Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities

Social Inclusion Through Recreation:
The Wilderness Inquiry Approach


Greg Lais is Director of Wilderness Inquiry, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"I went to 'commune' with nature and kept waiting for that inspiration. The true communing occurred between participants. Our shared goals gave us an opportunity to bond – for some a bond that may extend beyond the trip, for others, one that has created beautiful memories.”

– Sandy, trip participant

Wilderness Inquiry (WI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing together people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities – including people with disabilities and chronic illness – through integrated outdoor and environmental learning experiences. Incorporated in 1978, WI provides experiences that present a highly effective method of achieving a mission of promoting healthy lifestyles, integrating people into the community, and developing a sense of stewardship for the environment. These experiences are a cost-effective alternative to traditional integration, rehabilitation, and intervention programs.

Wilderness Inquiry inspires people to solve problems by discovering new strengths. Rather than tell people they need to change, WI offers appealing experiences designed to facilitate a process of integration and self-discovery. People come to WI for the adventure, but they go home with deep understanding and respect for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. By emphasizing abilities and the power of collectively applying those abilities toward common goals, WI has a lasting impact on the thousands of people it serves annually.

For 25 years WI has pioneered integrated outdoor programs, setting best practice standards, and serving more than 100,000 people with and without disabilities from throughout the United States. It also enjoys dozens of partnerships with organizations, including federal and state land management agencies, local and national nonprofit organizations, universities, K-12 schools, environmental groups, and health care organizations.

Needs Addressed by WI Programs

As a society, we have learned that physical integration – putting people with differences together in one place – is not enough. While we will always need laws to prohibit the most egregious forms of discrimination, we will never be able to force people to respect and accept each other. Wilderness Inquiry recognizes this and uses a unique approach to promote social inclusion within a community. Its formula for inclusion is simple, but it requires that we think more broadly than traditional “special” or “minority population” approaches to inclusion. Briefly, WI’s approach to integration is:

  1. Select a popular, voluntary, cooperative venue that has inherent challenges.
  2. Provide support so that everyone can participate without changing the fundamental nature of the experience.
  3. Actively recruit people from diverse backgrounds and ability levels.
  4. Facilitate the process to optimize opportunities for social integration to occur.
  5. Provide financial assistance to keep the program within reach of people from all socio-economic backgrounds.

WI has carefully refined its program to seamlessly serve people with disabilities and others who are neither disabled nor associated with other “minority” communities. It is the only program serving people with disabilities and chronic illness in the United States that regularly attracts people who would never consider personally participating in a program for “special populations.” In short, WI has developed a highly effective approach to facilitating social integration – it reaches people from all walks of life, opens their minds, and changes their attitudes.

Specific Activities

In 2003, Wilderness Inquiry will conduct 145 multi-day wilderness adventures serving 1,250 people and 20 one-day urban adventures serving 9,000 people. It will also train thousands of recreational professionals and others on how to make these program activities more inclusive. Program offerings range from 1-10 days and include activities such as canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, and dogsledding in our nation’s national parks and wilderness areas, as well as skills training workshops in urban areas. Financial support is directed toward people in financial need for trips and activities that are eight days or less. Proceeds from international trips and expeditions are used to subsidize entry-level activities.

WI’s inclusive recreational experiences work by socially integrating people with and without disabilities in enjoyable outdoor activities. These interactions are best achieved through shared experiences between equals – not between “helpers” and “helpless,” “volunteers” and “handicapped,” etc. As stated by a WI participant:

The trip was one of the first opportunities I had to have close and concentrated contact with persons with disabilities – so I learned a lot – primarily not to give in to the urge to do everything for them but to allow them to do all they can do.

Wilderness environments provide an excellent context for social integration because they force people to work together to meet basic group needs. In this context, the wilderness tends to neutralize issues of social status based upon physical characteristics. It provides a level “playing field” where participants can develop new relationships without the bias of stereotypes. In WI programs, people realize that their common human needs far outweigh their physical differences.

Who is Served

In 2003, WI will serve 10,350 people on multi-day kayak, canoe, and horse pack trips and in one-day skills training workshops conducted in urban areas. Each activity is integrated to include a mix of people with and without disabilities. A typical integrated group includes two people who use wheelchairs, two who are blind or deaf, two who have some other disability, five non-disabled participants, one or two people serving in the role of personal assistants, and three staff. Each group also includes people of varying ages and from widely diverse social, cultural, and racial backgrounds.

A distinguishing feature of WI is that it serves people with a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities participating alongside those without disabilities. In addition to serving people with chronic illness and disabling conditions, WI serves many others traditionally excluded from outdoor pursuits, including disadvantaged youth who would otherwise not have the experience because of lack of financial resources and/or lack of opportunity; families, including single-parent and other “non-traditional families,” and families with members who have disabilities or chronic medical conditions, who want to recreate together regardless of ability; and people of color who, as a result of WI’s urban outreach efforts, participate in WI at far above the average levels of racial minority participation in outdoor programs.

Impact of Activities

Wilderness Inquiry’s socially integrated programs have an impact on participants in many ways. The chief, most immediate, and long-lasting impact is that WI experiences really do change attitudes. They change the attitudes of people without disabilities by reducing the fear, condescension, and lowered expectations that limit opportunities for persons with disabilities. They also empower people with disabilities to reach beyond self-imposed limitations and achieve things that they never thought possible. This shift in attitude has a large ripple effect as people move back into their jobs and communities.

The WI experience has an impact on individuals in three primary ways:

  • Increased personal health. Outdoor activities have physical and mental health benefits, such as enhanced confidence, physical development and coordination, emotional adjustment, and the acquisition of social interaction skills. By providing convenient, low-cost, quality opportunities, WI encourages individuals and families to have more active lifestyles.
  • Increased community integration by people with disabilities and others. Wilderness Inquiry experiences affect positive, long-term changes in the attitudes of people who participate. They accomplish goals of building lasting understanding, respect, and compassion toward people with physical differences.
  • Stewardship of the environment. Wilderness Inquiry experiences instill an understanding of and respect for our natural resources, effectively reaching people with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged, youth, and others who are critical in helping to preserve and protect our precious outdoor resources.

Wilderness Inquiry’s approach to integrated outdoor recreation is unique because it facilitates the development of deep, meaningful relationships on a level that is not easily accomplished through other means. In short, WI accomplishes what so many civil rights initiatives can only attempt – it changes people’s attitudes toward each other by opening their minds and reaching their hearts, and it does this through shared recreation experiences.