Outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and kayaking play an integral role in the culture of Wisconsin. But who ensures accessibility for everyone?

Watching Steve Johnson fish with such practiced precision, it’s no surprise that this is something he has been doing since he was a child. Standing at 7th Street Boat Landing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, he hooks his bait and casts it into the Mississippi River with finesse.

It is only until you notice a black labrador retriever named Bennett sitting gallantly at his side with a harness around his body that you start to realize there’s something different about him.

At the age of 22, Johnson lost his sight and became legally blind due to symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes. Although his sight has been stolen from him, his passion for the outdoors still remains, with a heightened sense of touch.

“I don’t use bobbers, I just fish right off the bottom or suspended,” Johnson says. “The tiniest little tap, I can feel it before the naked eye can actually see the bobber move so that cliché of the hand is quicker than the eye is very true. I can feel it so much quicker than the eye can see it, and I can set that hook quicker than somebody who’s watching a bobber.”

When many people think of recreational activities, they aren’t always inclusive of people with different abilities. As a society, we’re quick to believe that being active is a concept that is exclusive to able-bodied people. Recreational activities no longer exclude people with disabilities. They instead redefine the idea of active lifestyle.

“After losing my sight, getting back into the outdoors [was important] because I was raised in the outdoors in a hunting and fishing family. That was something I was not willing to give up after I lost my sight,” Johnson says.

Johnson is a major advocate for disabled rights in Wisconsin. He is a member of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Disability Advisory Council. Composed of people with disabilities, the council meets three times a year to draft suggestions to the DNR to make outdoor areas more accessible.

“We’re always keeping our eyes on advising different ways that we can increase the way people with disabilities can access the outdoors,” Johnson says.

According to a 2010 study from Research for Developmental Disabilities, engaging in outdoor activities not only improves physical health, it also improves psychological health and mental well-being. For Johnson, it helps him to relax and recall the images in his memory of when he would do these activities with his family.

“I love being in the woods…hearing the songs and smelling the smells,” Johnson says. “I’m building that picture in my mind of what I used to be able to see so that when I hear a certain song, I say, ‘Oh, that’s a blue jay.’ I can picture that blue jay fluttering from limb to limb and recognizing it by its call … [A disabled person] is going to be more in tune with this sound. Maybe not facially oriented, but the sound brings that picture back to me and to me that’s important.”

Johnson is also secretary of the board of directors at the North American Squirrel Association (NASA), a non-profit organization in Holmen, Wisconsin, that provides outdoor activities for people with disabilities, children and the elderly. The organization accommodates anyone with a disability, taking into account that not all disabilities are physical.

Serving an estimated 6,000 people per year, NASA President Michael Gaffney says that they do not turn away anyone who wants to participate in the outdoors. As a retired clinical social worker, he saw a great need for an organization like this and started as a volunteer. He wanted to bring awareness to the fact that you can’t always tell a person has a disability by just looking at them.

“Being disabled isn’t only physical,” Gaffney says. “We also deal with people who have difficulties with cognition and mental illness.”

Gaffney also integrates Wounded Warriors, an organization for veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), into the activities. However, he does admit that he experienced struggles getting them to participate.

“Many of them are younger, and besides going through their stages of depression and denial and so forth, they really don’t want any help, and it’s difficult for them to ask for help,” Gaffney says. “But we don’t look at what we’re giving them as help, we look at allowing them to continue on doing what they’ve done in the past.”

Working in human services, Johnson has a lot of experience trying to motivate and empower his peers with disabilities to get back into the workforce.

“I see many people on a daily basis that say, ‘Well I can’t work, I’m on disability benefits,’” Johnson says. “Well, that means nothing. I was on disability benefits but I decided I wanted to work, and I worked off of those benefits. That’s important to me, but a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Since Johnson makes more money working than people with disabilities usually receive from their benefits, he prefers to invest those extra dollars enjoying the outdoors on his own time. By doing this, he doesn’t have to worry about taking space from someone who might want to try it out. He wants to give others the chance to seize the opportunity and realize their potential.

