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Wilderness Inquiry

man on wheelchair hanging from cliff by rope!In 1977, prior to the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, at U.S. senator from Minnesota stated that reducing motorized use in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would descriminate against "the handicapped, the elderly, and women." Over the years many people have claimed that wilderness designations discriminate against people with disabilities, the elderly, and anyone else who is not young and physically fit. This charge has been difficult to answer. But is is also the notion that sparked formation of the Minniapolis, Minnesota based, nonprofit group called Wilderness Inquiry (WI).

I was in college at the time, and had been involved with a group of friends in the fledgling WI organization. Having just returned from a winter camping trip with 11 and 12-year-old girls, the notion that wilderness was inaccessible to women seemed out of place. It occurred to me that maybe the rest of the sanator's quote was inaccurate too.

Being young and perhaps a bit overconfident, some friends and I decided to test the hypotesis that wilderness was not accessible to people with disabilities. In August of 1977 we planned a 100-mile wilderness trip involving two people who used wheelchairs as well a two young men who were deaf. To make a long story short, with a huge expenditure of energy, we succeeded in traveling over 80 miles. But, in the end, we rented motor boats to take us the last 20 miles.

At that tender age we were forced to eat crow, but we also stumbled upon something that was far more meaningful than simply proving a AU.S. senator wrong. For one, we discovered that traveling in the wilderness with an integrated group of people was a tremendously powerful personal experience for everyone involved. It open our eyes. We wanted more.

Almost 20 years later, more than 30,000 people have dad the opportunity to share this kind of experience in wilderness throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. WI has grown beyond its fledgling state. Yes, some people are still saying that wilderness designations discriminate against people with disabilities and the elderly. If we measure progress in incremental steps, we can at least take some satisfaction in the fact that no one today would dare claim that wilderness discriminates against women.

Dispelling Stereotypes

In utilizing integrated wilderness adventures to dispel sterotypes, we've encountered an interesting irony. When trying to explain the mission of WI, I often see peopple focus on the issue of serving persons with disabilities. They frequently grab that notion and stereotype WI a there program that serves "the handicapped". While this is understandable, it missses the point.
On our first trip we learned that the world is not easily split into disparate camps suchj as "the disabled" and "the able-bodied." The lesson that comes through so clear in the contrast of a wilderness envioment is that each person has their own unique abilities that defy stereotyping. If the desire is there, every person can go out and siecore the beauty and mystery of wilderness, regardless of their level of ability. Wilderness Inquir simply makes it possible for this to happen.

"I learned that I could get along with people woh have disabilities. They became'so and so'and not the person in the wheelchair or the person with down synfrome or whatever disability, which was somthing I never experienced before." - Kelly, a non-disabled WI participant

Shared wilderness experience can be an extremely effective means of breaking down the stereotypes we have of our fellow human beings. It can be more effective that busing diverse groups of people together.
As one WI participant put it "I gained a better understanding of 'the whole is greater that the sum of the parts it's made of.' I realized that despite our indivcidual needs, age differences, backgrounds or economic status, we all have in common such tremendous capacity to learn from one another. We became wiser and we learned a greater sense of trust."

Why Does Wilderness Unify People?

Since that first trip, we have asked what it is about wilderness that helps to facilitate this "coming together" of diverse people. Can this be accompolished in other enviroments? If not, why not? We do not claim, to have the answers; however, we believe that the wilderness enviroment itself is a key element in the process. As inviroments go, wilderness is this indifferent enviroment, our common human needs become self-evident, and they far outweigh our differences-- whatever those differences may be.

One of the many lessons learned by inbolbing physically disabled persons, is that wilderness appreciation is not at all limited to those who are independently mobile in the woods. In fact, often the opposite is true. People who ingrequently visit the wilderness often cherish the opportunity for more.

As our society has become less dependent upon mucle power due to technical innovation, people fo more place with less effort. Wilderness travel takes us back to different modes of transportation and makes us rely on our bodies to provide the energy to move--a notion that intimidates many who are unsure of their physical capabilities. Instead of being an obstacle, this can be an exciting means to discover what we are in fact able to do.

In wilderness, the traditional yardstick by which we measure the value of our fellow human beings is somehow different. This, we think, has important--if unexplained--social ramifications. At the very leat, eilderrness travel with diverse groups of people can be an excellent means of facilitating a process called social integration.

