Everyone loves the great outdoors. In the United States alone there are hundreds of national parks, monuments, sites and forests that are protected for generations to enjoy. From families with toddlers to solo adventurers, nature is there for everyone—but is it really?
National parks and any other federally funded sites are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide accessibility features so people with disabilities can enjoy the natural beauty around them. However, not every amazing nature experience is federally funded and therefore, not required to be accessible. Even for sites with accessibility features, there is room for improvement. All of this makes it more difficult for those with disabilities to go beyond the beaten path.
Ability360 is looking to change that narrative. As a nonprofit, they have been empowering people with disabilities for over 40 years, advocating personal responsibility as a means to independence and self-sufficiency. They offer a number of programs including independent living instruction, peer support, advocacy, home modification, employment services and more.
Ability360 also offers recreation and sports programs, including 360Outdoors, a branch of the organization that aims to make outdoor recreation such as hiking, climbing, cycling, kayaking and other activities more inclusive, safe and accommodating. One of these specific programs is the Mainstream Expedition, a Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trip for adults 21 and over who have mobility, sensory or cognitive limitations.
“This trip is a tremendous opportunity to experience the thrill of river rafting
assisted by professional river rafters and volunteers,” Vice President of Operations and Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center Gus LaZear, said.
The Mainstream Expedition is a 12-day trip, covering over 200 miles of the Colorado River. This expedition had previously brought people to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for a number of years under Daring Adventures. Yet, this is the first year it runs under the Ability360 flag after the two organizations merged. Arizona River Runners, an experienced river company committed to making raft trips accessible to all, will be providing the support and expertise on the ground (and on the river).
The trip costs $2,950 per person. Grants and other funding have reduced the per-person amount to nearly half the original amount. Volunteers can attend for $1,000. To continue breaking down barriers and reducing limitations for those with disabilities, scholarships are available to those in need of financial assistance.
“I am in awe, totally in awe. I had no idea the Canyon was like this. No amount of someone
telling me how beautiful it is, or looking at pictures of it prepared me for today, yesterday,
tomorrow.” – Patricia W., Mainstream Expedition participant
Running from August 19-30, the expedition will feature some of the best whitewater rafting runs from Lee’s Ferry-Marble Canyon to Diamond Creek at Peach Springs. This experience is limited to 16 participants and is fully guided by a support team and medical staff.
When asked about the personal impact of this trip, LaZear states a new “level of independence” develops. He says, “When they come back to the real world, [their independence] is on a different level. They went down to the Grand Canyon where it’s not accessible. Everyone is out of their comfort zone.”
“And when I go home, I can’t explain it. I just know that I will not accept defeat so quickly.
I’ll give it one more try.” – Hazel B., Mainstream Expedition participant
This strengthened independence can be “life-changing for some,” Kaitlyn Verfuerth, program coordinator for 360 Outdoors said. “People come back a different person. You’re challenged by nature, by this outside environment. I feel like you realize that you can overcome a lot of things on this trip.”
In the U.S., people with disabilities make up nearly 13% of the population. That is over 40 million people. A disability can range from the seen to the unseen and the levels of support needed are varied and unique to each situation.
This is why providing accessible and inclusive outdoor activities is important. A disability should not simply be considered a limitation, but a way to encourage change and adaptations, even if they are small, and inspire a shift in what “access” truly means. And this is exactly what Mainstream Expedition (and Ability360 as a whole) is striving to do.
Verfuerth says, “There is a lot of room for improvement. I don’t want nature to change, it is the way it is supposed to be. However, there are small adjustments that the forest service or parks and recreation can make to make it more accessible.” Examples of these small adjustments could include better river access points without concrete pillars or trails that wheelchair users can easily get to.
To complement these structural and environmental adjustments, LaZear says “adapting to the environment you want to participate in” is also part of increasing people’s access to the outdoors. Whether that is putting off-road tires on your wheelchair for sandy trails or adapting prosthetic limbs for kayaking. With new technology advancements, the possibilities are growing.
“The world is changing … There are so many types of equipment and access people want and it is about making sure environments are safe for everyone … Safe as possible and accessible as possible. With all of us working together, we can make the world a better place,” LaZear says.
In August 2022, 16 participants will set forth on an exciting, challenging and rewarding adventure to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. They will be camping under the stars and river rafting on the great Colorado River. The Mainstream Expedition is “historically exciting,” Verfuerth says.
“We are happy we are able to provide this as a legacy program,” LaZear stated.
While this expedition is a pioneer program bringing people with disabilities to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it is not the first of its kind. That honor goes to John Wesley Powell, a geologist and explorer who lost most of his right arm in the Civil War. He led the very first official government-funded geographic passage and mapping of the Colorado River.
With this rich history, the Mainstream Expedition does more than trail-blaze a more inclusive future; it also honors and continues the Colorado River and Grand Canyon’s tradition of being places for all people to enjoy, explore and empower themselves.
For more information on Mainstream Expedition or Ability360, visit www.ability360.org.