accessibility · body image · fitness · SamanthaWalsh

Body Diversity (Guest Post)

By Samantha Walsh

Saturday was the Protest against Divisiveness with @connectionarts. It really was not a protest, but more of an installation. The event was to draw attention to the need for unity and collaboration.

Each model was able to pick their own slogan. I picked “Human Diversity.” I think this speaks to the need to value disability and that the notion of one standard body is a myth. Additionally, difference makes us stronger as a society.

The event offered an opportunity for onlookers to better understand why folks would be compelled to participate in body painting. My friend @elisabethalicee was my artist. (There were more models than artists.) I think she did a great job. The installation took place in time square and there was a mile long parade after to the flat iron building.

This was a very different experience than the other two events I have participated in. There was a lot more media. Folks in Times Square were a lot more vocal and sometimes rude. The day overall was great. However, I did end up putting clothes on part way through the parade, because I was at the back end of the parade and at points felt unsafe.

Overall, the experience was great and gave me a lot to think about. Another cool feature of yesterday is I have done enough body painting that I now know some folks from the past. Additionally, I met a really cool fellow disabled woman, she and I were steadfast in the feeling that representation matters.

I am so pleased Human Connection Arts is in my life.

Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.

You can read all of Samantha’s posts here.


Is universal design always a good thing? Sam wonders about accessibility and fitness (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I wonder about the value of accessibility in natural spaces. As I said in the first post, I’ve been thinking about these things for awhile and I don’t have settled views. In my terms, I’m still mulling

See Part 1: Whose natural beauty is it anyway?

And Part 2: Natural beauty and the value of accessibility

When I teach the issue of access and accommodation in my undergrad classes I often talk about the principle of universal design. That’s the idea that we don’t set out to meet individual, special needs (which focuses on individuals necessarily) instead we start (though we may not end there, it may not be enough) by trying to make our space/course outline/classroom/national park as accessible to everyone as we can.

Curb cuts in sidewalks are made for wheelchairs but when I’m walking my bike across an intersection I’m glad they’re there. Likewise, I was fond of them when I was pushing a stroller and now I like them because of my uncooperative knee.

Think about the same case for wooden boardwalks in parks. We build them for wheelchairs and walkers but lots of other people appreciate them too. In my other posts I worried about the value of universal access clashing with environmental values. We want everyone to be able to visit but we also want to preserve wild spaces.

My worry today is a new one. It’s about the clash between access and physical fitness.

I’ve written here about a hike I did in Iceland, Active adventures in Iceland: Sam hikes to a hot river .

It wasn’t an easy walk. If I were grading walks, I’d call it “intermediate.” Only 1 hour in but almost all hills with uneven paths and some slippy sections. (Steam makes for wet rocks!) When we did it–first thing after our overnight flight got in–it was quiet. There were only a half dozen people bathing in the river when we got there. We saw just a few people on the beautiful hike up and and down hills through the steamy river valley.

But on our way out the parking lot was full and there was a long line of people walking on the trails. Notably there were few children, few older people, and no one with a wheelchair or walker.

A friend who lives in Iceland remarked that the trail used to be much easier but it was overrun and it hurt the land, so they swapped to this new tougher trail.

Why not keep both, I wondered? So people who couldn’t do the hilly, hard walk could still get to the steamy rivers. He asked, would I have taken the hard trail if there were two?

Truth be told, after the long sleepless overnight flight, maybe not.

Is this the downside of universal design? Build an easier option and we all take it, rather than making our day harder? I’m pretty good in airports. I take the stairs with my backpack while other people escalate with wheelie suitcases. I avoid moving sidewalks. I try to not sit at the gate. I’m glad these things are there but I leave them for those who need them.

That said, I can’t imagine choosing a long, muddy, hilly portage over a flat one with a boardwalk if that were the only difference.

If it weren’t for the overnight flight, I might choose the long hilly trail for the virtue of fewer people.

Why does it need to be the only way to get somewhere for the hard thing to have value? The natural beauty at the end is our reward for effort, yes, but surely other who can’t do the trek deserve that thing too. Surely, a good chunk of the story about why I can do what I can do is luck? I’m feeling that hard at the moment as I struggle with my damaged knee.

If you build it, they will come? But what if they all come? What if we all opt for the easy way? The boardwalk and the flat trail? What do we lose and what do we gain?

(The story of Iceland and too many tourists is complicated. Too complicated for this blog! See here and here.)

I want to hear what you think. Would you take the hard trail for the sake of taking the hard trail if the reward at the end was the same?

accessibility · fitness · inclusiveness

Another win for inclusive fitness: Outdoor fitness parks for adults

senior-playground-ukThis morning I heard a man from Cobourg, Ontario on the radio talking about an initiative to bring an adult fitness park into that community. Since we are big here on the topic of inclusive fitness, the interview really stood out for me. I’ve also been talking to my class this week about the way “old age” is pathologized and medicalized (that’s been interesting, too), about ageism, and about the oppressive social structures that prize and normalize youth and the capacities we associate with it (being in “our prime”).  And my own parents, spry and active still, are very close to 80. They are remarkable role models for how I wish to age — I mean, they’re about to go to South Africa for four months and have planned a two-week tour of Namibia in February. Still and all, they have a realistic sense of their changing abilities and I am certain they would take advantage of a park such as this if one sprung up in their local community of Haliburton, Ontario.

