Redefining LimitationsDisabled Athletes Are Adaptive, Resilient, and Still Locked Out

For far too long, the outdoors have been unsafe for people from underrepresented communities, a space where women face harassment while hiking, where people of color encounter racism while road-tripping, where disabled people are gawked at as they merely try to enjoy the pleasures of nature. But we all have the right to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, and the industry is shifting to accommodate people who want to enjoy the vast, open spaces from which they’ve long been tacitly excluded.

“The New Outdoors” is a weeklong series about adventurers from underrepresented communities who are grabbing their compasses, ice axes, dog sleds, and Instagram-ready vans and staking a rightful claim to the freedom of the outdoors.

I’m sitting on the bumpy bare ice of the Kennicott Glacier while attaching steel crampons to my hiking boots. The inch-long metal spikes, now strapped to the bottom of my boots, will help me safely traverse miles of ancient ice. My pack is lying next to me, bulging with camping gear and a bear-proof canister crammed with enough food to feed six people. After tightening the straps that now crisscross my boots, I grab small cloth booties and put the protective footwear on Elu, my husky-mix service dog, who’s lean and stocky, weighing a little more than 50 pounds, with short blond-brindle fur and glacier-blue eyes rimmed in black.

Elu is always with me, even as I hike the backcountry of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. She helps me with migraines, vertigo, and PTSD, reducing my chronic pain by always watching my back and staying alert to our surroundings. She guides me when I’m disoriented from light sensitivity and vertigo, and is the reason I’m comfortable traveling as a queer disabled woman. I wouldn’t be confident enough to take on this five-day guided glacier trek in Alaska without her. I continue to hike in order to manage PTSD, depression, and chronic pain: My disabilities have pushed me to become more active, to walk a preset number of miles every week, and to carefully monitor my health. I don’t like the implication that I’m suffering or that my outdoor successes prove that I’m “overcoming” disability. Like many other disabled athletes, I am active outdoors because of my disabilities—not in spite of them.

“Disability is a set of innovative, virtuosic skills,” writes Leah Lackshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in her 2018 book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. As I began researching how disabled athletes navigate the outdoors, I started wondering why we’re not celebrated for the specific skills we’ve cultivated—the increased body awareness necessary to prevent injury, the careful planning and training, or the determination we practice on a daily basis. One in four Americans have a physical or neurological difference that causes substantial difficulty with everyday activities, making people with disabilities both the largest minority group in America and the least represented. Thanks in part to this lack of representation, disability is often seen as inherently bad, shameful, or a liability. But there’s much to be learned from the adaptations, problem-solving skills, and resilience that disabled athletes possess.

I’m intentionally using the phrase “disabled athletes” here—rather than “athletes with disabilities,” “adaptive athletes,” or any other euphemism—because many disabled people prefer identity-first language when describing themselves. “I named [my] project Disabled Hikers because disabled people need representation within the outdoors movement,” Syren Nagakyrie, founder of the website and Instagram account Disabled Hikers, writes on the organization’s Frequently Asked Questions page. “We need to be acknowledged and our specific needs need to be addressed. We can’t do that without first naming who we are.” Claiming the term “disability” helps us practice compassion for our own bodies and minds, find community, and actively fight for social justice. As Nagakyrie told me, “It’s about thriving within your limitations and finding the joy in small things.”

There’s currently a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the outdoor industry as companies scramble to capture a new market of customers, but people with disabilities are often left out of these conversations. Teresa Baker, founder of the African American National Parks Event, is leading the DEI effort by boldly challenging outdoor companies to understand diversity and inclusion as a social-justice issue on equal footing with  environmental protection. “The more faces we recognize as vital pieces in these spaces, the more hands on deck we have to protect them,” Baker wrote in the trade publication Outdoor Retailer in a June 2018 piece titled “An Open Letter to the Outdoor Industry on Diversity.” “And aren’t they worth protecting, aren’t they worth the small price of being uncomfortable when it comes to doing work around diversity and inclusion?”

Following that, Baker founded the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge, which includes steps that will increase diversity and inclusion within the industry. Army veteran and skydiver Danielle Williams’s disabilities connected her to online outdoor communities. While spending months in a military hospital recovering from rheumatic fever, she founded Melanin Base Camp (MBC) in 2016 to increase the visibility of adventure athletes of color, as well as Diversify Outdoors—a coalition of social-media influencers working to create an outdoor diversity and inclusion space online and in communities across the United States. Both organizations stress the importance of promoting diversity in outdoor recreation and conservation. “It’s difficult to feel welcome in a space where no one looks like you or where the one woman instructor is publicly undermined, or where the promotional videos don’t include People of Color,” Williams wrote in a January 2018 MBC post on skydiving.

