Making the outdoors accessible for people with different abilities
At the moment (touch wood) my Multiple Sclerosis does not really stop me getting out and enjoying the outdoors too much. Beyond the additional fatigue that follows a weekend outdoors, some balance issues as I tire during a hike and some interesting nerve buzzing when ascending a hill (and post river swims), the outdoors is still accessible to me. Positivity is really important when you have an degenerative disease, but it is sometimes really hard to shake the pangs of fear that my future MIGHT* involve significant reduced mobility and the impact the resulting loss of outdoor time would have to my physical and mental well-being. Because of this, the accessibility of the outdoors for people with different abilities (both as a place and the activities within it) is increasing a topic I am interested in (albeit with currently zero knowledge or experience).
* MS is all about might, could, maybe and possibly – I could end up in a wheelchair but I might also never have a relapse again. Who knows!
Catch me on a grumpy day, and I will happily rant about the cafe on Snowdon (and more specifically it’s lights ruining the atmosphere of the walk back to the campsite from the pub in Rhyd Ddu) and how I would much rather hike the surrounding mountains than suffer the busiest peak in Britain. But, I will also concede that I am happy that there is a mountain where people with less ability (sorry if that is not the right term – I will happily be corrected!) can experience that feeling of being on top of a mountain. It is such an amazing feeling!
Snowdon at dusk from near Rhyd Duu
I remember watching a segment on Countryfile (at least I think it was) about parts of Offa’s Dyke being opened to specialist off-road electric wheelchairs, and I remember having a conversation with Alex about it as we hiked that section of the Dyke in 2010. I remember thinking that it could not have been very much of the path, as most of it would be difficult if not impossible to navigate, but the joy the ramblers got from being able to enjoy the outdoors was obvious and has stuck with me.
Disabled rambers on specially designed Mountain Trikes at Langsett reservoir
More recently, and other organisations are trying to improve accessibility to the outdoors. Yorkshire Water have been working with Experience Community, a not-for-profit group who help disabled people access the British countryside, to improve access to some of their scenic reservoirs. This has already resulted in more disabled group rambles around Yorkshire Water reservoirs, such as Langsett in South Yorkshire and Swinsty in the Washburn Valley, on specially designed mountain trikes and mountain bikes.
Craig Grimes, Managing Director of Experience Community said
“gaining access to the countryside for disabled people has been an uphill battle, but co-operation from landowners such as Yorkshire Water really makes a difference. Through working with Yorkshire Water we’ve been able to identify various reservoirs where small changes to infrastructure such as widening a gate or better access has been provided. There are now new longer routes with varying levels of difficulty that we can use with our rambling and hand cycling groups.”
Experience Community ramblers using specially designed mountain trikes
Dartmoor, hopefully my stomping group for years to come, seems well suited to provide a range of access. Thanks to industry and military activity, there are paths, roads, tracks and old railway lines crisscrossing parts of the moor. You can get to remote-feeling Tors (called by some ‘hillplodder tors’) without even leaving your car, for example Hart Tor (Okehampton), and the old railways for example around Princetown make a lovely part of Dartmoor easily accessible. Indeed a quick Google reveals a lot of useful resources, including audio tours and a section of the Dartmoor National Park website dedicated to helping visitors enjoy and experience Dartmoor, no matter what their level of ability.
Hopefully those dark fears will never come true, and I will still be boring you all to death in thirty years about hunks of granite on desolate moors. Should however my condition deteriorate, I feel more optimistic that I will hopefully, with some adaptions, still be able to enjoy the outdoors for a long time yet, and continue to not let this condition beat me. In the meantime, it might be nice to investigate volunteer opportunities with organisations to help others enjoy the outdoors.
At this point I want to send best wishes to my friend Mike on Twitter. Mike, a regular hiker, had both his legs smashed when he was hit by a car over a year ago, and recovery is slow and frustrating. I can only begin to empathise with how difficult it is to be bed-bound and then house-bound for so long away from the outdoors. Stay strong Mike and I hope you find your way to the Outdoors again soon.