When it comes to funding the NASA, one thing that Gaffney says makes them stand out is all of the money received by donors goes back into the people it serves.

There are times when people with disabilities will need a volunteer to assist them on their excursions. Typically, according to Gaffney, this person will usually know of someone with a disability, which drives them to participate.

But this was not the case for UW-Madison senior Kyle Andreska, who instead received a unique learning experience as someone who had never met anyone with a disability before.

Andreska worked at Fort McCoy this past summer and heard about the opportunity from his former boss. He had volunteered for other hunting trips in the past, such as taking younger children in the field, so his boss asked him if this was something that he would be interested in.

“I like hunting in general, and I feel like the times I’ve enjoyed it the most have been when I was out with other people taking them and giving them the experience,” Andreska says. “My boss said this is a guy who loves hunting. He has done it all his life. He’s just physically limited and needs someone to help him.”

Andreska only had one interaction with the man he was working with before the day of the hunt, a quick phone call setting up a game plan of what the day was going to look like.

The man Andreska was helping was born a conjoined twin, so when he was separated from his brother, he was left with one leg. He has been in a wheelchair his entire life. Andreska describes the hunt as different from what he usually experiences.

“I’m able to go out into the woods and be very active…but his view of hunting is completely different,” he says. “He has a license permit, he can shoot from a vehicle, so that’s pretty much what he was restricted to. He could only go to places he could get to in his van. Hunting from the road is legal for him.”

Andreska admits it was a bit of a culture shock for him to learn how physical disabilities can really limit people in a situation like that. But he also felt grateful that he was able to help the man shoot a deer and have the opportunity to give back.

“I think it was really nice for him to just have somebody to talk to in a setting that was comfortable to him,” Andreska says. “He shared a lot of his experiences with me and I think just being there and being able to listen and having him tell me what he thought was really nice for him.”

Gaffney agrees that just one simple experience can affect a person’s outlook on life. There is one particular story that he experienced as captain of the pontoon boats for the NASA that still makes him tear up to this day.

He recounts the story of a young man in his early 20s from Green Bay who was quadriplegic. His mother drove him over one day so he could go fishing.

“He had the worst attitude of anyone I had ever seen,” Gaffney says. “He did not want to go, he thought this was stupid, he had a very defeatist attitude.”

The man went on the boat and used the adaptive fishing gear so that he could cast the fishing pole himself. As he started to catch fish, Gaffney noticed that each time he reeled one in, he had a bigger smile on his face. As the boat trip came to an end and they wheeled him off the boat onto the pier, he started to make his way back over to land, but he turned around and asked Gaffney when he could go fishing again.

“That man had a 180 degree turn because [we] instilled a purpose in his life again,” Gaffney says. “That is what we do.”

Johnson agrees that being involved in the outdoors is an empowering experience for people with disabilities. While his brother or his brother’s girlfriend provide sight for his excursions, he mostly works independently. He admits that there are always challenges, but most of the time, they are things that can happen to anybody.

“Blind doesn’t mean that I can’t be aware of my surroundings,” he says.  “Part of it is just being an outdoors man who is in tune with what’s going on at all different levels. It really has nothing to do with the sight loss. A lot of it just goes back to me being a responsible person.”

However, what is most important to Johnson is the way that actively pursuing his passion for fishing has affected his life for the better.

“It’s allowed me to be more independent and be more confident in the outdoors,” he says. “But it’s also allowed me to take on leadership roles, and set an example for my disabled peers and say, ‘If you want to get out, you can get out. There’s nothing stopping you except you.’”

Accessible Cabins in Wisconsin

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About The Author

Lead Writer

Barbara is a senior majoring in journalism with an emphasis in reporting and a certificate in Chican@/Latin@ studies. You can typically find her involved in a heated debate about social justice issues, obsessively changing her outfit of the day, or reassuring her mother that she is indeed taking her vitamins. She hopes to return to her hometown of New York City (and yes, that does mean Manhattan) to work in magazines.