Wilderness Facilitates Social Integration

"When I first became disable I was afraid of the physical challenges, but I had no idea how though the social challenges would be. Marriages break up; old friends no longer feel comfortable. Medicine can rebuilt the body, but they cannot rebuilt a social life. My trip with Wilderness Inquiry gave me the tools to start this long process."
Jay Johnson, a WI participant with a spinal cord injury

Social integration is a term widely used among groups serving persons with disabilities, specially those serving persons with cognitive impairments. In brief, it means overcoming stereotypes, usually negative, based on perceptions of physical differences. It stems from the realities suffer some form of social ostracism simply because they look different than the norm.
This social ostracism can take many forms, from downright avoidance to well-meaning but misplaced displays of patronizing behavior towards those considered "less fortunate." It is a very real form of discrimination, just ask someone who has a disability. Moreover, the concept transcends disability issues to encompass many forms of discrimination based on the perception of physical differences, including racial, religious, and cultural differences, as well as others.

For the last 15 years, specially since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the concept of social integration has been pushed to facilitate inclusion into schools, team sports, and the workplace. For example, today it is not uncommon to catch a glimpse of a person who uses a wheelchair in an advertisement.

WI believes that integrated wilderness experience are one of the most effective tools at gacilitating social integration. Others believe it too, as evidenced by the growth of other programs with similar ends, such as S'PLORE, NE Passage, C.W. HOG, and Enviromental Traveling Companions. WI, the University of MInnesota, and others have conducted some research on the effects of integrated wilderness travel. More studies need to be oen, but based on the research and our own observations over the year's we've come to the following conclusion:

1.- Social integration is easier to achieve when peopple are further removed from their everyday existence, patterns and behaviors. The routines of daily life often dictate our perceptions and sterotypes. If you see a lawyer, a police officer, or a politician on the street you probably have a set of beliefs about how that person may act. The same is true if you see a person with a disability, or someone else who is physically different than you. Wilderness travel, of course, tends to break the routine of daily life, at least for most of us.

2.- Social intergration is easier to achieve when all participants are able to compete or participate equall--when their contribution to the outcome of the esperience is equal.
Wilderness travel can accomplish this participatory function far better that any other recreational activities. Unlike competitive sports, wilderness travel allows fa more opportunities for cotribution that are not based upon group members' physical capability, or their intellectual capability. Participants can play different, but equally valued, roles on a wilderness adventure. On a WI trip, we can have physically workers, attitude shapers, navigators, skills cotriabutors, and group skills workers. Everyone is envouraged to contribute to the food of the group[ according to their means.

3.- Wilderness is indifferent which reinforces common human needs.
We all have basic need for food and shelter. Because we often have to work a bit harder in wilderness to accomodate those needs, this makes it an ideal place for us to explore our common humanity. Unless you're living on the street, urban settings cannot easily replicate this.

4.- The beauty of wilderness builds a common bond of appreciation.
Most wilderness areas are naturally beautiful. This is what draws many people to visit wilderness. People who share these beautiful places together often form an intangible bond, a form of spiritual renewal, that brings them closer together.
There are also other reasons why wilderness facilitates social integration. For example, Alan Ewer (1989) describes the contributions of wilderness to the development of society and it's members. These contributions are often related to interactions of people with natural environments and social interaction in wildland settings. Such settings create socially acceptable medium for testing oneself; provide opportunities for learning and shared experiences in a unique physical and social environment; link values and attitudes with behavior; allow participants to reconstruct feelings, experiences and problems faced by our ancestor; provide opportunities for a more intimate view of one's strengths, weakenesses, and character (Ewert 1989).

Wilderness Inquiry's Mission

The primary mission of WI is to provide opportunities that integrate adults and youths with and without disabilities in outdoor education and adventure experiences. THese experiences inspire personal growth, install confidence, developed peer realtionships, and enhance awareness of the natural environment for everyone involved. Other elements of WI's mission include:
1.- providing opportunities to increase awareness of disabilities among non-disabled people, and to reduce negative stereotypes non-disabled people may hold towards people with disabilities;
2.- developing adaptive equipment and program strategies advancing the study of the recreational and educational needs of people with disabilities, with particular emphasis on accessibility to wilderness areas and educating people on the value of wilderness to our society.

 

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More stories from Bree Walker issue:

Bree Walker Interview

The Americans with Disabilities Act

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