Many people with physical disabilities have been told that they can’t do things like hike, camp, rock climb, or bowl. Lori Gray says they can. She runs an outdoor adventure group for Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, or BORP. It’s an organization with a mission to get people with disabilities involved in sports and recreation.
I join them at Bodega Bay’s Doran Beach, where it’s bright and windy. Ten participants along with four volunteers, two bus drivers, two dogs, a baby, and I all pile out of a couple vans, and onto the trail. Participants walk with canes and service dogs, and maneuver wheelchairs over the rocky path.
Program leader Lori Gray worked for years as a river guide before taking on her role at Adventures and Outings. She brings serious outdoor chops to the table, and is uniquely qualified for her position.
“I represent a physical impairment reality and a visual impairment reality, so the participants kind of look at me as their litmus test. If it works for me, it will work for them,” she says.
She barks quick orders to corral the group for a lunch stop. Everyone catches up over their meals, kidding each other and laughing.
Preston Moses has been with BORP since 2008: “I’ve had a lot of fun ever since.”
“Don’t get him started on jokes,” warns Maria Gil de la Madrid.
He laughs: “They’re all terrible! You know why April’s so tired?”
He pauses, expectantly. No one has the answer. “You would be too after a 31-day March!” he says, triumphantly.
We finish lunch and hit the trail. I start the walk with Preston. “I love these kind of hikes,” he says. “You know, getting out in the country like this. You know we have a camping trip every year. Campfire cooking, setting up tents, that kind of stuff.”
No two people are going to have the exact same experience of the same hike. That’s especially true with this group, which challenges society’s low expectations for people with disabilities.
Gray lists the populations involved with the Adventures and Outings group: “The population we serve runs the gamut from quadriplegics to paraplegics to people who have cerebral palsy to people who need to walk with a support cane or use a wheelchair to folks who are multiply handicapped — I mean disabled — to folks who are visually impaired, but may have a physical disability as well.”
The term “disabled” puts the emphasis on what people with disabilities can’t do. When I first heard Lori rattle off this list, every circumstance sounded like a reason I might stay home from a hike, but for the folks I met at Doran Beach, their disabilities are simply part of their lives, not reasons to skip the hike or miss out on a camping trip. That’s due to a culture of accountability.
“Everybody is accountable to each other, and for some of these folks that’s a new thing,” Gray explains. “They've been in situations as kids or, even though they're adults they're perceived as children, so people have taken away their decision making process for themselves. That’s not how I operate.”
Like any good guide, Gray pushes those on her trips to get a little bit out of their comfort zones, safely. Most trails are built with the able-bodied hiker in mind so, Gray says, Adventures and Outings works like a team to access the outdoors.
“Folks with wheelchairs are leading those who are blind, and I’m doing my best to wheel on behind everybody. Sometimes I grab onto the back of a power chair and cruise along.”
When we get to the end of the trail, a narrow, sandy footpath winds up over a grassy bluff that gives way to the beach. Marissa Shaw and Maria Gil de la Madrid have navigated their power wheelchairs with confidence on the hike. Now, they're frustrated.
Marissa looks at the sand skeptically. “I don’t know how deep this is and — I don’t want to be a big baby — but I don’t want to get sand in my motor and have a problem later,” she says.
“Oh no,” Maria agrees, “It’s our legs. That’s the bottom line.”
The chairs’ motors and nimble wheels are great on roads and trails, but don’t do well on sand. Marissa doesn’t want to leave the expensive power chairs unattended. So, the group comes together. Two people watch their powers chairs, while Marissa and Maria take turns using beach chairs with thick legs that don’t sink in the sand.
In a few minutes, we’re down by the water. Maria and Marissa sit side by side in the beach chairs, smiling and chatting with their faces tilted towards the sun.
“This is incredible,” Maria says, “We never get this close to the ocean. Its really nice. The waves are rolling in you can hear the the boom and crash of the waves in the shore. I can’t tell you the last time I was on the sand — before I was in a wheelchair.”
Down the beach aways, I see Preston, call out to him and put a hand on his elbow, so he knows I’m there. “What’s happening, Claire?” he asks. It’s more than a friendly greeting; he’d like to know what’s going on visually on the beach. I describe the scene, then ask what he’s noticing.
“Well the air is very nice clean smelling, very fresh. The waves sound like the tide is low. I guess if it was high tide they'd come in here, wouldn’t they? Hearing children playing, hearing people talking and seeming like they're enjoying themselves too.”
Koja Nikzad and his wife brought a blanket, and a group gathers. Nikzad and his wife are also blind. They take turns walking their sighted daughter down to the ocean’s edge. A sighted volunteer takes pictures nearby.
“She had her first time at the snow back in December, and now it’s her first time at the beach.” Koja tells me.
The little girl toddles towards the water, smiling. One hand wraps tightly around her father’s, and the other reaches out towards the waves.
Back on the blanket, Lori Largent wakes up from a nap.
“When you lay down on the ground the waves sound real soft and muffled and when you sit up they're all loud,” she says.
Her friend Amy Harrell, pockets some seashells and sits down next to us on the blanket.
“I think the whole idea is you take time to slow down and enjoy what’s out there, you put down the aches and pains and the hard stuff about getting older and have some kind of just… sensual positive experience being out and about.” She laughs, then spots a paddle boarder. She narrates what she’s seeing for Lori, who’s blind.
“Okay, Lori, what he’s doing is he's on a board and he’s got a paddle and he’s paddling and he’s just out there in the ocean… Oh, he's trying to get over a big wave, five or six feet.”
Lori smiles. “Whoa!”
These are the kinds of interactions that program leader Gray brags about. It’s a big deal for a large group of adults to get together, get along, and problem-solve on a regular basis.
“I heard one day a couple of our participants talking. One uses a power chair and the other is totally blind. And the blind one says, ‘Would you ever like to go running with me?’ And the one in the chair says, ‘Yeah! You can hang onto the back of my chair and we can just go.”
This, Gray says, is exactly how it’s supposed to work.
Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program strives to advance the lives of people with physical disabilities through sports and recreation. To learn more about BORP or the Adventures and Outings program, check out their website at borp.org.