Over Rocks, Hills And Waterfalls, A Sister Fights For Inclusivity

Noble Horvath

Ambika Rajyagor is fighting for a more accessible outdoors for her sister, Devika. Ambika Rajyagor The outdoors has always been a haven for Ambika Rajyagor.  The 24-year-old from Chino Hills, California, can often be found hiking and exploring national parks around the country. She even has a saying: “I go […]

The outdoors has always been a haven for Ambika Rajyagor. 

The 24-year-old from Chino Hills, California, can often be found hiking and exploring national parks around the country. She even has a saying: “I go to the mountains to feel reborn, because it’s so healing to be outside.” 

Rajyagor’s parents encouraged her love for the outdoors since she was a child, always taking her and her two sisters on roadtrips. But oftentimes, the family was met with obstacles on each outdoor journey. Rajyagor is the middle sister of three; her youngest sister, Devika, is disabled and uses a wheelchair. 

Devika was born healthy and happy, but a couple of weeks before her first birthday, she spiked a high fever and developed rashes all over her body. She was rushed to the hospital where she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a form of cancer more often found in adults. She received chemo treatments that helped cure the cancer but ultimately left her with several disabilities, including cerebral palsy, severe epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, cognitive dissonance, and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a type of epilepsy.

“The doctors told my mom and my dad that Devika would never walk and talk. They said ‘you might as well give up. She isn’t going to have any quality of life,’” Rajyagor said. “But, my parents refused to give up.”

Rajyagor and her family have always strived to provide Devika the most normal life possible. The family planned outings to parks, trails, and even the beach, where Rajyagor says Devika loved to feel the sand with her hands and in between her toes. Although they have found accessible areas outdoors where they can bring Devika, more often than not, they find themselves visiting the same places because of the lack of accessibility. 

Sometimes, Rajyagor has tried to take her sister to new places and on new hikes, but is often disappointed and has to turn around. She remembers a time when she tried to take her sister to Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park. It was a steep hike, so Rajyagor even trained for weeks beforehand, knowing it would take a lot of body strength to push her sister’s wheelchair up the mountain. But ultimately, they weren’t able to complete the hike.

“Knowing that I couldn’t show my sister that view hurt,” Rajyagor said. “I just wanted her to see all the beauty that I see. Knowing that she’ll only ever see it through the phone and FaceTime on these hikes made me feel like it’s not fair for her.”

It’s why Rajyagor made it her life’s mission to create a more accessible outdoors, by co-founding the Disabled & Outdoors Instagram, a small, independent, BIPOC-run account amplifying disabled voices, and providing resources about accessible spots for the disabled community around the country. 

“I want to show people that just because you’re disabled or have someone who is disabled in your family doesn’t mean you have to give up on all these experiences and adventures,” Rajyagor said. 

And now, she has some significant help.

Disabled & Outdoors recently partnered with AllTrails, a leading health and fitness app that provides detailed, hand-curated trail maps and reviews and photos crowdsourced from a community of over 20 million hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers and trail runners. 

“We want outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities to know that they are valued members of the AllTrails community and that their needs, their feedback, and their adventures are incredibly valuable to us,” said Christina Parker, Operations Manager for AllTrails.

“We are looking to build a comprehensive list of accessible trail routes in the US and around the world.”

Parker reached out to Rajyagor and Disabled & Outdoors several months back as part of their ongoing efforts to bring diverse perspectives into the AllTrails community. 

“Maps can be hard to track down or not interactive, and when you are also looking for information on the accessibility of different trails, you are facing an additional research challenge,” Parker said.

 “We partnered with Disabled & Outdoors because we want to provide information on accessible trails in the way that is the most helpful.”

 Anyone is welcome to record and submit accessible routes to Disabled & Outdoors and AllTrails. When a person goes on a hike, they can use their favorite app to record and track the hike, and then send AllTrails the GPX file. AllTrails has a free recorder people can use too. Once AllTrails has the file, they will create a trail page that any AllTrails user can access for free, including a map, directions, description of the trail, and user photos and reviews. 