Visibility of minority groups on trails and in the backcountry can go a long way to helping us feel safe and welcome outdoors. Six months ago, I was struggling to manage the chronic neck pain and constant headaches that resulted from my time as a military surface-supplied diver. It was frustrating to find that my neck would tighten up and spasm after every challenging hike, which turned headaches into migraines; I worried I’d never be able to carry a pack containing anything more than a liter of water. “Whenever you have [chronic pain] on a daily basis, people think you just get used to it,” said disability activist Sarah Blahovec on a 2018 episode of Alice Wong’s podcast, Disability Visibility. “But it’s not something you really get accustomed to, being in pain all the time. It saps away your energy and your focus. It makes it just difficult to get through your day-to-day tasks.”

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After years of nagging injuries followed by periods of forced rest, I knew I needed to learn how to manage my expectations as an athlete with an unruly body in constant pain. So I started asking openly disabled trail runners and backpackers for tips and tricks that I could use in my own outdoor pursuits—and secretly, I was hoping to find connection and community with them as well. Lynn K. Hall, a fellow disabled veteran writer who experiences constant headaches and chronic migraines, utilizes the endorphins earned by mountain running to manage her pain and buoy her mood. In 2013, a two-week break from running and hiking made Hall realize how important her exercise regimen was. She endured a week of excruciating pain, nausea, and sleepless nights before deciding to go for a run. She ran again the next day. On the third day, her headaches were manageable again. “That’s when I became completely sure that running wasn’t something I did despite my chronic pain, it was something I did because of my pain,” she wrote on her blog. “And there wasn’t anything wrong with that.”

Hall prefers to run above treeline, so she moved to Leadville, Colorado, to be closer to the trails she loves. These days, she competes in 100-mile ultramarathons on mountain trails that are above 10,000 feet. Yet Hall, like most disabled athletes, understands the futility of trying to keep a strict training schedule when dealing with chronic-health conditions and instead tries to control as many other factors as possible (such as eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and utilizing massage and acupuncture). “Just getting out the door is the hardest part,” Hall tells me. “I put on my running shoes, drive to a nearby trailhead and promise myself that I just have to run one mile. If I don’t feel better after a mile, I can turn around and go home.”

Backpacker, writer, and trail designer Sirena Rana Dufault handles the days when she’s not feeling great in a similar way. “I’ll take it a little slower that day, but otherwise it helps to be someplace beautiful and just get out there and move,” she says. “I’ve cut short trips or changed plans. I like to push myself, but also need to listen to my body.” Dufault adds, “I once hiked a 20-mile day during a six-month fibromyalgia flare.” A theme emerged as I spoke with these disabled athletes: the challenge of having compassion for your body while striving to remain active.

Disability spans all other identities, but it remains a mostly untouched market for companies that cater to the outdoors industry.

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“The hardest part is being okay with who you are,” says Vasu Sojitra, a backcountry skier, trail runner, and the first adaptive athlete for the North Face. “It’s about breaking down mental barriers, figuring out how to navigate a world that isn’t made for you.” Sojitra seeks out secluded trails near his home in Montana because they allow him to avoid strangers who constantly ask him about his leg (he’s an above-the-knee amputee who uses forearm crutches) and tell him how inspirational he is. Remote locations allow us to hike and run without worrying about how we’re being perceived by others, so we can just enjoy being in our bodies outdoors.

Disability spans all other identities, but it remains a mostly untouched market for companies that cater to the outdoors industry. Improving access would mean sponsoring disabled athletes and including them in marketing; hiring disabled journalists to write about the outdoors; reducing the stigma of using mobility devices (trekking poles aren’t so different from canes or forearm crutches); and writing detailed trail guides that empower disabled athletes to make their own decisions. People with temporary disabilities as well as those who don’t identify as disabled can benefit greatly from these changes. Maybe athletes won’t be so afraid of aging if they understand that having a disability doesn’t automatically stop us from enjoying nature.

Our protective footwear securely in place, Elu and I set off with our small group to traverse more than six miles of the Kennicott Glacier, from near a stories-tall icefall down to rock-covered ice near the terminus of the glacier. We walked by mysterious moulins where vibrant blue meltwater rushed straight down chasms to flow within and under the glacier. We stepped over the open fissures of crevasses leading to dark icy depths. We trod carefully over hills of clear ice covered in debris that shifted under our feet with every step. Our group laughed our way through terrain that four days earlier I’d thought was impassable, sometimes sliding on our butts down steep sections of rock-covered glacier. Every step of the way Elu was there with me, while I reveled in the immense power of this slow-moving river of ice and redefined my own limits as a disabled athlete.

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by Tenley Lozano
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Tenley Lozano is a queer/bi nonfiction writer, editor, and engineer with a service dog. Her essays have appeared on The War Horse and Catapult Magazine websites and in several anthologies. Tenley co-edited the anthology of military essays Incoming-Sex, Drugs, and Copenhagen: Veteran Writers on Escapism. She was awarded Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize for an essay about PTSD and finding healing by backpacking with her service dog, Elu. Tenley is a Coast Guard veteran living in San Diego, California, where she works as a ship design engineer and technical writer.