Truth About Age, Ability, Access and Wilderness

One of the points made repeatedly by those who want to see motorized access to the Boreas Ponds Tract is that “elderly and disabled” people should have access to the Boreas Ponds just like everyone else. They contend that recreational opportunities for these folks will be “cut off” if Gulf Brook Road is closed at Blue Ridge Road because the Ponds will be “too far” and “inaccessible.” In doing so they imply that any proposal to restrict motorized access to the Boreas Ponds is restrictive, elitist and unfair.

The problem with these contentions is that they’re false. Additionally, they presume to represent a universal viewpoint held by “the elderly and disabled,” which is as inappropriate as the terminology they employ.

I am responding to these arguments not only as co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, but also as co-founder of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council (ADAC). ADAC’s  mission is to help the Adirondacks become more welcoming and inclusive of all peoples, regardless of race, creed, color, gender identity – and yes, age and physical ability too.

The right place to begin is with the very language being employed by those who are using “disability” as a reason to provide more access to the Boreas Ponds Tract. One of the most important things I’ve learned in my years of work on diversity issues is that no person can authentically speak for another. When we use the term “disabled” we’re doing exactly that. We’re making a biased presumption that a person with physical abilities and limitations different than our abilities and limitations cannot do what we can do. That’s untrue to the point of being pernicious: from hiking to skiing to rock climbing, people of every range of ability engage in outdoor activities all the time. The term “differently-abled” should be used instead: it’s more accurate and it doesn’t entail negative presumptions.

In my work with ADAC I’ve engaged people across the spectrum of abilities and ages. I’ve attended presentations and workshops on improving differently-abled access in the Adirondack region. Not one of the people I’ve talked with has said to me that there should be better accommodations for access in Wilderness areas. Not one of them has a record of public advocacy for doing so. Why? Because they value Wilderness as we all do, and they choose to cherish and experience it according to their abilities and desires, as we all do. Why would we possibly assume otherwise?

There are Wilderness activities in which I’d love to engage, but am not necessarily capable of doing: ascending Wallface comes to mind. But the last thing I want is a road, stairway or other accommodation in the middle of the High Peaks that will get me to the top. I’m thrilled just to know that Wallface is there in all its imposing, primeval glory. The example may seem silly, but to assume that anyone else desires any other kind of accommodation that would compromise Wilderness protection is equally silly. The intrinsic value of Wilderness belongs to everyone: that’s why the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exempts Federal Wilderness Areas.

Here in the Adirondacks, advocates for the differently-abled and the elderly are much more interested in improving access to existing facilities, especially in our local communities. The Adirondack region as a whole gets a failing grade for such access; among other things, the principles of Universal Design have not been widely adopted here. There are some wonderful facilities specifically intended for differently-abled visitors such as John Dillon Park, but they are underutilized. They need better support and better visibility.

Those improvements are important things to work for. Keeping Gulf Brook Road open is an unnecessary and misplaced priority that will not change these circumstances whatsoever.

We must never forget that every person has the right to experience the grandeur of Adirondack Wilderness, including the Boreas Ponds Tract. There are a variety of ways to make that more possible without compromising Wilderness protection. Adirondack Wilderness Advocates supports equestrian access, guide services, a shuttle system from North Hudson and other measures that would provide more opportunities for people of all abilities to experience this exquisite, wild place.

But to assume that Wilderness values and the opportunities that go with them are not as accessible to “the disabled” as they are to those of us who would never use that term for ourselves, is simply discriminatory.

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