Being environmentally friendly and disabled, the more positive post

This is the more positive half of being disabled and environmentally friendly and the suggestions will be applicable more broadly as well.  Again, I’m going to (mostly) use the framework from 2011 just because it does give a structure and I’m sure you’d rather have that than me rambling…

I apologise for any strange formatting, wordpress have changed their editor and it seems to have a mind of it’s own…

Eco-improving your home (retrofitting)

  • Insulating your home
  • Upgrading your heating and hot water systems
  • Fitting and using water saving devices
  • Generating own energy by installing renewables

Whether you rent or own your home will affect how well you can implement these suggestions but as a starting point, you can look at whether grants are available in your area.  I did a quick search for my area and found one for private home owners as well as one for private landlords.  Both were focused on improving the energy efficiency of the property and seemed to cover insulation as well as heating upgrades.

Simple Energy Advice also offers suggestions and can do so on personalised basis by asking you a few questions about your home.  As I am a council tenant, it wasn’t especially helpful for me but it might be more useful if you own your home.

There is something called the Renewable Heat Incentive which offers finance to help with the upfront costs of installing renewable energy sources.  I did try reading it to find out who would be eligible but I got bogged down in it and couldn’t face carrying on… Sorry.. But it does exist!

Using energy and water wisely

  • Managing temperature
  • Washing and drying laundry using minimum energy and water

There are all the usual tips of turn the heating down by 1 degree and put on a jumper but these are both common sense and talked about too much.  I get frustrated every time I see that turning down my heating by a degree won’t affect me because it does.  My flat does cold or hot and the degree in question moves us from one to the other.

I have my heating on a timer so that I’m trying to maximise the hotness at appropriate times and if I need it at other times I boost it…  But after a few years of trying, I have found no other way to comfortably live in my flat.  Even with having blankets all over the place, heated blankets, electric hot water bottles and so on. 

I have a combined washer dryer and this may seem an obvious way to save space in a small flat but I wanted to mention it as I was talking to someone recently who had her mind blown by the idea – she had never come across one.  I don’t get my clothes dirty so tend only to do 30min wash cycles at 30 degrees, with eco friendly washing powder, no softener and I throw everything in together.  Admittedly, I don’t own much that’s white but I have never bothered with delicate washes, cotton washes and so on.  This helps me to cut down on the number of wash cycles I’d be doing over the course of a week.  Occasionally we will use the dryer function –mainly for towels – but we don’t use it to entirely dry them, we get a lot of the water out so that they dry quicker on my radiators and clothes airer.

Essentially, I think my advice here is to think about how you’re using your washing machine and/or dryer.  As humans, we get into habits and washing machines have improved considerably and so you might be able to change those habits and utilise their technology in a more efficient way.

Yorkshire Water also have a free water saving kit and other areas may have similar schemes.

Extending the life of things (to minimise waste)

  • Maintaining and repairing (instead of replacing)
  • Giving new life to unwanted items eg furniture
  • Making the most of kerbside and local recycling services
Look into repair cafes to see if you can get help maintaining and repairing your existing items.  To find second hand options instead of brand new can take a bit longer so isn’t always an option but there’s an array of places to check out: • FreecycleEbay (you can set your search to bring back second hand items) • Facebook • Car boot fairs • GumtreePreloved • Charity shops • Reuse network And don’t forget to donate as well. In terms of recycling… despite what I said in the first post, see if your local council can help you.  If you have friendly neighbours, they might also be willing to lend a hand once a week to pop the recycling out. Also, think beyond the regular recycling.  A lot of councils don’t recycle the lids from plastic bottles but you can collect them and take them into Lush. Batteries can be recycled in a lot of supermarkets – we pop them into the bags we take shopping otherwise I know we’d forget them.  Plastic bags, bubble wrap and other plastic film can be recycled at some supermarkets. You can even recycle your vibrator!

Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet

  • Choosing foods grown in season (in country of origin)
  • Increasing proportion of vegetables, fruit, and grains in diet (eating a balanced diet)
  • Cooking sustainable and healthier food
  • Wasting less food
  • Growing your own food

Veg boxes are a way of buying local food and some include things like eggs and meat.  Some online supermarkets offer “green” slots meaning they are already in your area at that point so you can reduce the fuel they use by choosing one of those.  Meal planning can help to reduce waste and buying frozen vegetables is one way of reducing the prep involved and also reducing waste.

