How to Be a Good Ally to Folks with Disabilities

By: Antoinette Lee Toscano, MBA

During the covid-19 pandemic lockdown, many Americans started or renewed their connection to nature through outdoor recreation. But some of our most vulnerable were unable to participate. One such group is people with hidden and visible disabilities.

According to the Center for Disease Control, one out of four adults in America—61 million people have one or more disabilities.


At the time of this article, there were no published reports on outdoor recreation that can be verified by a second source.

Wheelchair Explorer—Melissa Simpson voiced the feelings of many in the disabled community. “From my window, I can see the tallest peaks in Colorado. This is the view I had my whole life. And I’ve always wanted to tackle these mountains. All I want to do is be outside experiencing these things.” —Melissa Simpson—Star of the acclaimed short film, ‘From My Window.’

The question before outfitters and gear and apparel manufacturers is this: how can we be a good Ally outdoors to people with disabilities? We asked a panel of experts for recommendations.

Meet The panel of experts


Chantelle Shoaee—The Hypoxic Hiker and the Founder and Executive Director of Always Choose Adventures.

A premature birth alongside multiple congenital disabilities (Tracheoesophageal fistula) is how Chantelle Shoaee— ‘The Hypoxic Hiker’s’ story began. Shoaee seems born to overcome life’s adversities and teach us all what it means to fight to live. Just a few hours after she was born, Shoaee endured major surgery and, in the process, had to be resuscitated thirteen times. Her challenging beginning means she now endures vocal cord dysfunction, severe asthma, low functioning lungs, and TracheoBronchoMalacia. During her childhood, doctors instructed Shoaee’s parents to keep her indoors as much as possible. Never participating in camping, hiking, backpacking, climbing, exploring, or adventures created a void during Shoaee’s youth. In  January 2021, Shoaee underwent major Tracheaplasty to repair her ninety 90 percent collapsed airway, and she is currently recovering in preparation for future adventures.


Erik Weihenmayer—Co-founder No Barriers and the first blind person to summit Everest

Erik Weihenmayer is one of the most celebrated and accomplished athletes in the world. In 2001, he became the only blind person in history to climb Mount Everest. When Weihenmayer stood at the top of Carstensz Pyramid in 2008, he completed his quest to climb all the ‘Seven Summits’-the tallest peak on each of the seven continents.

Weihenmayer is the author of the best-selling memoir, ‘Touch the Top of the World,’ which was made into a feature film, and ‘The Adversity Advantage,’ showing readers ‘how to turn everyday struggles into everyday greatness.’ Weihenmayer’s latest book, is ‘No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon.’ Weihenmayer is an internationally recognized speaker and brings his message of living a ‘No Barriers Life’ to audiences worldwide.

In September 2014, Erik and blinded U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell kayaked the entire 277-miles of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, considered one of the most formidable whitewater venues in the world. Erik continually seeks out new adventures, focusing his efforts on empowering people traditionally swept to the sidelines of life. He co-founded the No Barriers organization, which helps people with challenges tap into the human spirit, break through barriers, and contribute to the world.


David Shurna—Executive Director and co-founder No Barriers USA.

For the past decade, David Shurna has been the executive director, co-founder, visionary, and chief growth architect of No Barriers USA. Building both organizational and corporate partnerships, Shurna has guided ‘No Barriers’ to historic levels of both impact and revenue. An innovative entrepreneur and experienced educator, Shurna spent more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector.


Mark Vermeal—Senior Safety and Risk Management Executive for Fred C. Church, Inc.

As one of the co-founders and leaders of the Outdoor Adventure Practice, Mark is located in Golden, Colorado, USA. And he works with a team of professionals dedicated to serving the unique safety, risk management, and insurance needs of the outdoor and adventure sports industry.

Vermeal is a nationally recognized expert in risk management and safety with 20 years of experience as a senior-level administrator. He has implemented strategies that have enhanced a culture and climate of safety at two of the nation’s largest outdoor organizations—Outward Bound, USA. He served as Vice President of Safety.  Vermeal is a certified ‘American Mountain Guides Association Rock Instructor’ and ‘Single Pitch Instructor Provider’ with rock, ice, and alpine guiding experience, both abroad and domestically.


Good allies—the athlete’s perspective

Shoaee and Weihenmayer, the athletes with differing abilities on the panel, were asked how they became adventurers.

Shoaee was raised indoors on the advice of doctors and began adventuring when she was more than 30-years-old. In her 30s, Shoaee realized that adventuring improved her life. And it sparked in her a desire to help others through her foundation—Always Choose Adventures.

Weihenmayer had a dream of making a life in the mountains and on the rivers, “but (he) happened to be blind.” He continues saying that he went on to summit the tallest mountains on every continent and to become a kayaker at 40-years-old. As Weihenmayer was losing vision during his freshman year in high school, he feared missing out on life. In response, through the support of teachers and family, he began saying yes to opportunities like rock climbing.

“It was so engaging to problem-solve my way up the rock face with my hands and feet as my eyes." —Erik Weihenmayer

Allies have been a powerful part of Weihenmayer’s ability to achieve goals that no blind person has ever done before.

And Shoaee said on a recent hike, she was hypoxic at the trailhead. But her Allies carried her pack containing her heavy oxygen concentrator to the summit, which made her adventures possible.

“If you don’t have people that believe in you and kind of help you out, you can’t do it, adventuring alone.” -Chantelle Shoaee

Our panelists said Allies can best help a person with differing abilities through communication, getting to know the person they are helping, and going through a learning process mainly because they may want to be supported in a certain way. Meanwhile, a person with the same disability may want a different type or amount of help. Communication is critical. Good allies take your experiences and adventures, and they adapt with you. And Allies can provide helpful information, Shoaee offered.

