A house bill (HB 21-1318) passed during this year’s legislative session allowing funding to create an Outdoor Equity Grant program. Once the application period opens, the grants will be provided to outdoor organizations that create opportunities for underserved youth and their families to get through the barriers that block their access to open spaces, state parks, public lands, and more.
“Our outdoors are an amazing place to spend time and every Coloradan deserves that opportunity,” Governor Jared Polis said during the bill signing.
But the outdoor recreation industry is historically not inclusive.
Accessibility is not adequate for people within lower income brackets and those who live with disabilities. Gear, park passes, transportation, and specialized equipment are all expensive and not easily accessible for everyone.
This new legislation, bolstered by the work of nonprofit organizations, is an attempt to change that inequity. It’s bringing new opportunities for many families unable to afford access to outdoor recreation, but there are a lot fewer options for people living with disabilities. For those living with blindness or vision loss, there is a huge gap in accessibility and inclusion. Many people lack transportation, and trained sighted guides are hard to come by. A lot of the time these things cost extra money on top of the park passes and any other costs and fees that arise.
Melissa Fishburn is a Colorado native, and she had never been on a hike until August of this year. She was a part of the Audio Information Network of Colorado (AINC) Bringing Print to Life fundraiser. The AINC Audio Trekkers invited community members to join their team of 10 hikers who are blind or visually impaired and 10 sighted guides on a six-mile hike. The experience was provided at no cost to these Coloradans.
Fishburn says volunteers came from across the country to have the opportunity to be a part of the event.
“It just really felt like a good challenge that I wanted to be a part of,” Fishburn says. “Several people signed up to be sighted guides, they were genuinely caring people, and no one made us feel like we were less than, whether you were an experienced hiker or if it was your first go-around like me.”
Colorado is home to more than 17,000 outdoor trails for hiking and biking. According to the organization Nature for All, the state currently has five trails that have braille accessibility for visitors who are blind or print-impaired, all of which are less than a mile and a half.
Among the five listed, two are not hikes but features at businesses in Denver: the Mork Braille Trail at the Anchor Center for Blind Children, and the sensory garden in the Denver Botanic Gardens. There aren’t many resources for guides outside of those trails either, and the ones that do exist, cost. Finding guides with proper training isn’t easy either, but during the AINC fundraiser, they took time to help teach the volunteers.
“People were eager to learn on how to best be guides, nobody made us feel like we weren’t able-bodied or like we weren’t important,” Fishburn says. “Everybody was so supportive.”
Penn Street is the Director of Development and Outreach of AINC and organized the fundraiser. She says she’s not going the typical fundraising route, and while this event was indeed to help fund AINC’s mission of providing news and information in an audio format for the blind, low-vision, and print-disabled community of Colorado, it also provided a way for people to get outside.
After being bit by a western diamondback rattlesnake in her childhood, Street was given antivenom and medication, but an adverse reaction caused Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Her bodily reactions included burns from the inside out, damaged soft tissue, muscle tone, and vision loss.
When she recovered and left the hospital, Street says her parents went into overdrive to try and protect her from anything else that could put her in danger (like most parents whose child experiences a traumatic event). Street says that after years of rebelling against naysayers and still finding a way to do whatever it was she was trying to do, she wanted to help others do the same.
“You can hike, you can paddleboard, you can experience the outdoors. It is just getting the courage to get out and do it one time,” Street says. “I found ways that I could still do what everybody else does, but with a little bit of tweaking.”
Navigating outdoor recreation activities like hiking comes with a lot of challenges when you start, especially without accessibility resources. Street says that she has a guide dog that has been trained to help while hiking but knows not everyone has that kind of resource. She also utilizes trekking poles because she says she can’t tell if it’s a one-inch or one-mile drop at the edge of a trail.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” says Street. “I can push myself more than even what I thought I could do.”
There are groups that do provide help for outdoor recreation activities like skiing and snowshoeing, but they don’t provide transportation. The pandemic is also impacting what little access to resources people have. Trying to find sighted guides is not a simple Google search, and a lot of events from Facebook groups are still being canceled, but Street is looking to the future.
“I have this dream for next summer,” Street says, “to do a fundraiser that includes a paddle-boarding experience for people with disabilities.”
AINC’s main mission is to provide access to free programming, news and information in an audio format for the blind, low vision and print disabled community of Colorado. However, members of the organization are trying to find ways to create a space in Colorado outdoor recreation for people who are blind or print-impaired. Street says that the Audio Trekkers hike is just the beginning.
“We have a right to be out there just like anybody else,” Street says.