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
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.
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?
Recently I was not sure how to think about a subway interaction. A nicely dressed business dude offered me his seat. In short order the following thoughts ran through my mind: Does he think I’m old and wobbly? Is he being chivalrous? Is this flirtation? Is it sexism?
True. I was wearing shoes with heels, a dress, and carrying two bags plus my briefcase
I took him up on the offer. I decided it didn’t matter why. It was nice of him to give me the choice.
Often I’m in his spot though, unsure whether to offer someone my seat. Now that my knee is bugging me again, I’m more likely to be the one to be wanting the seat, no matter how fit and well I look.
Among the people in need of seats are those with disabilities. But you can’t tell by looking who is disabled and who isn’t. Some forms of disability are invisible and others are episodic.
These needs can be hard to communicate and many of us like silence on subway trips. That’s why these buttons appeal to me so much.
Kate Welsh, who defines herself as an activist, artist and educator, told Metro Morning this week that she designed the buttons to make taking public transit easier for people who sometimes look well but often are not.
Episodic disabilities are characterized by periods of wellness and periods of illness. Episodes can vary in length, severity and predictability. Examples include HIV, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia.
“Some days, I’m having a good day and I’m okay standing, and some days, I’m having a bad day and I’m not feeling well and I really need to sit,” Welsh said this week.
I really like the idea. I saw the buttons for sale yesterday at Glad Day books. Apparently though this campaign didn’t work so well in New York. Let’s see how it goes here.
Do you offer seats on the subway? Do you need a seat? What’s your experience been?
I’ve got a thing for some of the women whose music was the soundtrack of my youth. I love Stevie Nicks (saw her in concert with my son last year and a few years ago in Canberra, Australia), Madonna, kd lang, Ferron, and Chrissie Hynde. Lots of others to love too (Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading, the Parachute Club, and more) but these are all women I’ve seen in concert.
So I couldn’t resist a chance to see Carol Pope when she played in Toronto recently. I was shocked to realize she’s now 70. She makes 70 look pretty good. Pope is still tearing up the stage. She was part of a concert she’d organized called “Music for Lesbians.” I rounded up some friends (all bloggers here, Hi Sarah, Hi Susan, Hi Cate!) and though none of us are lesbians (bisexuals all) we had a great time.
Love that Carol Pope shared the stage with Rae Spoon too. Here they are on stage together.
Okay, you’re thinking, what’s any of this got to do with fitness?
As you know I’ve been sick recently. As of the date of the concert I was still tired by the evening and coughing up a storm at night. I debated not going but it was a date with friends and I’d hate missing out. I was certain I wasn’t contagious. I was just suffering from a cough that hangs around after.
Anyway, I looked at the tickets and was thrilled to discover that I’d paid extra for us four to have seats in the balcony. There’d be no need to stand around. Yay!
But other friends were in the regular section and I felt guilty. I couldn’t hang with them and I couldn’t dance. I had to sit. Jokingly friends referred to where we were as the luxury section for old ladies. (Yes, the tickets cost more.)
This feeling of being aware of my needs being different than the needs of others was new to me. It made me realize how privileged I am that this is usually not true for me.
“The next time anyone gives me drama about sitting down or bowing out of a standing room-only event, I’m just going to remember Dolly. What would Dolly do? She’d probably smile graciously, keep singing her heart out in all her rhinestoned finery and completely ignore those criticisms. You do what you need to do to look after yourself. That’s something I constantly tell myself, and Dolly helped remind me of it.”
I know I’m frequently the person on the blog who advocates standing over sitting, and moving over keeping still, but yes, sit if you need to. I did. And Dolly does too. No guilt. No shame.
My fitness activities of choice are hiking, trail running, and just plain running. I don’t mind gym workouts – long before I became a philosopher I earned my living as a personal trainer and group exercise and dance instructor – but as a philosopher on the tenure track, I want my fitness activity to do double duty, which means mental rejuvenation is just as important as physical. This means I need a fair amount of solitary activity to offset my urban lifestyle.
I just returned from a (car) camping and hiking vacation at Capitol Reef National Park in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. I kicked off each day with a baby hike (4-10 miles) of moderate elevation gain (800-2000 feet). This is not so different from my usual summer routine, where I hike several times a week, mostly in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, which is home when I’m not in Washington, DC.
Whether I am hiking in the Sandias or at Capitol Reef National Park, invariably I get this question: are you hiking alone?
Usually I don’t hear the question the first time, since I’m lost in a reverie of philosophical thought, so I point to my ears, mention that I’m deaf, and ask them to repeat. The deafness reveal often freaks them out even more – that a deaf woman hikes alone is beyond their ken, I suppose.
Mind you, I’m pretty sensible about my hiking routine.
I always carry a daypack with the Ten Essentials and then some. This includes a first aid kit, cell phone, extra clothing, survival blanket, rope and small lightweight tarp for emergency shelter, signaling mirror, food, water and water purification tablets, compass, waterproof matches, lighter, newspaper squares, whistle, knife, flashlight, work gloves, toilet paper, USGS topo maps (since GPS isn’t always reliable and batteries die but paper doesn’t), sunscreen, bug repellent, collapsible trekking poles, philosophy reading material, pens, and paper to write on. Okay, so maybe I should have called this the 25+ Essentials!
I never hike without telling at least one person what trail I’ll be on, and I leave information about the trail, my time of departure and my ETA guesstimate on my car seat. I also pick hiking trails based on traffic. I hike less traveled trails on the weekends and major trails (the hiking equivalent of interstate highways) during the week.
