the Accessible Outdoors

I have to admit I was a bit saddened by the thought that the pandemic could mean this summer might pass by without any chances to breathe in the fresh air outside my home, let alone go on summer adventures. Because both my mom and I are physically disabled and because my parents are older, I didn’t want to put any of us at risk. Initially, I didn’t dare to go beyond my driveway, and I’d roll around in circles in my power wheelchair, trying to make myself feel like I was going somewhere with a sense of purpose. But as my home state dipped below a 1% infection rate and held steady, I realized that my chair was actually my ticket to finding a way to make the most of the outdoors – safely distanced from any other people, of course.

I’m truly lucky to live nearby relatively accessible parks, walking trails, and marinas. I’ve always appreciated them, but the pandemic definitely renewed my sense of gratitude for being able to get around outside. This wasn’t something I was easily able to do when I only had a manual wheelchair, because it was pretty difficult to push myself over bumpy, grassy, or rocky areas. Now, I wouldn’t recommend getting yourself stuck in giant mud puddles or sandy areas or extremely gravelly paths, but my Quantum can handle a surprising amount of varied terrain. And this has truly been a gift as I’ve turned to more secluded outdoor areas to avoid potentially coming in contact with the coronavirus.

I love being surrounded by nature, taking in the sights and sounds, strolling leisurely and enjoying the day. I love stopping to smell the flowers and watch fish and birds in the water. I love knowing that the power is in my hands (or my right hand, specifically, since my wheelchair joystick is on the right side of my wheelchair) to go where I want and explore as I please. And I love knowing that there are outdoor spaces where adventures on wheels are possible.

The reality is that so many trails, parks, preserves, beaches are totally inaccessible to wheelchair users. I understand that paving accessible paths in the middle of, say, a mountain, might be a challenge, but smoothing out walking trails isn’t quite so challenging and benefits multiple people. A smooth trail is ideal not only for wheelchair users but also for bikers, people pushing baby strollers, people with different types of mobility disabilities and visual impairments, and elderly people.

My hope is that this pandemic has led people to reevaluate our relationship to the outdoors, and that part of this might include making it more accessible for all people to enjoy. Everyone should be able to experience the natural world around them.

About Emily Ladau: Emily is a blogger and serves as the editor in chief of Rooted in Rights. She co-hosts a podcast and has been recognized as an emerging leader in the disability community. Emily lives on Long Island and enjoys traveling and trying new restaurants. Click here to learn more about Emily.