(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

Taking up space*

The issue of taking up space is one that seems to come up time and time again in my life.  As a young child, I was quiet and well behaved and easy to miss.  As I got older, my depression convinced me that I was worthless, useless, a waste of space.  I withdrew, I would withhold opinions, I wouldn’t challenge things I knew were wrong.  I dumbed down my intelligence.  Older again, and this time it would be anorexia that would convince me I took up too much space.  I was literally too big.  I was metaphorically too big.  Fast forward again and this time the culprit is my disability.

Something happens when you start to use a wheelchair you take up more space literally and this isn’t always an easy thing to do.  In this society we are told that women should not take up space.  (If you’re a male wheelchair user, I’d love to have a chat about this with you, especially if you’ve not always used a wheelchair and can compare the difference.)

There’s no denying it. The chair takes up space. It doesn’t fit it a regular car, it doesn’t fit in some shops, in cafes people have to move for me. And all the time I’m apologising for it. I can’t reduce the size of my chair or the space I take up so instead I am constantly stuck in apology mode.

I’m so sorry that my existence is having some impact on you. I’m so sorry you’re having to adjust your path to get past me. I’m so sorry I’m trying to get a table in a restaurant and you’re having to move to accommodate me. I’m sorry I embarrassed you when you came out of the disabled toilet and got ‘caught’ by a disabled person**. I’m so sorry for existing as a disabled woman.

And yet I feel I can’t stop apologising. As a disabled woman my chance of having a crime committed against me is quite high. I’ve had people get annoyed (thankfully only in that British way of grumbling loudly to their friend so far) when I’ve not played the game and not apologised for the few seconds I inconvenienced them. I’ve had people grumble that I shouldn’t go into town on a weekend because it’s busy. I try to avoid this anyway as I hate crowds but that is my choice.

My wheelchair takes up space but I should still be able to go where I want when I want. Except again, this isn’t a reality. Because there are places where no amount of apologising will help me. I can apologise all I want but I’ll never get into the corner of the shop which is crammed full with displays in the aisles; “If you tell me what you want, I can get it”…”I’m sorry… I don’t know what I’m after…” and I leave.

 

With every half-finished sentence, every statement ended with a question mark, with every apology we offer to someone who has wronged us, minor or major, we deny ourselves, we deny our value.

With every tentative whispered proclamation, with every “I think…” when we know, we deny ourselves the space we are owed.

We are so socialised to believe we are not allowed space that we are complicit in our own erasure.

We make ourselves small so others are more comfortable. If I make myself small, people don’t have to face my disability and with it their own mortality, their own imperfect infallibility, the imperfection of me, the guilt I seem to impose on them. If I make myself small, they don’t have to face themselves, their lack of consideration when I turn up at the party and there’s a step into the house or the bathroom is upstairs.  “I didn’t think…” they mutter…as if I’m the one who should be embarrassed.

 

Every time I tell a shop that it’s ok when they don’t have a ramp, I’m letting them off.  I’m telling them that I’m not important and it’s ok that they aren’t accessible.  I’m giving them permission to reduce the amount of space I can take up.  Whether that’s in their shop or in their minds.

Every time you have to ask for the key to the disabled toilet or get a stranger to go into a shop to ask a member of staff to bring out a ramp or get told to go in the back entrance by the bins, you are told that you are not important.  You are not as valued or as worthy as other people.  You are told that you are a burden, a nuisance, an ‘other’. That you should not be there.

Letting yourself be who you are and owning that in a society which does all it can to prevent this is a powerful act.  Without it, the issues which make us feel unable to take up space will be perpetuated and will continue to reproduce.  We need to challenge the physical issues which keep us “in our place” but also the attitudinal issues.  Why should I apologise because you need to let go of your boyfriend’s hand in order to pass me on the pavement?  Why should I be embarrassed when I ask you to pull a chair in so I can get past?  All I have done “wrong” is to exist with a disability.  If you can’t deal with it, you should be the one apologising to me.

Taking up space is a truly political act.  When I was at my worst with anorexia, I had no capacity to question or object to the way society treats women, the patriarchy was having a great time. When I can’t access buildings or facilities because of my disability, I can’t easily or effectively object – I can’t physically get to the people I need to complain to.  I can’t make them see me.  They’ve engineered that well.  Preventing us from taking up the space we’re entitled to is a fantastic tool of an oppressor.  Let’s try and break that.

Take up your space and take it up proudly.  We are all human. We all deserve to take up space.

Check out Vanessa Kisuule’s “Take up space” for some excellent poetry about women and space.


 

*I’m going to use the word space a lot.  I mean literal space as in the physical footprint I have when I stand or sit or lie down.  I also mean audible space – the space that is inhabited by noise.  Like all ‘spaces’ there is a finite amount available. In this case, people who are shouting take up more of it.  Similarly, I might be referring to the space in societies’ consciousness.  Or the space for ideas and thoughts and opinions.  This idea of space as more than physical is talked about by Rosalind Jana.

**not all disabilities are visible but I’ve had a lot of cases of people who misuse disabled toilets, normally because they are getting changed or want a shit…