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NATURE FOR ALL: Getting Out into Nature with Disabilities

NATURE FOR ALL: Getting Out into Nature with Disabilities

As a Dad of a daughter who experiences disabilities and as a professional who has spent his career working in National, State and City parks conserving nature and building trails, I found myself at odds when I realized a lot of my work that I had felt proud of in the past was just another barrier to accepting my daughter for who she was and preventing her from finding herself and living life to the fullest, especially in nature.

When Lydia was 3 months old, doctors found 5 malformations in her brain. They told us she would not live past age five. She is now eight and is gentle, loves to eat lollipops, and has a dark sense of humor. All this shines through despite her undiagnosed condition. She has about 100 seizures per day and is currently both nonverbal and mostly immobile. She is learning to use a computer to communicate and uses a wheelchair to get around. I love her now for who she is and think of disability as a natural part of everyday life. In this post I will share the ways in which she has inspired me to find ways to allow her to access the many benefits of being in nature.

Benefits of Nature for Individuals and Caregivers

Being under the dappled shade of trees, bird calls in the early morning, camping in the fresh air and being on a roughhewn trail when her chair bounces along for a fun ride, are a few of the things Lydia seems to like most about being out in nature. A growing body of research is showing us there is something behind Lydia “feeling good” outdoors. Scientists have been diving deeper into how we need nature to thrive.

Some of the benefits of being in nature include:

·   Decrease in stress and anxiety

·   Increases feelings of happiness

·   Helps us be kinder and promotes prosocial behaviors

·   Provides a wealth of positive physiological and neurological responses to natural environments.

·   Creating compassion and improve social bonds

I found myself socializing at the pub and playing pool or poker with other dads as typical activities provided by a number of support groups, which is fine in and of itself, yet ultimately those activities don’t always offer a way to connect more deeply with others whose children have a disability. The mental health benefits of being in nature as a family or in groups is a critical form of support in our communities that I don’t feel support groups have tapped into fully yet. Walking or hiking often enables you to talk about subjects related to your own health as well as your child’s disability. I know for me, connecting on this level allows me to share with other dads the PTSD I experienced due to being in a constant mental state of emergency soon after Lydia’s diagnosis and supporting her through over 100 seizures a day. It took over 5 years for me to get a PTSD diagnosis, being able to share in a natural environment feels easier and hopefully lets other families get support earlier with their own mental health.

Overcoming Barriers 

In thinking about accessing nature and how to address the barriers we face as families in the disability community, I decided to see if I could use my knowledge of working in parks over  the years to aide in this dilemma. I came up with four main areas of focus:

1. Employ all the senses to engage emotions that respond to the natural world around us

2. Work on equipment and mobility devices that make time in nature more adventurous

3. Seek out places beyond the typical ADA routes, yet still provide for accessible fun, with minor tweaks here and there

4. Build a community of families who push each other on our “wildometers,” which is a term created to describe each of our own levels of confidence in accessing nature.

Employ All the senses

We often jump to some of the more organized recreation activities such as adaptive skiing, miracle league baseball or ice skating when we think of being outside. Regular access to nature requires us to get beyond some of the more organized activities and head out as a family to the trail, into the forest, up mountains and across creeks. These activities engage all our senses and tap into emotions. We used a feelings wheel, such as this one, to explore emotions and then connected them with various activities in nature that would be free, mostly accessible with some adaptations and ultimately rewarding for Lydia. Some examples we came up with are the feeling ecstasy when sliding, joy while swinging, anticipation while digging, contentment and curiosity while walking on a trail with the sounds of nature all around.

Being creative in this way encourages spontaneous invitation and true play in nature, where Lydia gets to control, manipulate and interact with the world around her, all while supporting her development as a child across a range of physical and mental abilities. This also brings us back to the “wildometer” where physical health, spatial awareness, purposeful movement, exploration, body competence, confidence and self-worth can all increase over time through the activities listed in the table.

Equipment and Mobility Devices

It is fairly easy to find equipment for highly physical recreation activities such as skiing, but there seems to be fewer devices that allow you to roll ‘n stroll in nature along trails. The ones that are available are expensive and not really built for going along trails over tree roots and up steep slopes. It takes some creativity, but we can work together as a community to find solutions. We eventually found a light weight, three wheeled stroller with suspension for just under $2,000, that works for our family.

One of our major goals with Lydia is to consistently seek out new places beyond the typical flat, short and sometimes boring ADA routes. The next few decades hopefully will focus on modern materials and technology to help make access to inaccessible places easier through improved mobility devices.

Seeking Out New Places

Part of the problem is the lack of time we feel we have in our modern lifestyles to spend time in nature. For our family, we tried to make a commitment to get out at least once a month. David Ford, an environmental educator, suggests we:

1. Slow down: See if you can make a point to sit and relax for at least 15-20 minutes. Spend time working on engaging all the senses.

2. Explore: Visiting and navigating a new place can be both thrilling and intimidating, but safely experiencing these emotions is incredibly beneficial to our health. Try the Boulder OSMP trail challenge.

3. Discover: Human beings were meant to track, forage, and explore. Check out OSMP’s wildflower or geology guide.

4. Give Back: If you want to discover volunteer opportunities with OSMP, visit

5. Roll n Stroll: Go with friends on nature hikes, picnics, and camping to build trust and connection that support physical and mental health. Contact Mark Davison,

Build a community

In collaboration with friends and non-profits such as the Anchor Center for the Blind and PEAK Parent Center, we have created monthly Roll ‘n Stroll gatherings where families 

enjoy a picnic and a stroll for a few  miles along accessible trails and some more inaccessible trails with ingenuity. It’s a simple way as a group to be in nature more, talk about concerns, like mental health, and support one another. The goal is that we continue to increase our challenges, types of activities and grow as a group in how we experience and access nature. We would love for you to join us on September 25th at the Garden of the Gods!

For more information, contact Mark Davison,