Outside Business Journal

Your Next Customer: Time to Adapt

People with disabilities are getting outdoors—can you catch up?

Jake Sanchez

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Five years ago, I was involved in a hit-and-run accident. After three months in the hospital and 13 surgeries, my left leg had to be amputated. It felt impossibly hard at first, and I didn’t have a positive outlook. Who would? At age 25, I had just become disabled. It wasn’t until I started climbing at my local gym that things began to change. For one birthday, my brother took me on an adventure where we did a bunch of activities, including climbing. Climbing was all I could think about the next day.

Almost instantly, I was hooked, and it became my life. I even started to compete regularly. By 2018, I was ranked second in the nation in my adaptive category. Climbing helped me realize that I was more than my disability. I was still capable of anything—I just had to adapt.

Losing part of your body can make you feel less than human, like you don’t really belong. I especially felt that I didn’t belong outdoors. Nature’s uneven terrain was tough on my residual limb. It blisters, swells, and sometimes bleeds. However, I was in love with rock climbing and I knew that if I wanted to be great at it, I had no choice but to get out there. My gear now included walking sticks and blister bandages, but I was doing it. Still, I didn’t feel fully embraced by the larger outdoor community and industry. I couldn’t find brands that were making products for the differently abled. I also didn’t see much encouragement or interest in our community. It felt like no one was looking out for people like me.

Beyond issues of inclusivity, this lack of attention is also a missed business opportunity. According to the Social Security Administration, in 2014, 85.3 million people living in the United States had a disability; 55.2 million of those had a severe disability. The National Organization on Disability estimates that Americans with disabilities represent more than $200 billion in discretionary spending.

The fashion industry has already started targeting this market with several clothing brand collections. Recently, Tommy Hilfiger launched a full line of adaptive apparel featuring adjustable hems and swapping buttons for Velcro and magnets, making it easier to put on and take off clothing.

The outdoor industry should also be part of this movement. As a climber, I know that companies like Evolv Sports*, Petzl, and The North Face have started taking initiative. These companies are collaborating with differently abled athletes to create products like adaptive climbing feet for leg amputees and ice tools for one-handed climbers, and partnering with nonprofits like Paradox Sports. And they’re creating lifelong customers along the way.

These brands are doing far more than expanding business options: more importantly, they’re empowering a big and often disempowered community. We’re asking for a seat at the table, a place at the crag, and a spot to set down a tent. The right gear isn’t the only thing we need—but, along with access, it’s a start. And for many differently abled people, that first barrier is the biggest one of all.