By Erin Vallely, ATI Advocacy Specialist
March 31, 2022
As people celebrate Earth Month and Earth Day this April, people are encouraged to go outside and enjoy nature. However, disabled and chronically ill individuals are frequently left out of outdoor recreation campaigns and cannot access traditional opportunities to enjoy nature. Outdoor gear companies rarely show visibly disabled and ill people in their ads, hiking trails and campsites don’t offer accessible accommodations, and outdoor space designers frequently focus on aesthetic rather than functionality. Enjoying nature is treated as a privilege, when it is actually a universal right.
The Benefits of Being in Nature
Spending time in nature has been linked to improved health and wellness in multiple ways. First, spending time in nature is shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress levels. A 2019 study found that people who spend two hours a week total outdoors in green spaces are substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who do not. This applied to all diverse populations, including individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
Nature can also help improve people’s physical health. Multiple studies have shown people experience decreases in their blood pressure, post-surgery recovery, improved heart failure symptoms, decreased pain, improved diabetes, and better eyesight. Improvements in cognitive function and mortality have even been recorded in those who regularly spend time outside. So, what can communities do to make nature more accessible to ensure everyone can benefit?
Ways to Make Nature Accessible
- Website Accessibility: Ensure nature and outdoor recreation websites are accessible and include accessibility information upfront. Many outdoor recreation organizations do not make accessibility information easy to find. It discourages people because they assume it means the experience is not accessible to disabled and chronically ill community members.
- Trail Renovations: Many trails are too rough, narrow, and steep for individuals with mobility impairments. Trail managers need to budget and seek funds to renovate trails to be smoother and wider while maintaining space for other people to safely pass. Sites should also add benches along trails to provide a safe place to stop, rest, and take in the scenery.
- Capital Updates: Grants should also be sought to update and create facilities associated with outdoor recreation opportunities. Oftentimes, lodges, information centers, bathrooms, picnic areas, lookouts, and campsites are not accessible or designed with disabled individuals in mind. The federal guidelines on outdoor accessibility are a great resource guide on minimum standards.
- Equipment and Staff Investments: In addition to physical improvements, organizations should also inventory their rental equipment and staff knowledge about adapting activities and courses for disabled individuals. Move United, an organization dedicated to accessible sports and recreation, offers adapted product information and staff trainings to organizations to improve their services.
- Advisory Committees: Few nature and outdoor recreation organizations have an expert on accessibility and inclusion on their staff or board of directors. Creating an advisory committee of multiply disabled and chronically ill individuals can be a great way to bring in expertise. For tips on starting an accessibility and inclusion committee, check out this guide by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Outdoor and recreation accessibility is the responsibility of all community members and will become even more important as our population ages and chronic health complications in all age ranges continue to increase.
While grand scale nature adventures might currently be out of the question for you due to accessibility issues, there are lots of easy ways you can get closer to nature and mimic the feelings of being immersed in nature. Would any of these ideas work for you or people you care about?
- Position a comfortable chair or your bed near a window that gets sunlight
- Watch high-quality nature shows on TV and your streaming services
- Play nature sounds through music streaming devices and imagine the scenery
- Temperature permitting, open your windows and focus on your senses
- Put a birdfeeder near your window to watch and observe the bird’s behavior
- Invest in comfortable and functional outdoor furniture so you can sit outside
- Sit on your balcony or porch and enjoy a snack, hobby, or nap
- Create a raised container garden on the porch or bring plants inside to tend
- Walk or roll around your yard or neighborhood and look for neat things
- Pack a meal or get takeout and drive to a scenic location for a car picnic