Choosing eco-products and services

  • Using labelling to choose most energy and water efficient products
  • Choosing fairly traded, eco-labelled and independently certified food, clothing etc
  • Borrowing, hiring or sourcing second-hand or recycled
  • Buying ethically when travelling

If you can, financially, think about purchases as investment and buy things to last and which will be more cost effective over time.  For example an A+++ rated fridge will use less energy and hence money.

As a result of my numerous allergies, I often buy eco-friendly products.  This might mean using hankies instead of tissues, using eco cleaning products for you and your house and thinking about whether you need fabric softener, air fresheners etc.

Using and future proofing outdoor spaces

  • Gardening for biodiversity and environment
  • Enjoying the outdoors
If growing plants interests you but you don’t have much space, think about pot plants, window boxes and even herbs in your kitchen.  The latter even saves you buying herbs, means less packaging and might inspire you later to garden if you find yourself with one.  There are also community gardening schemes cropping up which often have herbs, fruit and veg so has the benefit of free food too! If you find somewhere outdoors that is accessible for you, share the information on Euan’s Guide to help other disabled people find it. Please share your own ideas and tips in the comments below!

Being environmentally friendly and disabled

In one of the papers I read about disability and the environment, I came across a Defra sustainable lifestyles framework from 2011 which I thought would be interesting to look at through a disability lens.  

The following is likely to sound a bit defeatist, like it’s virtually impossible for disabled people to have a sustainable lifestyle.  That is not my intention.  Every disability is different and impacts on lifestyle in different ways.  I am playing devil’s advocate a bit here but what I want to show is that measuring disabled people’s sustainable lifestyle against able bodied people’s doesn’t take into account a different starting point.  I also want to highlight how important it is to engage with disabled people when it comes to solutions.

Eco-improving your home (retrofitting)

  • Insulating your home
  • Upgrading your heating and hot water systems
  • Fitting and using water saving devices
  • Generating own energy by installing renewables

A lot of disabled people I know live in council housing, or privately rent.  Very few people I know actually own a home, let alone the disabled people I know.  This means that we have very little control over the insulation, the ability to fit solar panels, the type of heating and so on.  I strongly believe that there should be a landlord minimum standard around eco-improvement because they are the ones who can make the changes needed.  And I believe that this should be a stronger standard when it comes to council housing.  Why don’t council houses have solar panels on?  Why aren’t they all appropriately insulated?  Why aren’t all the windows double glazed?

One note on a kind of rental agreement which includes all bills – based on my experience, this tends to result in excessive use of heating because there is no financial incentive to be careful.  It’s also most common in shared housing and so you end up with no one taking overall responsibility. 

Using energy and water wisely

  • Managing temperature
  • Washing and drying laundry using minimum energy and water

Managing the temperature of your home when you are disabled can have different consequences.  You may not move around or might use a wheelchair and it gets a lot colder when you aren’t moving.  You may be home all day and thus needs to use more heating.  You may at risk of illness if temperature is not managed appropriately.

However, as disabled people tend to be poorer, you may end up using less heating because it is literally a choice of heating or eating.  An environmental benefit as a result of living in poverty…

When it comes to laundry, some disabled people need to do more loads of laundry and often space is a premium in rented properties, so there may not be a practical place to dry laundry.  If you have a wheelchair user, you need more clear floor space and that can mean having to use a dryer.  You might also be using your spare room – an obvious place to dry laundry – for your carers to stay in, or for all the random bits of equipment which tend to come with being disabled.

Extending the life of things (to minimise waste)

  • Maintaining and repairing (instead of replacing)
  • Giving new life to unwanted items eg furniture
  • Making the most of kerbside and local recycling services

This isn’t too badly hindered by disability, of course depending on the nature of the disability.  When it comes to maintaining and repairing, I physically can’t do this most of the time but I do get friends and carers to help.

I prefer second hand things, which have stories and aren’t run of the mill, so giving new life to unwanted items is actually something I would do regardless of the environmental benefit.  It is often a cheaper option – I got a bedside table for £3 because it was second hand and it has worked fine for me for maybe ten years now.  York has a few charity shops which focus on furniture and the wonderful Community Furniture Store which offers reduced rates for people on means tested benefits.

