an access road that runs along the Elwha River due to extensive flood damage, preventing vehicle use, but allowing hikers to continue to enjoy the scenic path, or at least some hikers. The road is paved and therefore easier to navigate than a dirt trail. But the narrow entrance at the gate prevented people with wheelchairs and other assistive devices from using the road.
Jeff Doryland: Syren brought that to the Park's attention, and we were able to just make a pretty simple change and provide access to people to that mile or so of road into the valley there. So it's been a super popular spot for people to go out and bicycle and walk, just in that valley without the vehicles.
Jennifer Errick: Most of the work Nagakyrie and Doryland have accomplished together involves information sharing, the source of Nagakyrie's original frustration.
Jeff Doryland: My primary focus where Syren was concerned was trying to improve the information we're getting out about trails. Because it's helpful to people with disabilities, well, for all people for that matter, to be able to look at information on a trail and see what the general grade is, what the maximum grade is, what the cross slope is. Ideally have some photos of what the tread looks like and that way they can, before they get out on the trail, make an informed decision about if it's something within their capabilities.
Jennifer Errick: By working together to document conditions more comprehensively, Nagakyrie and Doryland created detailed descriptions for more than 20 trails at Olympic and the park is now able to share them on its website. This amounts to nearly all of the front-country trails in the park, the nature trails that most day visitors use. For Doryland, this involved going out on each trail with one essential tool and take careful notes.
Jeff Doryland: Well, there's some very fancy tools that you can buy, but mostly what I used was a digital level. As you're walking the trail, ideally, you're looking for under 5% grade. You start to get a feel of when you're over 5%, between say 5% and 8%, and when you're getting pretty steep. So, if I feel like I'm below 5%, I'm just walking along, maybe taking some photos, documenting obstacles in the trail, like if there's a tree root, big tree root that goes across the trail. That's something you would notice. What are the trail conditions? Is the trail fairly level or is there a big side slope to the trail? And if there is, then you would use the level to check that cross-slope.
Jennifer Errick: On the Disabled Hikers website, Nagakyrie uses a spoon-based rating system to evaluate trails based on spoon theory, a metaphor for people who live with chronic illness. The metaphor, developed in 2003 by the writer, Christine Miserandino, uses spoons as a stand-in for the finite amount of energy a person has in any given day and must ration to complete that day's tasks. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses typically have fewer of these spoons to go around and must budget them carefully. A person with a medium level of energy one afternoon might feel confident taking what Nagakyrie classifies as a three-spoon hike. But if most of that energy went to other tasks, the hiker might choose a one-spoon option instead.
Of course, what constitutes one spoon’s worth of energy is highly personal, but Nagakyrie tries to use clear and specific information so that people can make informed choices. The key to the spoon system is that it can be applied to many different kinds of disability and illness, including those like Nagakyrie's that aren't visible to others. Whereas other sites that rate accessibility tend to focus on wheelchair use alone. Here's Nagakyrie again.
Syren Nagakyrie: Accessibility is often defined only as wheelchair access. And of course, that is very important. And of course, the regulations that are available do prioritize that, so that's where the funding is. So, I can definitely understand why that is the focus. But that leaves out a huge amount of people. Up to 25% of the population has a disability. 60% has a chronic illness and/or disability. Only a small percentage of those people use wheelchairs full time. Really looking at the entire way from start to finish, starting from just from the website and the information that is available, how people make reservations and all of that, all the way through the entire visitor experience and how we can make that more accessible for people with a variety of disabilities.
Jennifer Errick: That's not only a fairer approach, it's one that's in line idealistically with the Park Service mission.
Jeremy Buzzell: So the Park Service, as a federal agency, we have a requirement to provide equal opportunity to benefit from all of our facilities, our services and our activities.
Jennifer Errick: That's Jeremy Buzzell, manager of accessibility for the Park Service at its national headquarters. He helps support project across the park system that include, but go far beyond, wheelchair access.
Jeremy Buzzell: When we say equal opportunity to benefit, we're looking at well, what is the benefit that any person who comes to our park is going to get, from any experience that they would have at the park. And then we have to look at well, what would be the barriers to getting that benefit if you are a person who has a mobility disability, or if you are a person who can't see, or if you are a person who is neurodiverse, or if you are a person who has hearing difficulty? We also have to consider that the benefit is going to be individual for each person in a lot of cases. We don't all get the same benefit.
So trying to look at that array of potential benefits across all of the activities and experiences, look at the array of all types of disabilities and how there might be barriers to experiencing that benefit. And then just trying to come up with solutions.
Jennifer Errick: Buzzell also echoes Nagakyrie's desire to envision an entire park experience from start to finish and ensure that various points of contact along the way are welcoming to as many people as possible.
Jeremy Buzzell: And we're also trying to get an entry to exit experience. Meaning from the moment you have the idea you want to come to one of our parks and go on our website, that our information there is accessible. And then you drive there, you park, you get out of your car, you maybe go to the visitor center to use the bathroom, to learn some information, and then you go out to do the experience. All of those things along the way have to be accessible.
Jennifer Errick: The park system has a long way to go to achieve this ideal, though Buzzell site's innovative examples of how that vision informs improvements staff have been making at parks. At Devil's Tower, for example, the centerpiece of the park experience for many people, myself included, is seeing the site's massive namesake rock formation, one of the most recognizable and inspiring natural landmarks in the entire country. There's an accessible path for people who might not have the energy or ability to tackle the main trail that surrounds the monument. But what if you can't see?