“I hope that through this partnership, we’re able to get more members of our Disabled & Outdoor community to have accessible trails near them, and that they could use this resource when they travel as well,” Rajyagor said. 

“This is one of those “long-run” goals that we have for our community and for our efforts in changing the Outdoor Industry.”

 Rajyagor is also advocating for parks to make guides available to assist people with disabilities while they’re on trails, and she believes many trails should be made wider. She also wants to see better representation in the marketing campaigns for outdoor companies. 

“I want to say, ‘Hey, REI, how come I don’t see any pictures with people in wheelchairs in your ads even though I know people in wheelchairs go hiking?’ And ‘Hey Patagonia, it’d be cool to see somebody who has a guide dog hiking on a trail in your marketing campaign,” Rajyagor said.

“Representation empowers people, and once we have empowered people, then we have more people doing things in the outdoors and feeling like they can and creating space for themselves.”

Rajyagor’s goal with her platform is to continue to amplify voices and provide opportunities and resources for the disabled community. She hopes to one day turn Disabled & Outdoors into a nonprofit to sponsor experiences for people with disabilities in the outdoors. She also wants to provide opportunities for people with disabilities living in foster and group homes, who often don’t have anyone advocating for them and get left behind. 

“My parents always tell me, you could have been born into any other life so be grateful for the one you have, but also do everything you can to make sure other people live a good experience.” 

Accessible spots/trails available in Joshua Tree National Park per Ambika Rajyagor:

This was the first spot I ever brought Devika to. It’s probably the most accessible spot in the park as far as parking and space goes. There are Disabled Accessible parking spots available next to the bathrooms, and picnic tables also onsite. It’s located next to a giant stack of boulders, so if there are people in your party who like to scramble, climb, or boulder — this is perfect for them too. There’s really a little bit for everyone on this spot!

  • Hidden Valley Picnic Loop

This area’s great for hanging out with your group, scrambling around rocks, watching the sunset, and just taking a nice stroll. We usually stop here if there’s an empty spot for us to park and watch the sunset while we wheel Devika around. There’s not much of an incline, and she gets prime sunset and Joshua Tree views.

  • Cholla Cactus Garden Loop

This is wheelchair friendly, and there’s also wooden flat areas for the wheelchair to rest on if you’re uncomfortable being wheeled on the dirt. Do be sure to watch out for prickly cacti and jumping cacti though— I warned y’all! I know if Devika was able to walk around when we go through here, I’d want to keep an eye on her, so please, if you are traveling with someone who has special needs or cognitive disabilities, I would be very careful here and assist them while walking around.

  • Hall of Horrors (Parking lot & tiny part of the trail)

So I’m not sure if this one is like ~officially recommended~ but I’m putting this on the list because I’ve taken Devika on this path so she could get super close to the big rocks, and close enough to an actual Joshua Tree so that she could take a picture. It’s a little narrow, so I would take caution if there’s a lot of people in the parking lot— but it’s important to note that there ARE disabled parking spots available here. You don’t have to be out climbing routes in the Hall of Horrors to still be able to take in the great views.

I’d follow signs on the map to get to here— there’s a bit of the trail that we’ve taken Devika on easily before we eventually turned back, but she enjoyed being on it. I wouldn’t recommend the full trail with a wheelchair, but if you are able to hike and would like one with less elevation and struggle— this is one of the easier ones worth checking out.

I also have one full National Park Guide up on my site that shows a more in-depth perspective on visiting the park— which is more from a caretaker/ally perspective.

 The official National Parks website also does a great job of denoting the accessible areas in the parks on a digital map.

The only trouble with this is, when you’re actually in the park, there’s no service, so accessing the accessible digital map is pretty much impossible without planning ahead.”

Accessible spots per AllTrails:

 California Stanford Dish Loop Trail, Wyoming Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop, California Muir Woods Trail, Utah Parus Trail, Montana Trail Of The Cedars, Alberta Canada Moraine Lake Trail, Oahu Hawaii Makapuu point Lighthouse Lookout Trail, California Lower Yosemite Fall Trail and Arizona Horseshoe Bend Trail.

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