When it comes to recycling, I feel this is an area where the council could do more to make it easier for disabled people.  When I moved into my flat I was asked if I needed help getting my recycling to the kerb and I said yes.  Nothing ever happened.  I was ok as I just asked friends and carers to help but I wonder how many people aren’t recycling because of difficulties getting it to the kerb.

On a slight aside, it really winds me up when the refuse workers abandon bins and recycling boxes in the middle of the pavement… I can’t just hop off and walk round… Infuriating…

Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet

  • Choosing foods grown in season (in country of origin)
  • Increasing proportion of vegetables, fruit, and grains in diet (eating a balanced diet)
  • Cooking sustainable and healthier food
  • Wasting less food
  • Growing your own food

Choosing foods grown in season often means being able to get to local shops – often not accessible – or receive a (heavy) veg box.  It also means being able to prepare fruits and veg which can be a nightmare for many of us.  Growing your own food is also difficult and many people don’t have space, disabled or not.

Choosing eco-products and services

  • Using labelling to choose most energy and water efficient products
  • Choosing fairly traded, eco-labelled and independently certified food, clothing etc
  • Borrowing, hiring or sourcing second-hand or recycled
  • Buying ethically when travelling

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, disabled people are more likely to be living in poverty and the first two suggestions often end up costing more initially.  Yes they might be long term more cost effective, but that assumes someone has the money at hand when they need to make the purchase.

Travelling sustainably

  • Making the most of cycling, walking, public transport and car sharing for short journeys
  • When buying or replacing a vehicle, take advantage of lower-emission models available
  • Making the most of alternatives to travel, eg video conference
  • Making the most of lower-carbon alternatives to flying, eg trains
  • Driving more efficiently

Oh how wonderful it would be to have public transport as a realistic option… But buses don’t turn up, they turn up but with no space for a wheelchair, they don’t always go where you need.  Trains are a nightmare as your booked assistance may not turn up so you miss your train, or you get on the train but no one turns up to get you off… The stress that these unpredictable factors add to a journey is awful but it also means you have to plan for things to go wrong.  You also have to arrive 20 minutes early for a train if you need assistance, so a half hour trip suddenly takes nearly an hour, one way.  Instead of spending an hour traveling somewhere and back, you’ve doubled that.  Assuming nothing goes wrong.

Cycling and walking are clearly not options available for everyone.

When it comes to vehicles, finding a vehicle that works for the disability is likely to be a priority, otherwise what is the point.  If you are able to get a Motability vehicle, then you are limited to their options and I might be wrong but the end of the price range I was looking at didn’t have any eco options that would work with my wheelchair.

Setting up and using resources in your community

  • Setting up car share and using car clubs
  • Installing community micro-gen
  • Sharing knowledge, skills etc

Car share schemes and car clubs seem to be gaining popularity and I see more of them parked around York meaning they are more accessible and there’s more likely to be one near you.  But I’m yet to see one you can get an electric wheelchair in.  And they won’t be much use for people who can drive but require adaptations to do so. 

Community micro-gen assumes you have the authority to make that sort of decision about the home you live in. I’ve not checked, but I’m going to assume it’s not that straightforward if you’re renting. My old landlord wouldn’t even let me change energy providers…

Using and future proofing outdoor spaces

  • Gardening for biodiversity and environment
  • Enjoying the outdoors

Again, this requires space for a garden and the physical ability to access that garden, and to actually be physically able to garden.

Enjoying the outdoors is more accessible but isn’t problem free… Think steps, lack of suitable paths etc…

Being part of improving the environment

  • Volunteering
  • Getting involved in local decisions

These are more achievable than many of the other sections in the framework.

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t meant to be a list of reasons why it’s impossible to be an environmentally friendly disabled person but to highlight some of the barriers that exist.  Many of these barriers are easily overcome but require societal level change, not individual level change.  Further, if disabled people weren’t automatically at increased risk of poverty, a number of these suggestions would be easier to enact. 

I’m thinking about doing a follow up post which looks at the ways disabled people can follow some suggestions, despite and acknowledging, the barriers that exist.  For example, when it comes to outdoor spaces, I’ve already written about engaging with nature when you’re disabled.  If you have any suggestions or tips, I’d love to hear.

Ableism in the environmental movement

There is already evidence that the environmental movement is “a site of exclusionary practices including racism and sexism” (Fenney) and there is increasingly evidence of ableism. This matters because any exclusion may reduce the effectiveness of the movement to achieve its goals.

