“What’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way.” – The Accessible Outdoors

Last week, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor brought together a diverse group of community leaders for a lunchtime conversation to discuss insights, successes, and challenges, in making Washington’s outdoors accessible for all. The conversation highlighted the achievements of Erik Weihenmayer, an adventurer, author, and activist renowned for being the only blind person to summit Mt. Everest. Mr. Weihenmayer shared his remarkable story as part of the larger discussion of strategies for improving accessibility to the outdoors in Washington.

As part of the Lieutenant Governor’s role as Washington’s Chief Opportunity Officer, Lieutenant Governor Habib has been spearheading high-impact initiatives, like the lunchtime conversation series, aimed at expanding opportunity for Washingtonians. The series brings together members of various communities to collaboratively approach the ultimate goal of a more inclusive Washington. The event highlighted the potential for outdoor accessibility to transform perceptions about what is truly possible for individuals with disabilities, and the potential to connect with adventure, exploration, and the outdoors.

Lieutenant Governor Habib cited a formative experience from his childhood when he, as a newly blind eight year old, was prevented from playing with the other children during recess because of the school’s concern that he would get hurt on its playground equipment. The Lieutenant Governor, with his parents’ help, spent weekends learning to navigate the jungle gym, which allowed him to use the playground with the other students. “Part of the joy of life is taking risks and participating in the great tumultuous world out there, with all its grace and all its grit,” he said.

Mr. Weihenmayer joined the Lieutenant Governor in emphasizing the importance of taking risks. “There is this perception that you can’t bring people with severe disabilities into the outdoors—it’s too rugged, and it’s too unsafe. That is not true at all.  With the right team and the right technologies and the right mindset it’s totally possible, it’s incredible, it’s an experience to help people to think, to reboot, and ponder their potential,” he said.

While Mr. Weihenmayer often discusses accessibility in terms of ensuring access to the outdoors for disabled individuals, in this discussion he connected the idea more broadly to individual potential. He noted that there may exist many barriers to experiencing the natural world, whether that be disability, location, or income. He emphasized the importance of recognizing how the outdoors unites people around the world. The “wilderness” has often been depicted as being the catalyst for the emergence of core values, highlighting the human capacity for strength, perseverance, and ability. As such, he is a staunch advocate for increasing local access to the outdoors, from local parks to mountain peaks. Mr. Weihenmayer ended by saying, “The door has been blasted open and you can’t contain folks once the potential is out there.”