Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Outdoor Inclusion Summit

Last week, I attended the inaugural Outdoor Inclusion Summit, facilitated by TA Loeffler and Tomás Aylward. The goal of the Summit was to bring practitioners, students, individuals and/or families experiencing disability, and community organizations together to share their stories, experiences, and visions for inclusive outdoor recreation.

Dr. TA Loeffler is an educator, adventurer, nature advocate, author, and professional keynote speaker from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. She brings 30 years of expertise leading people through significant life-changing experiences to every facet of her work. Her work and adventures have taken her to 45 different countries and all seven continents. TA has completed 6 and 4/5 of “The Seven Summits,” the highest peaks on all seven continents! In 2015, TA was named to the “Canada’s Greatest Explorers 100 Modern-Day Trailblazers List” by Canadian Geographic.

As a Professor of Outdoor Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland, TA has developed a reputation for excellence in experiential education because her students are more likely to be outside chasing icebergs than sitting in a classroom. TA inspires hope, possibility, and vision in those whose lives she touches. Over the past 15 years, TA has shared her message of “Big Dreams, Big Goals” with over 100,000 youth in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

TA believes that we all long for a balanced, engaged, and creative life that challenges us to be the best we can possibly be. She models this belief in her life on a daily basis and combines her broad range of skills to inspire all to create the life they truly want.

Tomás Aylward joined us from Tralee, Ireland, where he has been teaching Outdoor & Experiential Learning modules at the Institute of Technology, Tralee (ITTralee) for the past 16 years. He lectures on degree programs in Outdoor Learning, Health & Leisure studies, Adapted Physical Activity and Field Biology/Wildlife Tourism. He continues to have an evolving outdoor learning practice with influences from adventure sports as well as experiential education and environmental education.

The Summit included a combination of keynote presentations, discussion, and workshops related to inclusive outdoor recreation. After some instructional time in the morning, we spent most of the afternoon outside, stepping out of our comfort zones and experiencing the outdoors in ways that we might not have ever before. Some participants tried navigating the grounds of Easter Seals House in a mobility device, some of us were blindfolded, eliminating our sense of sight, or some wore noise-cancelling headphones, reducing our sense of hearing. It was incredible to see how drastically our experience of the world is altered when our senses are impaired. You quickly learn to depend more on your other working senses.. and to rely more on others for help!

There were a number of different pieces of adaptive equipment available to try throughout the day. There was a TrailRider (which we previously borrowed, and I wrote about HERE), as well as a Hippocampe (see HERE). It was great to be able to try these different pieces of equipment first-hand, to ask questions about their use, and to see them demonstrated on all types of terrain. 

Here I am testing out the GRIT Freedom Chair. What a workout! The GRIT Freedom Chair is an all-terrain wheelchair built for every type of adventure. It is a lever-driven wheelchair that comes armed with rugged mountain bike wheels, a big, sturdy front wheel that doesn’t get stuck, and optional trail handles, allowing you to choose your own custom journey. (TA was spotting me here because I wasn't so great with the steering!)

We had a lot of great discussion about the importance of getting outside, regardless of your physical ability, and it made me think about the things that we do as a family and how we can incorporate more outdoor recreation into our lives. It can be tricky here in Newfoundland, because the weather doesn't always cooperate when we want it to, but we recognize how important it is for our health and well-being to spend time in nature, away from screens and electronics, enjoying our natural surroundings.

When I think of some of my all-time favourite moments, the majority of them involve some sort of outdoor adventure rooted in nature. I think of days that Andrew and I spent hiking on the East Coast Trail, or walking the beach in Mexico, or snowshoeing across a frozen pond. Most recently, we took Brennen in a TrailRider up to the top of Red Cliff (see HERE), and my heart still skips a beat when I think of the magnitude of that. It was something I never though we could ever do, but we tried, and we did it, and it turned out to be one of those moments that I will rank up there with the greatest of all time. Perhaps it has something to do with taking risks, conquering our fears, venturing beyond our natural confines, and realizing that we can do more than we think we can if we put our hearts and minds to it. Brennen loved our adventure, and we loved being able to share that incredible experience with him. It won't be our last.

I came away from this Summit feeling so inspired by TA and Tomás and the passion that they both have for the outdoors. I am grateful for the fact that they are committed to inclusion and exploring how we can provide support and opportunities for individuals to access the outdoors regardless of barrier or disability. The truth is that everybody should be able to enjoy their natural surroundings, and there are ways to make that happen. Physical activity and time outdoors is paramount to health and happiness, and no one should be excluded from nature for any reason.

We are looking forward to creating more adventures of our own this summer, and while they may not all provide the adrenaline rush of a mountain hike, or include a trip to a volcanic island, there are adventures to be had in our own backyard, and we are determined to find them!