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Locked out of nature: Making Bristol’s parks accessible to Disabled people

Being outdoors is vital to our wellbeing, even more so during a pandemic, but for Disabled people, getting out into nature is harder than ever.

Photo: Aphra Evans

Bristol and the Climate Crisis

Gordon has been paralysed below the shoulders since contracting polio aged three. As a child he got about in a bath chair with two levers that you pushed forwards and backwards to propel it. It was, he tells me, “jolly heavy, hard work”. 

Technology has advanced a lot since then and he now has two wheelchairs, one manual and one electric, and a motorised scooter. He likens the different mobility aids to footwear: you use slippers for walking around the house, change into shoes to go outside and wear hiking boots for rougher ground.

Why should I not be allowed to make my decision as to whether or not something’s too dangerous?

Gordon, a keen member of the Disabled Ramblers, is out several times a week. But it’s not cheap. A mobility scooter costs £5,000-£8,000, and the freedom of the great outdoors is pretty restricted unless you have your own. Nor is that cost the only barrier to consider when visiting a green space. 

Take Blaise Castle. You can only access certain bits of the 100-hectare estate in a scooter. “It’s one thing that annoys me in so many places: a walk is possible, apart from the fact you can’t get through the gate at the beginning,” says Gordon. “Or you can’t get up a flight of stairs onto the level bit.” At Blaise, they also lock the gates at the end of the park, meaning only those on foot can get through.

Barriers like this are “all over the place”, Gordon says. Besides gates, people unsteady on their legs need more benches to stop and rest. A lack of accessible transport can stop an outing before it begins. And blind and visually impaired people face different challenges, including a lack of appropriate signage on routes.

‘A justice issue’

“Access to nature is a justice issue,” says Mary Stevens, experiments programme manager for Friends of the Earth. A 2020 study by the Parks Alliance found England’s parks deliver over £6.6bn of health, climate change and environmental benefits every year, including £2.2bn in avoided health costs. Local green spaces have been “a lifeline” for many of us during the pandemic, Mary notes, but less than half (47%) of Bristol residents live within 300m of one that covers at least two hectares. 

Mary ran a local study into Disabled people’s proximity to nature, building on research they’d done the year before on the links between green space and deprivation, which found that people in deprived areas and people of colour were less likely to have access to green space. The latest study found Disabled people are even more nature deprived.

Emma Green, project coordinator at Bristol Disability Equality Forum (BDEF), says including Disabled people in decision-making around Bristol’s net zero push can create “an opportunity to make things better”. BDEF is working on its own community climate action plan (see box) to involve Disabled people in the conversation and ensure Bristol’s plans are fair.

‘I want to get to the countryside just as much as you do’

Making green spaces more accessible is one of BDEF’s key asks. “I want to get to the countryside just as much as you do,” says Gordon. But simple planning oversights, like not installing dropped kerbs – on both sides of roads, Gordon emphasises, citing past experience of planners “not thinking things through” – can put entire parks or walking routes out of reach.

Gordon and his mobility aids have been carried over stiles by “an army” of friends – and he’s constantly pushing the envelope to experience things he knows he’s capable of. When the SS Great Britain started letting people climb the mast, Gordon wanted to haul himself up on a bosun’s chair using a block and tackle attached to the top. He’d done this before at a mobility show – up an 80-foot high mast, he says – but was told it would be too dangerous.

“Why should I not be allowed to make my decision as to whether or not something’s too dangerous?” he asks. “Why do people climb mountains? Because of the danger, because it tests them and that’s what they want to do.” While climbing a mast may be an extreme example, Gordon says he’s seen wheelchair access closed off on routes that are, he says, perfectly safe, and where children are permitted.

‘Confidence and comfort zones shrink together’

As with so many areas of social inequality, the pandemic has restricted some people’s ability to access green space far more than others. For the first year, Gordon, who is classed as vulnerable due to “poor lung function”, didn’t get beyond his garden more than a dozen times – a situation he says was common among Disabled people. Not until he’d had both his jabs did he start going out. 

But, Gordon adds, being relatively well-off, with a garden to enjoy in the first place, meant he was luckier than many. “An awful lot of Disabled people have, perhaps throughout their life, lived on benefits, they do not have money to do things, or own houses with gardens,” Gordon says. “I feel for them, because where did they go?”

People’s worlds have shrunk around them during the pandemic – not just because of vulnerabilities, but because of the cognitive load of trying to be outside safely adding to existing worries about access. “This is a vicious circle,” Mary Stevens wrote about her local research. “Confidence and comfort zones shrink together.” 

Once you’ve been behaving a certain way for two years, “almost your whole mindset changes”, adds Gordon. “It’s very difficult to get back out of that habit of being frightened to go out.”

Tackling the pandemic’s negative impact and pushing for a fairer future will need significantly more investment, Mary says. She adds that the government must make the right to access to green spaces obligatory, ensuring everyone – including Disabled people – can access one within 300m of home. 

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