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Accessible Outdoors; A Letter to Tyler

About 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population — have a disability, according to the the latest U.S. Census done in 2010. It revealed that nearly one in every five people in the United States, has a disability that significantly limits one or more major life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, thinking, and so forth. Furthermore, the population of the United States is aging. By the year 2030, 110 million people will be older than 55. As people age, impairments are more likely to hinder activities.

As a matter of fact, I will bet that most of us know someone who has a disability, or a direct family member who is dealing with a disability themselves.

I do.

Let me explain.

My son-in-law, Tyler Nichols, of Omaha, NE, while serving with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was involved in a horrific motor vehicle accident on June 19, 2016. The accident nearly costed him his life and left with him with a traumatic spinal cord injury.

When I first met Tyler (who was dating my daughter at the time), I admired his passion and knowledge for hunting, shooting sports, firearms and fishing.

Instantly we had a connection, and a very personal, deep-rooted one at that. It is remarkable how outdoor activities and associated pieces of outdoor equipment bond people together.

I now fully realize the importance of outdoor recreation and how it can have a tremendous impact on the quality of life for persons with disabilities.

I have learned through Tyler the tireless effort that I need to put forth to get him outdoors. I have gained a much greater appreciation of the priceless, intrinsic value of just being outside to smell the wildflowers, feel a cool breeze or warm ray of sunshine on the face, hear those wild tom turkeys leave their tree roost just after sunrise and behold the sight of a big white-tailed deer buck emerging from a woodlot at sunset.

For persons with disabilities, national surveys indicate that time spent in natural settings can offer relief from their symptoms and an environment that helps them to think differently as they begin to craft new strategies for managing their disabilities. New coping strategies are developed and the grip of their symptoms are shaken loose while they enjoy, explore and connect with nature.

Going outside also puts our muscles to work, naturally. In Carla Hannaford’s book “Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” she shares research showing that our brains actually work better and are more able to focus when our muscles are in use. Movement stimulates concentration and improves cognitive functioning.

Even more noticeable may be the reduced frequency of symptoms of anxiety, depression and anger. Added benefits are a sense of greater independence and autonomy, motivation, self-direction and decision-making skills. If getting a person with a disability into nature helps with any one of these issues, it’s definitely worth the effort!

Therapists suggest to think of an outing as a kinesthetic experience where an individual is on the move in active pursuit of something: reaching the tree at the top of the hill, crossing a shallow creek or scavenging for some new discovery along a game trail.

Jen Armbruster of Portland State University’s Inclusive Recreation program is herself visually impaired. Active in outdoor activities as a youngster, she became partially blind at 14 and fully blind at 17 years of age. “From a disability standpoint the outdoors are an awesome fit,” she says. “You already make adaptations all the time. You don’t know when the path or the river will be blocked by a tree.”

In Nebraska outdoor recreational opportunities abound, and many technological resources and organizations are helping make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible for everyone, regardless of age, income or ability. I will tell you that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is committed to integrating accessibility into the complete range of recreational opportunities while protecting natural resources and settings so that all people, including persons with disabilities, have the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. Evidence of this commitment can be seen first-hand from our new target shooting ranges to our new totally accessible fishing structures.

Totally accessible fishing structure at the Sandy Channel State Recreation Area near Elm Creek, NE. Photo courtesy of Steve Satra/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Totally accessible fishing structure at the Sandy Channel State Recreation Area near Elm Creek, NE. Photo courtesy of Steve Satra/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

For sportsmen like Tyler who may have difficulty with mobility, or holding, aiming, or shooting a firearm or crossbow, there are a wide range of adaptive machinery and devices available, thanks to modern technology and a number of organizations. Even though disabilities vary, there are new innovations on the market through various governmental agencies and non-profit entities that assist greatly with individual needs. Just knowing that specialized equipment exists and is available has reopened doors to the great outdoors for those who are physically challenged. With reference to commercially manufactured devices for those with impairments, there are quite a few resources that can be obtained, too.

An all-terrain wheelchair gives the mobility impaired a chance to enjoy the great outdoors. Photo courtesy of Rocket Mobility.

Truly, the positive effects of the world outside can be powerful. Accessible nature outings are all around us and there for the taking.

Will you join me in inviting a family member or close friend with a disability outside to enjoy nature in some fashion or another, and continue helping them get outdoors?

I certainly hope so.

Here is my letter of invitation to Tyler to go outdoors with me.

My Dearest Tyler:

You continue to amaze me! I cannot believe the progress you have made since the  accident that almost took your young life. 

As I ready my hunting gear for Nebraska’s early seasons I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.

You need to know that I love you, believe in you, am so proud of you and ever-grateful for your fine military service to this country. It is wonderful to witness you achieving many rehabilitation milestones so quickly. 

One of your incentives for successfully completing rehab and therapy  should include being able to get outdoors to fish, camp, hunt and enjoy the shooting sports. When I think back to the time when I first met you, I remember how much I appreciated and admired your passion and knowledge of these outdoor pursuits. 

Please know that plans are already in the works for your deer and turkey hunts this fall. We will take advantage of modern technological advances and adaptive therapy to assist us; I warn you to be prepared for long days in the field! We’re gonna rock your old army boots, my son!

Keep maintaining your positive attitude, working hard, staying focused and loving life (plus my daughter, HA) each day! New adventures await you in the great outdoors of Nebraska!

With Loving Regards,

Your Other Dad

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” – Karen Wang.

Tyler and your blogger pose for a photo on the campus of the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, NE. Photo by Emma Nichols.
Tyler and your blogger pose for a photo on the campus of the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, NE. Photo by Emma Nichols.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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