Inclusion for all shouldn’t be exceptional it should be the norm! Now we all know that the outdoors can’t be accessible in all places for everyone, but there could be a lot more done to improve access in the countryside.
Accessibility has a broad meaning as everyone has different abilities, one person’s visit to a site might be seen as successful if they just make it to the site and visit the café, whereas another person’s visit may be defined as successful if they make it to the top of a hill or engage in some outdoor activities other than walking. Access has a diverse definition in regards to experiences for different people, it can range from solitude to companionship. The way people experience the countryside is different for every individual but there is a similarity with how rewarding the experience is. There are many elements to access to the countryside, there are physical elements where people want to achieve physical goals such as climbing a rock face but there is also the mental element where people want to overcome things such a fear of danger or to feel excitement or achievement. Access in these forms is not always catered for in the same degree that mobility accessibility is, general organisations that run sites such as the RSPB don’t always exceed the basic requirements of access within legislation to meet the needs regarding mental disabilities. There are many organisations that focus upon access to the countryside for disabled people such as the Calvert Trust who cover all aspects of experiences in the countryside for people of all abilities and the approach of these organisations could be a resource other organisations could use to assess their real accessibility.
This subject really interests me and I completed my dissertation at University on this topic. It was titled “Access All Areas” and was based on the following research questions:
◦Do countryside organisations cater for physical disability more effectively than other types of disabilities?
◦ Are people with mental disabilities overlooked by the organisations responsible for access to the countryside?
◦ Does the current austerity climate impact more upon disabled users of the countryside than able people?
◦ Is the awareness of legislation in place about disabled access and is it fully acknowledged by service users and providers?
If you’d like to read a copy of my dissertation head over the to contact page and drop me an email. I found this research immensely interesting, hosting focus groups with disabled groups, receiving responses to an online survey, completing access audits on sites throughout Northern England and the Scottish borders and interviewing staff from organisations including: Northumberland National Park, National Trust, Forestry Commission, Northumberland Coast AONB and Wildfowl and Westlands Trust.
I found that the legislation indicates that the needs of people with mental disabilities caused by impairment or age are as significant as those of people with physical disabilities but my study evidenced that this is not being translated into knowledge, awareness or action on behalf of organisations responsible for access to the countryside.
My studies also found that disabled people understand the limits that the countryside poses and that there are some situations where they will not be able to ‘access all areas’. I found that their expectations were realistic for what they were trying to achieve, for example someone who was wheelchair bound didn’t expect to be necessarily conquering mountains but they expected to be able to access popular sites where there was a visitor centre and facilities etc.
Having written up an accessible walk for Access The Outdoor Guide in the Cairngorm’s National Park myself it’s been great listening to Deb North from Access The Outdoor Guide on The Outdoor Fix talking about her experiences as a wheelchair user in the countryside. Deb has not only managed to climb mountains in her all terrain wheelchair but has completed the coast to coast route. In this podcast Deb speaks about what people with disabilities want from their experiences accessing the outdoors, this really resonated with me following my research at University. Wheelchair users aren’t asking for tarmacked routes through the green rural areas but they should be provided with routes that are accessible for all. This can be achieved by removing stiles, steps and barriers and ensuring that people are aware of what is to come on routes so that they can make an informed judgement before heading out. Deb creates Youtube videos of walks for people to watch before they set out, this is the perfect solution to allow people to make an informed decision about whether a route is suitable for them. Part of making the outdoors accessible for all is there is also a need for organisations and site managers to provide equipment to allow people with disabilities to access all areas of their site. Deb speaks about this in her podcast mentioning places that are leading the way in this respect by providing buggies and all terrain wheelchairs for people to hire on site.
It’s time that everyone should be able to enjoy the benefits the outdoor provides, taking risks is something that we should all be able to choose to do. Whether it’s pushing the boundaries and making it to the top of a mountain or embracing the sea air on the coast, these places should be accessible to all in some respect.