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.