 

As a note, I’m saying environmental movement but am aware that it’s much more complicated than the phrase sounds, that its made up of different groups with different approaches and different strategies.  However, any part of the environmental movement would benefit from considering whether they inadvertently exclude any groups.

There are barriers to certain aspects of sustainable lifestyles, pro environment activities and activism and Fenney suggests that “there are particular features of the British environmental movement which may exclude disabled people”.

Barriers include physical access to meetings, protests and conservation sites.  A lack of accessible information as well as a lack of information about accessibility.  Increasingly websites are relied on for information and these are not always accessible and accessibility information isn’t always up to date.  Financial and social barriers play a factor as well, with the latter that might be being dependant on the help and kindness of others who can refuse, as well as attitudinal issues.

“Broad environmental concerns can also be considered a feature of privilege, however.  It may not always be a priority of disadvantaged groups because of their increased need to focus primarily on the difficulties encountered in their everyday lives and environments”
– Fenney

The social hierarchies from general society transfer over to the environmental movement, but can feel much worse because of the narratives around embodiment.  Assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do, and are and aren’t interested in, are made unquestioningly in wider society and unfortunately are also found within the environmental movement.

In Fenney’s research, participants identified implicit ableism in campaign messages and materials, giving cycling as a key example.  Cycling is often positioned as an alternative to car use but can be promoted in a way that focuses on physical fitness and ability as well as suggesting a moral superiority.  Another participant raised the issues of requiring medication which is produced by big multinational companies and how this doesn’t work in the simplistic view of natural is good and unnatural is bad.  Relying on medication also goes against a narrative of self sufficiency and independence.

“…the environmental movement is deeply attached to the notion of “the solitary retreat into nature as the primary source of an environmental ethic” … By implying that one must have a deep immersion experience of nature in order to understand nature, ecocritics create a situation in which some kinds of experiences can be interpreted as more valid than others, as granting a more accurate, intense, and authentic understanding of nature.”
– Kafer

This emphasis on self sufficiency and solitary retreats erases the importance of interdependence that many people – disabled or not – rely on.  We hear over and over again how we should be independent – every man is an island – and yet there are many environmental benefits to being an interconnected web instead of a lone off gridder.  Of course, different things work for different people but from my corner of the world, there are huge benefits to most people of accepting interdependence as a model.

Even living the rural idyll has its disadvantages for some people with disabilities.  If I had followed my teenager dream and moved to the middle of some fields in Wales, then I would struggle to have my care needs met, to have carers that I love and to have the access to the health system that I need.  It wouldn’t be impossible, by living in a city I have more choices and more opportunities.

For some people, disability and conservation are irreconcilably mutually exclusive.  This can be seen in the creation of accessible paths in natural reserves.  There is this misunderstanding that in creating a certain kind of path or access, you will damage the natural environment.  This ignores the fact that creating any access, even for able bodied people, has an impact.  It has actually been found that some accessible access can actually be more protective.  Instead of soil paths which erode and which mean people can wander off the path and damage the flora, raised boardwalks limit the damage, create sheltered environments under the path which can benefit certain species and mean that animals don’t have to risk crossing a path.

As well as the moral superiority found in some parts of the environmental movement, there can be a competitiveness to be the best at being green and this creates a hierarchy of sorts.  Certain behaviours can be status enhancing and often these aren’t available to all.  For example, being in the wilderness miles away from anything, being able to swim in wild water, getting off the literal beaten path, getting away from technology, the privilege of walking with feet in contact with the soil and so on.

Also on the hierarchy are things like not using straws to drink with – and not letting anyone else either, or at least not without an argument and intense justification.  For some people it’s not easy to turn the heating down by a degree, or use public transport and “inaccessible solutions to environmental problems risk adding to disabled people’s exclusion from participation, as well as threatening the success of these solutions” (Fenney).

Ultimately, the environmental movement needs to consider any implicit or explicit exclusion because without a full spectrum of members, there will never be solutions which work for everyone.  With people living longer, and with everyone at risk of becoming disabled, we need the environmental movement to work in an inclusive way or their goals will never be fully successful.

Reading

The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

“Mountains and disabled people have something in common, they both get stereotyped as inspirational”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

On the whole, the ideal nature person fits into the wilderness ideal which I will come on to but first I wanted to mention the one image of a disabled person in nature, and that is the supercrip.  Supercrip stories tend to be about an individual overcoming their disability through hard work and perseverance in order to do something spectacular.  There is a sense of transcending not just nature but the body itself.  This is a person who ‘overcomes’ their disability in order to scale a mountain or someone who uses a wheelchair but skis.  These people are often the exception and whilst what they do is great, it can’t be the only vision of disability within nature thinking.

