On the inclusivity of the outdoors and a trip to the Ein Afeq Nature Reserve in northern Israel

Ah, June. It’s no longer cold and not yet boiling. School’s out, it’s graduation and wedding season, barbeques and pool parties are abounding. We can finally emerge from our indoor seclusion and head for the outdoors. We, as able-bodied individuals, rarely (if ever) lend a thought to the accessibility of our everyday settings. Thanks to growing awareness and disability rights laws, places like malls, big chains, restaurants, schools, and government buildings are slowly implementing modifications which enable the participation of the disabled on their campuses and establishments. These accouterments have widely become commonplace and are now initially included in building plans, as opposed to second-thought add-ons. As a society (at least in developed countries) we understand the importance of inclusivity where it can be helped, meaning, in man-made structures.

But what about outdoors? We rarely think about how disabled populations are prevented from participating in outdoor activities.  Nature is a lot less inviting to the handicapped as variable terrain and the inconsiderate elements cannot support walking aids and the physical and functional traits of the differently abled. There are communities which place great importance on nature, which spend large amounts of time outside. Sometimes entire seasons are spent alfresco. In many societies cultural events and religious rituals are conducted beyond four walls. This presents the disabled with the exclusion of entire life events depending on the importance their community places on outdoor living. The members of this group are omitted by default from partaking in hiking, camping, outdoor sports, hobbies, festivals, and retreats.

The Accessibility of Nature

Fear not, there is hope for the future. Countries around the world are taking initiative in the creation of adaptive outdoor spaces and tools. Outside of a small peripheral town in northern Israel, lays a marshy paradise that is wheelchair accessible. In the Ein Afeq Nature Reserve a bilateral amputee in a wheelchair and a post-stroke patient with a walker can take their afternoon stroll on wide, paved and leveled pathways. Aside from indigenous fauna and flora (the oleander blooms in June are exquisite, just don’t touch them!), the modest biblical-era site (less than 1 squared kilometer) includes a Crusader period fortress with water-powered flour mill. Although small, the reserve boasts a bounty of springs, swamps, and marshes which attract a gamut of fish, birds, and cattle year-round.

According to Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority there are over 40 accessible national parks and nature reserves throughout the country. The authority continues to work gingerly and precisely to make more of Israel’s landscapes inclusive of all abilities while also maintaining and protecting the characteristic topography, wildlife, and vegetation.

When we, as the able-bodied, plan outdoor excursions we buy durable shoes, take out the ratty sleeping bag from the closet, maybe borrow a tent from a friend; However, there is rarely a concern for whether we’re capable of traversing a rocky path or getting a little wet while crossing a shallow creek. This is simply not the case for the handicapped. Fortunately, with growing awareness and progressive technology, it more possible now than ever for the differently abled to participate in outdoor activities. Although still in development, there is an expanding list of adaptive outdoor equipment already available. There are wheelchair friendly tents, which have higher ceilings, wider openings, and level surfaces. There are robust all-terrain walkers and wheelchairs which can be self-powered or pulled by family, friends, or caregivers. There are waterproof beach and pool wheelchairs. There are custom seating systems for skis and kayaks, paddle adaptations for upper limb injuries, and biking alternatives (handcycles, recumbent bikes, and more).

Although adaptive equipment and accessible nature reserves are still secondary, they are gaining recognition. Our responsibility, as allies to our differently abled friends, is to identify when locations and activities that are not inclusive and bring it to the attention of authorities and lawmakers. Let’s keep our peers in mind during the summer months, while we’re enjoying our beach day or camping trip. Not everyone has the ability to experience these things simply because they physically can’t. Everyone deserves to participate in outdoor activities. It is not a privilege, but a right.