Barriers to Access and the Benefits of the Countryside for Disabled People
By Phil Chambers
In August, I saw an article in the Independent online entitled “Paralysed patient walks again in medical breakthrough” and this morning on the radio I learned that a quadriplegic person has through another amazing breakthrough achieved the return of sensation to his hand following an intervention using electronic technology. I am always interested in these reports as I had a spinal cord injury back in 1977 and since then have been a wheelchair user. During the last two or three decades medical science seems often to have been on the cusp of a breakthrough to enable people with spinal cord injury to perhaps walk again. There are many high level projects occurring around the world to address the need and no doubt it will surely come, but given that my accident was nearly forty years ago I doubt if I will be first on the list or even in the queue.
I am always a little sceptical about anything that points to a panacea and as I pushed around Cannon Hall Country Park in South Yorkshire yesterday, amazed by the emerging autumn colours, I pondered if my disability or anyone else’s for that matter is a barrier to being able to enjoy the great outdoors. Given that I was already there it clearly wasn’t posing a major barrier to me on that occasion. I have spent a great deal of my adult life working to enable disabled people to have access to the countryside on their own terms. My feeling is that it is not the fault of the disabled person if they cannot enjoy the footpaths and open spaces along with everyone else. It is environmental constraints that are the real barriers.
These may be physical in terms of the landscape which we often can’t do anything about, the countryside is up and down, and that’s why we love it. However, at another level a stile where a gate might be provided can be an absolute barrier to me. I once met a couple whilst I was wandering along a footpath near Curbar Edge in the Peak District who enquired why I was there; by the way if you do meet a disabled person in the countryside please don’t ask what happened to them, it’s said frequently to me, so I said I was checking out the route suitability to a wheelchair user. Oh that’s good one of them replied, as people like you couldn’t come here. As well as physical barriers, there still remain social and cultural barriers to inclusion. For me access to the countryside is an intrinsic need which I can’t fully explain, but everyone who enjoys the outdoors will know what I mean. It is well known that there are therapeutic benefits of being in the countryside and there has been some evidence recently that people living with dementia can gain from green environments and I have met people with mental health needs who say that practical conservation schemes can be uplifting to their spirit and self-esteem.
I spend a fair amount of time talking to other disabled people about barriers to access and find it’s not the physical environment that deters them, the main barrier is poor information about opportunities. I have been involved in a couple of interesting access projects recently, one with Yorkshire Water at Damflask Reservoir and latterly completing an equality impact assessment on behalf of Natural Resources Wales, to determine if they are meeting their requirement under the Equality Act (2010) at six of their important visitor destinations; they are. On both occasions I was able to arrange for disabled people to meet directly with countryside managers and inevitably the importance of information was a topic for discussion. On Anglesey the Disabled Ramblers wanted to see more challenging routes for their powerful outdoor mobility scooters, but barrier free routes; they wanted to know where they could go without being confronted by stiles or narrow gaps in the rights of way. A blind young woman who is involved with Riding for the Disabled made a case for information about equestrian opportunities presented in a Braille format, which she could read herself. After a discussion between the group of disabled people and several NRW managers I heard someone say; that was great I now know someone that I can talk to and get good information about access barriers - but was the speaker a disabled person or a countryside manager?
At Damflask Reservoir due to good communication and trust between the group of disabled people and the Yorkshire Water recreation managers, more than two miles of footpath was upgraded to an access standard that meets the needs of a diverse range of visitor needs including disabled people and the information need was met with the installation of a RNIB Maps for All, which blind and visually impaired people along with everyone else can benefit from in understanding the layout and orientation of the waterside trail.
In terms of benefits the value of informal communication shouldn’t be underestimated either, it’s a given that if you meet someone on a countryside footpath you will greet each other, perhaps a conversation ensues, before each continues their journey; that is a real social benefit, though if you do meet me don’t ask what happened to me!
Phil Chambers works with service providers and disabled people to enable access to outdoor and historic heritage opportunities for all, believing that everyone should have shared access to the great outdoors and historic places. Please contact me at www.philchambersconsultancy.co.uk