Back to the typical wilderness ideal though… There is a particular body type – white, male, fit, ablebodied – who can have the elite, transcendental experience and be a bona fida naturalist.  Having this ideal means you have created the opposition, the person who is not welcome in nature.

Alison Kafer explains that there are “complicated histories of who is granted permission to enter nature, where nature is said to reside, how one must move in order to get there, and how one will interact with nature once one arrives in it”.  Additionally, not only do you need to be in the wilderness, but you should be alone and off any tracks or trails.  And people who can do so are generally cast as better nature people.

As the disabled person has been cast as the antithesis to the wilderness ideal, there are no images of disabled people in nature, let alone a stereotyped image of a ‘normal’ disabled person within nature.  This absence is referred to by Jaquette Ray as the “disability-equals-alienation-from-nature trope” in her writing.  She finds “the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual”.

It seems to me like there is a hierarchy of moral superiority with the wilderness ideal at the pinnacle of the mountain and disabled bodies at the base, unable to climb up unless they happen to fit the supercrip model.

I have a separate post planned about ableism within the environmental movement and will expand on this idea of moral superiority in that context but as a way of seeing this in action, think about this:

There is a hierarchy of species that you interact with as well as where you interact with them.  To see a rare plant or rare creature comes with more status, as do megafauna and exotic species.  This by default means that connections with more common species is seen as lesser, especially if you interact with them outside the wilderness.

Within the wilderness ideal trope, we find the narrative of technology as an antithesis to a good experience.  We are told to leave tech behind in order to have a more embodied experience, one that is more about presence but this ignores the value of tech.  Technology allows electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids to experience the world, phones include apps that enhance the experience and provide a safety net for those of us who cannot be alone without backup on hand.

Writer Edward Abbey took this rejection of technology to the extreme and positioned electric wheelchairs with cars, and both as alienating us from nature and the wilderness.  He pressed the issue by telling people to get out of their electric wheelchairs and that unless one walks, one cannot experience nature.  The only way to know nature is to move through it on foot.  Whilst Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published in 1968, the thinking is still very present in many people’s minds.

Extending this narrative to nature writing, we are told that writing with pencil and paper is somehow better than writing on a computer or speaking into a dictaphone.  Again, this way of thinking pushes writers with disabilities out of the picture, assuming we even managed to get into the scenic nature photograph in the first place…

“There is a long tradition in ecological writing that defines people with disabilities as the opposite of environmentalists.”
– Wheeler

Much nature writing is first person and may touch on a bit of health but often as something to overcome either through nature or so one can return to nature.  Often it is a short term condition, or one at least that can be managed well.  It might be cancer or depression and this isn’t to make light of those serious conditions but there is a difference between something you can recover from and having a chronic, long term health issue or disability.

“First person nature encounter narratives generally focus on the interaction between one specific body and one specific landscape.  A narrow focus can eclipse the possibility of other body types and other landscapes.”
– Wheeler

Many nature writers talk of the personal transformation or spiritual experiences that comes when you are alone in the wild or having reached the summit of a mountain, something clearly not accessible to everyone, disabled or not.

Polly Atkin wrote in the New Welsh Reader about what has been called ecocrip.  She writes particularly about poetry but obviously what she has to say extends to nature writing more generally.

“As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established.  These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem.”
– Polly Atkin

Miranda Cichy said that “a lot of nature writers seem to believe that you have to go our alone and on foot in order to write about it.” But this doesn’t have to be the case.  A genre needs many voices, many perspectives and disabled people can add their own experience.

“The love of nature does not require specific bodily abilities.”
– Wheeler

I have written about my own way of interacting with nature and I do hope some of the examples I’ve given help other people to feel inspired and to value their own experiences, even or especially when they differ from the norm.  Kafer affirms that “the experience of illness and disability presents alternative ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the environment.”

I wanted to end with some quotes that I find inspiring and that validate my way of interacting with nature and encourage me to share the way I see the world.

“Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation.”
– Kathleen Jamie

“Dominant stereotypes and ableist narratives tend to overlook the richly textured ways in which people may experience nature; not to master it or to overcome impairment but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel part of nature.”
– Bell

“Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness… but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bring other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquillity, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.”
– Melissa Tuckey

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.”
– Tupac Shakur

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

I’ve just bought all three so maybe that’ll be the basis of a future blog post.

My interactions with nature

Since become disabled, my interaction with nature has changed.  My last couple of blog posts have raised some of the issues that come with this but it has given me an opportunity to reframe how I interact and create new ways which give me a new intimacy.

There are subtle changes in weather which once were easily overlooked – throw on a coat, grab an umbrella and so on – but which now act as a backdrop for the play that is my life.  Rain and electricity don’t mix well, so I have to be aware of this when I’m going out.  The level of precipitation dictates where I go, how I get there and even if I can go out.  Ice and snow and ungritted pavements go about as well as you can imagine.  Then there is the effect of weather on my body itself.  Warmth helps my pain levels, cold does the opposite and worst of all is when days are noticeably warmer than nights and my pain levels flare up.  Hot days stresses out my autonomic system, making me feel faint, breathless and generally yukky.

The way that the weather plays out in my life, on my body, means I am much more aware of it than I once was, much more attuned to it and by extension to the changing of the seasons.  I also find I am more aware of light levels, possibly in part because I tend to spend my morning drinking tea in the same seat.  A seat which faces into the sun as it rises over the houses and then later in the day, it reaches me from the other side, through my kitchen window.

When I am outside, whether its considered wild or not, I struggle to lose myself in my environment in the way that many people speak of doing in the wilderness.  It is not possible to engross yourself in the land around you if you are always scanning for roots and holes and puddles to avoid – this also doesn’t fit with the image of the romantic ideal of nature

“Detailed scanning of the environment is part of disability culture’s everyday adaptation and troubleshooting”
– Elizabeth  A Wheeler

There is, necessarily, a constant adjustment and awareness of the environment, a sensitivity and responsiveness to changes.  In man made worlds, that might be an intimate knowledge of where the drop kerbs are, where the pavements get too narrow for a wheelchair or where the path is in need of repair.  Take that same intense scanning into a more natural space and you will find the intimate relationship now becomes about roots and twigs and soil.  This is not capital N Nature as some people see it, but this is personal and is another model for being in nature.  One that often focuses on the smaller things in the landscape, and in doing so can mean you are attuned to other beautiful aspects such as fungi and leaves.  Back in that man made world, I see the tenacious plants that weave through the cracks in pavements and the feathers that have floated down to the tarmac.  It is a different experience, but different does not mean inferior.

“Disability narratives can widen the emotional repertoire of possible responses to nature”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

Another way in which I connect to nature in an intimate way is through the birds that visit my bird feeder.  I have predominately house sparrow visitors and have been able to watch the parents rush back and forth taking food for their babies.  I have seen those babies venture out to sit on the bush by the feeder, waited on by mum and dad until they are old enough to get food for themselves.  One little baby pushed this and, even though I knew it could feed itself, still begged some mealworms from mum… Unless I had seen this family virtually everyday, I wouldn’t have known that was the case.

Aside, although I tend to call the sparrows my babies or the sparrow family, the correct name for a group of sparrows is a flock, but can also be called a knot, flutter, host or quarrel… I think my birds might be best described as a flutter…

Similarly, there is a single starling that has been visiting since it was a chick.  I have no idea why it has ventured here alone but it’s been incredible watching it grow and develop it’s iconic starling markings.  There have been a few scuffles between this starling and the sparrows but I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months a peace agreement seems to have been made.  Yes, it does seem like they both give each other sly glances and they aren’t going to be best friends any time soon but on the whole it makes for a much more serene experience.  Except when the lone starling was joined by about thirty friends… It’s only happened on a couple of occasions but I did think that maybe the apocalypse had arrived… Thirty black birds descending on one small feeder less than a metre away from me, with only the window between us… The sparrows looked horrified – yes I may anthropomorphise my little babies – and because the starlings were just fighting for feeder real estate, none of them actually got any food anyway… On the last occasion, when the mob left the feeder vicinity, they joined a black cloud of other starlings and I was slightly concerned an entire murmuration might descend… thankfully they didn’t, I’m not sure the window would have stood up to that…

As well as being a great and accessible way to engage with nature, whatever the weather, bird feeders help people become more aware of their local wildlife and the types of birds that visit.  Watching them eat means I’ve got to know the different beak shapes and the different ways they use them.  Feeding birds has also been shown to change human behaviour, for example being more concerned about cats that visit the area or being more aware of a sudden increase in the number of birds.

