The Outdoors Exists For Everybody — And That Includes Me

Activism |

How disability activist and public health professional Teresa Nguyen advocates for her community and finds joy and self-care in nature. Words by Teresa Nguyen. Photos by Lex Cummings.

When I’m outside on a hike, camping, or at my neighborhood park, I’m humbly reminded that this earth and its beauty exists for everybody. Everybody–including people with disabilities like me who are not often seen and represented in the outdoors.

Go for a hike in Kids Midform Universal sandals in Bright Retro Multi.

Lived Experience

I’ve grown up observing and experiencing a variety of disparities, not only as a woman with a disability, but also as a first generation child of immigrants. I was born with a disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (or O.I. for short) and this causes my bones to be brittle.

From a young age, I had to navigate my own complicated health care and witness my non-English speaking family decipher the policies and programs that would protect me as a person with a disability. I began interpreting for my own health appointments at the age of 10 years old.

Accessible trails for all.

As I grew older, I started to question how families like mine navigated their health care and systems that supported their lives with a disability. What happens to kids who are unable to interpret for their non-English speaking parents? What about individuals who are unable to speak up for themselves? Who will take the time to break down the complicated nuances of health insurance policy for families? How will my community access health care? I knew that I wanted to impact disability health care in my career trajectory.

My work in public health is rooted in improving health programs and policies that can impact health outcomes for my community. There have been major advances in science and technology, and people with disabilities are living longer lives. However, our community still encounters discrimination, disparities, and inequities in health care, education, employment, independent living, and housing.

Teresa Nguyen shows us her summit photo.

I believe innovation thrives when we examine each of these areas through the lens of public health: promoting and protecting the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. This allows for the work in health care to expand into the systems that are outside of direct health clinics and hospitals. I have a Master of Public Health and our training has always been centered around how to communicate health data and facts in a way that would resonate with the general public.

In the disability activist space, utilizing your lived experience and telling your story is a common method to advocate for change. Through using a mixture of evidence, data and personal stories in my career, I’ve seen  progress in the health care system and policy arena for people with disabilities. In 2017, when the Affordable Care Act Repeal failed to pass, so many incredible stories were shared from the disability community on how cuts in Medicaid funding would take away our care, independence, and health. Those stories made a huge difference.

Go for a hike in Kids Midform Universal sandals in Bright Retro Multi.

My Relationship With The Outdoors

In my adulthood, I’ve been more intentional about spending time outdoors. Exploring the natural, non-materialistic world that exists for everyone on this planet makes me feel present and relaxed, especially with growing responsibilities and life stresses. Hiking, spending time outside, and going on camping adventures helps me stay in the moment, humble, and changes my outlook when the world can seem overwhelming.

A time when I felt peace, joy and belonging in the outdoors was on a trip to Canyonlands National Park. As I was taking in the landscape carved by the Colorado River, the moment put a lot of things in perspective for me. I was surprised that it had taken me so long to finally stop and explore the earth’s beauty that was practically in my backyard! I realized that the pressures of productivity and perfectionism don’t allow me to be as present in my own natural environment. It was a reality check and a direct demonstration of how small we, as humans, are in a large world that gives so much to us every day. I felt humble and happy to be reminded that the earth really does exist for everybody — and “everybody” includes me. That reminder felt special.

Show us your brights: Kids Midform Universal in Bright Retro Multi.

Teresa wears the Kids Midform Universal in Bright Retro Multi.

Having a disability, I’ve had to become very creative and resourceful to be able to access the outdoors for peace and joy. My friends and family now text, call, or email me about newly discovered outdoor spaces that would work with my wheelchair for our next get together, hangout, or camping adventure. I feel so loved when they do this, because while my power wheelchair gives me full freedom and independence, a part of my world includes painfully knowing that there are places and spaces that are not going to be inclusive of people like me who have disabilities.

Community participation and inclusion has been a continuous fight for us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a foundation for accessibility but there is still a lot of work to be done. For example, disabled people are less represented in the spaces of “self-care” and participation in recreational activities such as “being outdoors.”

There is especially a lack of representation in all areas for people with disabilities in power wheelchairs. They’re bulkier and harder to transport, but that doesn’t mean the people who use them don’t want to be out in the community in the same way as our peers. This lack of visibility can lead to spaces and communities that exclude us and therefore, perpetuate a societal message that people with disabilities don’t belong in certain spaces, communities, activities and events.

Disability activist Teresa Nguyen explores Colorado's parks.

There’s a lot to change, but small changes make a big difference, too. The outdoor community can be more accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities. For instance:

1. Thoughtfully include the disability community in your planning and events. Assume that people with disabilities can make up a big part of your group and community. If there is access (trail, transportation, mobility device access, language, etc.), there will be participation.

2. Keep the dedicated (and rare) wheelchair accessible paths and trails clean and barrier free.

3. Update your signage to be inclusive of all people.

Summit pics or it didn't happen.

Disability Pride

I believe that everyone in this life goes through a process where they come to have the ultimate self-compassion, respect and acceptance for their true selves. For me, my true self includes a deep respect of my intersectional identities as a woman of color with a disability. Having a disability has allowed me to see the world through a different lens and for that I’ve been able to: redefine what beauty means to me, weave together a community of friends, colleagues, and family who are gold standard human beings, and use my voice to continue to support the underrepresented communities that don’t have a seat at the tables of change.

Being in nature to find moments of joy, peace, and self-care is an immense privilege when my days are usually filled with challenging societal policies and cultural norms. I hope that hearing my story will help motivate you to do your part to continue making the outdoors inclusive and accessible to all people—including people with disabilities, like me.

Disability activist Teresa Nguyen explores Colorado's parks.

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