Jeremy Buzzell: We have to make sure everyone can have that aha moment, right? How do we give everyone that aha moment? So now in a Plaza that is at that end of where the accessible path goes is where we have the tactile model, like 360-degree tactile model of the tower. So if I'm a blind person, I can get that perspective of well, here's what it feels like and here's what the striations on the side feel like and here's how the top feels and everything like that. So that's the kind of approach that we're trying to take.
Jennifer Errick: Giving this aha moment to as many people as possible, not just meeting the basic accessibility requirements mandated by federal law, is a goal of Buzzell's office, a concept he refers to as universal design.
Jeremy Buzzell: When it comes to facilities and physical parts of our park, there are very clear standards and guidelines that say this is what a legally accessible bathroom looks like. This is what a legally accessible campsite looks like. So at least we have some guidance there, but we also really want to push those parks to really adopt what we call universal design, which says meeting the standards is the absolute minimum we can do legally. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better than that.
So for example, there is a definition for what makes a compliant ramp and how steep it can be. Well, with each degree that we make it less steep, we make ramp more accessible to more people, right? Or if we don't have a ramp at all, that's even more accessible. We got to make sure we're minimally compliant legally, but could we do better than that?
Jennifer Errick: It's currently up to individual parks to determine what that could mean, although legislation that Congress passed last year, the Great American Outdoors Act, could help fund more of these projects in the future.
Jeremy Buzzell: The Great American Outdoors Act, which is providing a lot of funding to these parks, has a specific section in it about making sure that those projects provide accessibility. So we think we will see a significant increase in accessibility based on those projects being prioritized. We are definitely targeting
our technical assistance and our efforts toward a lot of those projects because those are going to be really, really high impact.
Jennifer Errick: This is particularly heartwarming news because the National Parks Conservation Association advocated for years to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that devotes billions of dollars to a long-standing backlog of park maintenance problems. Hundreds of thousands of our supporters wrote to their members of Congress asking them to pass this legislation. And at a time when it felt like politicians couldn't agree on anything, it received overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses.
But of course, even with dedicated funding, changes take time.
At Olympic, Jeff Doryland and his staff create detailed five-year plans to determine what kinds of improvements they can make. And they prioritize the projects that will bring the most benefit to the most people. One of Doryland's objectives is to make more of the ability information he's helped to document available on physical signs at the trailheads. This is one of the features that Syren Nagakyrie praised at a different park they visited, Redwood National and State Parks in California.
Syren Nagakyrie: Sometimes, like everyone else, you just want to go out for a hike and not necessarily have to like spend hours planning ahead of time, which is my usual experience. So, when I'm out in a national park, I like to just wander around. So having those trailhead signs right there gives me at least the basic information I need.
Jennifer Errick: Doryland wasn't sure when it would be feasible to create the new signage but noted that the project was going into the next five-year plan and was a priority for him. In the meantime, Nagakyrie and others continue to offer their own resources and push not just to make places easier for more people to experience, but to deepen our understanding of how ableism affects our society and to broaden our concept of what it means to be welcoming.
Syren Nagakyrie: Disabled Hikers is really about modeling a different way of approaching community in the outdoors and really building that around disability justice and racial justice and social justice and building access directly into what it is we do. And trying to just expand the conversation about the outdoors and disability.
Jennifer Errick: And regardless of whether you live with a disability or a chronic illness, good design just makes life smoother and less complicated for everybody.
Syren Nagakyrie: A lot of the things that we consider part of our regular everyday lives now actually started as accessibility features for disabled folks. So, things like elevators and curb cuts actually were created to make things more accessible for disabled folks, but they help everyone.
Jennifer Errick: So it makes sense that more people would find it in their own best interest to get behind the kind of work that Nagakyrie and Doryland and Buzzell are doing. And maybe be a little more patient on the trail and mindful of how abilities that many people take for granted can be a genuine struggle for millions of others.
Syren Nagakyrie: Advocating for accessibility in your local parks and communities is really important, that you can absolutely, even as a non-disabled person, you can call up a park or a business and just ask them, "What are your accessibility features? How can someone who uses a wheelchair enter your business? How can they use the park?" And then if they don't have it, start are encouraging them to address that so that disabled folks don't have to do it ourselves all of the time. And also learning about ableism and the ways that disabled folks are discriminated against in our society and addressing that whenever your friends or family do or say something that's ableist or does something that excludes disabled folks.
Jennifer Errick: Because like good design, good advocacy also helps everyone, regardless of how many spoons you have in your hiking pack.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode eight, Hiking with Spoons, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.
Original theme music by Chad Fisher.
Sound effects by Jeff Rice.
Links to Disabled Hikers, a list of accessible trails at Olympic National Park, a map of accessible features throughout the national park system and information on Syren Nagakyrie's upcoming book, The Disabled Hikers Guide to Western Washington and Oregon, will all be available in the show notes for this episode.
Learn more at the secretlivesofparks.org.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
And we're proud of it, too.
The Secret Lives of Parks is overseen by Amy Hagovsky, who was pleased to learn that she had met her goals for the year.
“My primary job is to make sure that people are safe and happy.”
You can join the fight to improve access and give visitors a positive experience at all of our national parks. Learn more and join us at npca.org.
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