The national forest, wild and scenic places, and parks and recreation organizations are doing a good job with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations in some areas. Still, more can be done because, as a nation, we are doing more to get other underrepresented groups outdoors, but “the disabled are being left behind,” said Shoaee.

How to communicate with folks of all abilities

Understandably, businesses and individuals that might want to expand their offerings to become actively inclusive of people with differing abilities, have a concern that they might not have the “right” words when communicating in marketing messages and in-person communication.

Weihenmayer said the best practice is “make it a very frank exchange and don’t put your limitations onto others.” Asking questions and making the person feel informed and supported is encouraged. Researching the individual’s health challenges is also helpful. And to remember that not every disability is physical," Shoaee added.

Creating a supportive adaptive program

First, start with your why. What is your reason for supporting the disabled community and know your goals and objectives. You can learn more about how No Barriers addressed this task in their own words.

“I think we get caught up in solving for problems that aren’t the right problems.” —David Shurna

Second, after you know why you are becoming more inclusive of all abilities, start defining your problems before trying to solve the challenge of serving people of all ability levels. Focus on the issues that you can “focus on right now to make something more accessible.”

Finally, there are a lot of great organizations out there that are doing this work. And the community of adaptive adventure sports is already experienced so, talk to others; probably someone else has already dealt with your challenges because there is a warm and welcoming community available to you.

Leadership and culture within the adaptive adventure sports community

David Shurna offers recommendations for a top-down culture of “all abilities inclusivity.” Create a cultural bias of:

  1. Acceptance of people for who they are.

  2. Recognizing that everyone has potential.

  3. Hire people with diverse abilities. And give volunteers with diverse abilities an opportunity to work with your organization.

  4. Listen to staff and clients.

  5. Have humility about what you know and don’t know.

  6. Remember that there is almost always the good potential to help someone have an accessible opportunity.

  7. Recruit, hire, and train people in the culture you want to create. And include this activity in your hiring practices by asking adaptive problem-solving questions during employment interviews.

  8. Accept that you will make mistakes and improve over time.

  9. Technology or an adaptive solution can almost always help make actives more accessible.

Effective communication with the adaptive sports community

If you want to show that your organization is welcoming and supportive of all abilities, it must be reflected in your marketing, staffing, and community-facing practices. The same way that organizations have recently included all ethnicities and body-positive adventuring. Accept that everyone has potential and communicate with mutual understanding and respect. Nearly half of your potential clients will have a disability—hidden or visible or have a direct connection to someone with a disability. So, remember that you are not talking to some “other category of people.” But there are some practical considerations.

  1. Does your imagery reflect every client that you are trying to serve?

  2. Use person-first language.

  3. Examine how accessible your marketing is to differing abilities.

  4. Over plan in the beginning phase, during your registration process, and before the adventure begins by communicating with your clients about health concerns, accessibility needs, and other potential barriers or challenges.

  5. Be prepared for surprises. Have a plan and designated staff to react to an unknown accessibility need. Learn more.

Three steps to make your adventure sports business more abilities inclusive

  1. Put your ‘why’ on paper.

  2. Make a concrete list of the activities you want to make accessible and what capacity (training and gap-analysis) you need to build to accomplish this goal.

  3. Create a ‘rope team’ of folks you can call on to give you advice on solving your accessible adventures challenge.

Mitigating risk in accessible adventures

Mark Vermeal, Senior Safety and Risk Management Executive offered three risk mitigation action steps.

  1. Limit the number of times you are surprised by accessibility issues. Instead, mitigate your surprises through early and through pre-adventure communication with your Guests.

  2. Build a strong expedition or adventure team by front-loading teambuilding experiences before the expedition or event.

  3. Maximize individual autonomy by allowing adaptive adventurers to achieve their personal level of autonomy.

Adaptive adventures risk mitigation 101

“My number one job as the head of risk management is to prevent surprise at all levels of the organization, from participants to board. —Mark Vermeal

Many of the challenges organizations have around creating adaptive experiences are based on fear and a lack of understanding, Vermeal continued. A fear that a client might become injured and wanting to protect a person with differing abilities from themselves versus having an in-depth conversation about the activity. There is also the fear of the unknown and how to manage their safety. How much attention to give an adaptive adventurer versus other clients. And, of course, the concern over providing reasonable accommodations.

The best time to communicate with your clients, regardless of the population, is to communicate at registration the true nature of the activity, and it is fair to inform the guest if there is going to be significant uncertainty on an adventure. Communicate the activity, the environment, and help your Client feel comfortable being vulnerable with you. Often communication fails to be open when the Guest feels they may be excluded from participation by being transparent about their needs.

Simply put, start the conversation by saying, “I want to ask you (a) variety of questions because I want you to be successful.”

You can learn more about how to mitigate your risk in practical terms on WhitewaterTV—the DEI series—'Allies to Adventurers with Disabilities.’


Find the Panelists:

David Surna and Erik Weihenmayer No Barriers USA

Mark Vermeal Fred C. Church, Inc.

Shantelle Shoaee Always Choose Adventures

Antoinette Lee Toscano WhitewaterTV


About the Author:


Antoinette Lee Toscano, MBA — is an American Adult Cross-Cultural Kid (ACCK) and Third Culture Adult (TCA). American by birth with Nigerian, Irish, Indigenous Arawak, Ashkenazi Jewish, and Chinese by ancestry. She is also an 11-year United States Army veteran.

Antoinette is the Producer of WhitewaterTV, where people, places, and products worldwide come together to create an adventure sports community.

Antoinette recorded her talk with these panelists on WhitewaterTV—the DEI series—'Allies to Adventurers with Disabilities.’


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