“These human responses were in some cases tied to people’s emotions about their observations, particularly anger.”
Observations at bird feeders

If you’re thinking about getting a bird feeder, there are different options out there, some will work better than others for you and for different birds.  I currently have two bird feeders, one which is a hanging feeder that is attached to the back fence and gets filled with fat balls, and one which is stuck to my living room window and is filled with mixed seed and mealworms (it took a while to find the food that my birds like, they’re surprisingly fussy…).  I also have a couple of ceramic poppies which collect rain water, or can be filled with water in the summer.  If you’re lucky and have some privacy in your bird feeder location, you could add a camera!  I did research, it’s not ok for me to point a camera at my feeder because it takes in a large view of the pavement and street… boo!

Anyway, I hope that by touching on a couple of ways I engage with nature, I have made an argument that having a disability does not mean your interactions are inferior.  I also want to make the point that more inclusive ways of engaging with nature are more accessible to people who might not go hiking or bird watching otherwise.

(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.

What we call nature and why it matters

What is nature is a difficult question imbued with cultural associations and assumptions and so to limit this to one blog post, I’m considering this from a broad UK perspective.

Nature is cast as a thing out there that we must head out into.  It is a wild and tangled space complete with certain iconic creatures, preferably rare and hard to see.  It is the peaks of mountains that one must summit and conquer.

It is this view that means we so often overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

We step over plants pushing through cracks in concrete, ignoring their force to survive and thrive.  We move past walls with delicate purple petals clinging on.  We don’t see the pigeon that is pecking away on the pavement.  This could be argued, because of the specific idea our cultural has created about what nature is.  So let’s start by unpicking those assumptions.

Raymond William wrote, in 1976 that:

Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.

For many people, nature is intrinsically linked with wild and wilderness and with being alone and surrounded by countryside.  This is an association which is prevalent in our culture so I do not seek to disparage those people, but I do hope that eyes will be opened to urban nature.  Increasingly, magazines, newspapers and books are speaking of urban nature with the merit it deserves and we have to remember that Britain has very few places untouched by human hands.

Stephen Moss speaks of the agricultural history of our landscape in his book Wild Kingdom; “everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand”.  We have historical land boundaries, enclosures, ruined buildings, plough marks, forests which no longer stand, trees which have been coppiced, pastures where sheep have grazed for hundreds of years… All of which are the result of human land use.  Very few parts of our country escape this, so the wild nature which many of us in the UK idolise, has not really existed for thousands of years.  Our focus on this untouched idea of nature is detrimental to ourselves – Cynan Jones notes that a fascination with far off wilderness can blind us to the local wildernesses.

And local wildness is beautiful.  Just think of the dandelion which forces its way through the crack in the pavement and persists and perseveres.  Mark Cocker talks of the overlooked inner-city wasteland where nature thrives.  He explains, whilst this “completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape… almost every other part of the country is intensely managed at a physical level and we are, in some sense, guided towards a particular intellectual and emotional response.  Even in nature reserves and national parks our attitudes are largely prescribed. By contrast, urban dereliction is entirely free of these restraints. Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we possess.”

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“We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it.  Fore surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.”
– William Morris

With the exception of the word man, I agree wholeheartedly with Morris’s sentiment. We know that in one square metre of English woodland soil you can find more than 20,000 mites, 15,000 springtails and about 1,300 maggots (Erica McAlister) as well as many other species in the soil and the space and flora above.  Many people overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

By rethinking what nature is and isn’t, we can create a practice of connecting with nature that is vastly more inclusive.  It is more inclusive for people with disabilities, for people who may be financially excluded, it covers class and race and gender.  By focusing on where people are, as opposed to where they might go to, we can see that connecting with nature is accessible to virtually every person who wants to experience it.  Connecting people with nature helps more people to care about the natural world and it is ultimately an emotional connection that will help people to change their behaviour on an individual level and seek change on a more institutional level.

Of course, it is not enough to tell a disabled person that they don’t need access to the nature out there because they have nature all around them.  Of course, we still need to identify and break down the barriers that prohibit or limit access to forests, national parks, nature reserves and so on.  That will be the topic for my next blog post.