The idea of initiatives that embrace evolving notions of fitness and create accessible environments for people entering later life stages appeals to me.  The Cobourg group trying to garner support for this idea made a presentation to the town’s council the other night, making the case that the town’s Recreation Strategy and Implementation Plan should include an Outdoor Adult Fitness Park. You can read the report here.

As part of their presentation, they said:

Providing free access to fitness equipment in public areas would be a logical addition to Cobourg’s already gorgeous beachfront, and would not only benefit the town’s citizen’s by improving the health of our community, but could also help with tourism and attracting retirees to our community.

Providing such fitness installations in Cobourg would also be a signal to this community (that) seniors matter and are an important part of the fabric of our town.

I love their reasoning: accessibility, maximizing the use of beautiful spaces in inclusive ways, promoting health and tourism, and sending a signal that Cobourg values seniors and considers them “an important part of the fabric of our town.”


These kinds of fitness parks are not entirely new. The idea caught on in the 2000s and you can find them in China, England, Finland, Japan, and Spain, even in Whitby and in Oshawa, both just down the road from Cobourg. They’re an enormous hit in Barcelona, where there are 300 of them.

The Cobourg group has a Facebook page to try to drum up support for their project: They’re inviting people to “like” their page to show support.

I would like to see more of these types of facilities installed in cities and towns across Canada. And as we promote them, it would be great to think of where they go — not just into affluent communities, but into diverse communities. They look like fun and they cater to a segment of the population whose needs are too frequently not considered a high priority unless medicalized. Making exercise fun and accessible is an important social goal that can improve quality of life in a more inclusive way.


accessibility · disability · inclusiveness

Fitness and Accessibility

vanc010I went swimming at the Y the other day. The swimmer two lanes over from me has been lane swimming at the Y on a regular basis for years. She has no arms or legs and she is a strong swimmer who makes her way up and down the lane for a good, solid half hour or more several times a week.

The Y pool is always equipped with the machine that helps her in and out of the water. It does not need to be special ordered or brought out of storage when disabled people require assistance. In other words, the Y does not just accommodate, it does what it can to be accessible.

The difference between accommodation and accessibility is enormous. Accommodations are case by case and require those who need them to step forward, case by case as individuals, and make (what are regarded as) special requests.

An environment that accommodates disability is designed to be enjoyed first and foremost by non-disabled people. If my fellow swimmer needed to call ahead and arrange the means to get safely into the pool every time she wanted to go swimming, that would be an accommodation. Instead, the lift is always there. The pool is accessible.

Another example: when airlines provide wheelchairs or other types of mobility assistance for passengers who need assistance in airports, that is an accommodation. The people must make arrangements ahead of time and are dependent upon the airline staff to meet them and get them where they need to go. Moving sidewalks, which also provide important assistance for people who cannot walk the long distances airports often require, are examples of accessibility. No special request needed.

Accommodation is better than nothing, but it’s not ideal. What we ought to aim at and what many jurisdictions are starting to recognize, at least on a policy level, is a commitment to barrier free accessibility for all community members.

Aiming at equity with respect to accessibility recognizes that access requires a structural and systemic analysis. Feminists are aware of this type of analysis since they regard gender inequity as involving systemic, deeply entrenched relationships of unequal power. For example, when I was at the recent Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, a motion was gaining support for Congress to supply daycare for scholars who needed it. Having daycare facilities would make Congress accessible to those scholars, mostly (but not exclusively) women, who have young children.

Physical accessibility of our spaces is not simply about wheelchair access, but that’s a start. Moving sidewalks in airports are great examples of making the space manageable for people who might otherwise be unable, for whatever reason, to get cover the frequently long distances between parts of the airport.

When we look at our workout facilities, gyms and yoga studios, how accessible are they? It’s safe to say that in the majority of cases, they cater to non-disabled people. One of my yoga studios, for example, is on the second floor of a building where the only way up is by a long staircase. As a simple matter of fact, this poses an immediate barrier to anyone who might like to try yoga but who cannot easily manage that many stairs.

Is this a fault or a flaw? The point of this post is to make a first stab simply at drawing attention. Whether it’s a fault or a flaw, it’s most definitely a fact. If we value the kinds of lifestyles that encourage or at least enable people to be active if they choose to (and maybe this value is itself worth examining), then it’s worth thinking about how the facilities and institutions that are designed for this purpose might exclude people with disabilities.

Mobility issues are not the only barriers to access. Our world default setting assumes that people are sighted and able to hear, that they understand English, even that they are a certain height that enables them to reach elevator buttons, taps, and so forth.

And access is not only about physical access. Another thing I like about the Y is that they recognize financial need and make memberships available at a reduced cost to people who are unemployed or underemployed. They have access to the same benefits as any other regular membership. In this sense, the Y does far better than many other clubs. Indeed, in some places, exclusion is a positive value, re-packaged as “exclusive.”

I owe thanks to philosopher, Shelley Tremain, for prompting me to pay more attention to disability and ableism in general and my blogging about fitness in particular. Her expertise and willingness to engage in discussion has influenced my thinking on these matters a lot. The editor’s introduction that she wrote for a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on the theme of feminist disability theory was especially helpful in showing me that a structural analysis of disability is required for an adequate understanding of it and of ableism.

For some more of my recent reflections on disability and fitness (early days, pretty rudimentary reflections), check out:

Fitness, inclusion, and Intersectionality

As Summer Approaches, Tracy Takes Stock

[photo: stairs at the Robson Square Courthouse, Vancouver, BC; from pinterest]