I’ve spent a fair chunk of my adult life living on or near national forests or other public lands. I’ve taught first aid and CPR to Forest Service trail crews. I’ve logged scores of hours doing fieldwork of various kinds, am decent at identifying animal scat (especially bear, coyote, and mountain lion scat), tracking patterns, and I’m blessed with an extremely keen nose – I often smell large mammals before I see them. Weird, I know!
I’m as comfortable in the backcountry as I am in a library.
So why the incredulity about a disabled woman solo hiking?
Perhaps the identity of who inquires is a tip-off.
I’m usually questioned by women in small groups or male-female couples. Their first response is concern for my safety. Mind you, these aren’t what I’d call serious hikers – they’re usually hiking the first mile or two of the trail with nothing more than a bottle of water and a cell phone. (I like to think of this as the trail version of the Dunning-Kruger effect –- that is, the cognitive bias of those with little competence and lots of confidence, who lack the skill to see that they are incompetent, and thus overestimate their competence.)
I’ve yet to be questioned by a solo hiker. That said, in my experience the ratio of male to female solo hikers is about what you’d see at an APA division meeting, with the number of solo middle-aged seemingly non-disabled women hikers roughly equivalent to the proportion of tenured M & E women philosophers at an APA – in other words, pretty small!
Part of the problem here is that my take on safety probably differs from that of the concerned hikers. They are worried about (I think) rapes and muggings and bear attacks. I am not so worried about these things on the trail. In DC, well, that’s another matter… I am more worried about weather than wild animal attacks; I’m more worried about trail-inflicted injury than human-caused harm. Even these worries don’t dominate my thinking, but I do take care to notice signs of possible weather changes and to think through navigating tricky spots on the trail before I venture forth.
I’m well aware of the ethical issues related to solo hiking, and I’ve considered that disability adds a twist. (As I hike the trail this summer, I’ve been composing a paper in my head about this…)
In my case, the worry is about how sound impacts my safety. I mostly hike in rattlesnake country, and even though I am aware of the impact of elevation on rattlesnake habitat and how cold-blooded creatures respond to weather changes, I am still extra vigilant about scanning the trail and the surrounding brush for snakes. I step on logs, not over them. I hike when it is too hot for rattlers to venture out. In fact, scanning the ground for snakes is such a habit that I even do it while walking or running in Washington, DC, even though the chances of getting bit by a rattlesnake in this city are pretty slim. (Tempting as it may be, I refuse to impugn snakes by comparing them to another locally abundant population: politicians…)
Another worry is missing the environmental noises giving warning of danger – the sounds of a tree limb about to snap or a massive boulder tumbling down the hillside are sounds I will not hear. The chances of these happening are pretty small (I’ve been hiking all my life and have yet to experience either of these, though I do know Aron Ralston’s story). A more likely danger is human-related – mountain bike related, to be precise.
There’s a reason I don’t solo hike trails that permit mountain bike traffic. Mountain bikers have the right of way, and riders usually assume that hikers can hear them. In fact, the last time I was hiking with a companion on a trail shared with mountain bikers, my friend pushed me off the trail as he leapt to the opposite side of the trail in order to avoid a biker careening down the hillside. I think this would have been a mad scramble even if I had been hearing, but that I do not hear bikers calling out warning means that I have to pick my trails carefully.
I suppose yet another concern for deaf hikers is the use of sound to locate lost or injured hikers. I’m adamant about staying on the trail and have pretty sound trail craft skills, but I’m well aware that in unfamiliar territory, a missed blaze or cairn can lead one astray. This is why I carry trail marking tape (biodegradable) and a compass, and why I often miss verbal enquiries lobbed my way by other hikers as they pass me on the trail – I am looking for trail indicators and tracks (humans and non-human animals). I’m extremely diligent about making sure I’m on the trail – which means I probably do much more unnecessary backtracking than most. (And for the local trails I hike all of the time, this isn’t an issue, of course!) I also know the first rule of what one should do if one IS lost: stay put.
The cost of human and economic resources expended on search and rescue missions can be extremely high. Locating a deaf person who cannot hear searchers calling out makes a rescue more difficult. But most search and rescue efforts deal with unprepared and inexperienced (hearing) hikers. I think that my prudence, caution, and experience significantly cuts down my chances of being the focus of a search and rescue effort.
I could tell many stories about the clueless hikers I encounter!
Here’s a sampling from last week: on Sunday I encountered two teenagers on the trail (about 3 miles in) at noon, they carried only one water bottle to share between them, and then asked me (in a slot canyon under deep tree cover) why their cell phones didn’t work. The next day I ran into a mother-daughter duo half a mile in from the trailhead, who told me they planned to hike to the crest (nine miles roundtrip with 2500 feet elevation gain). The mid-50s mother was wearing flip flops and carrying a water bottle, her twenty-something daughter was slightly more prepared with a Camelback and sneakers. Later in the week I chatted with two young men planning to day hike a 26 mile loop trail that included traversing over the mountain crest in mid-afternoon — this during a flashflood warning. They had scant water, no rain gear (they looked at me with incredulity when I asked) and no emergency supplies…
There are those who claim that hiking alone is always irresponsible.
I’m not sure I buy this; for one, hiking alone on a frequently traveled trail seems to be in a different category than hiking alone in true wilderness. And there are those who argue that women should hike in pairs or groups for safety. Safety here seems to mean mostly human-related danger, I think. Hiking alone can be done responsibly, just as hiking in groups can be incredibly irresponsible.
The default (should that be deafault?) assumption that a deaf woman hiking alone is taking a foolish risk is worth questioning. It says more about the questioner’s fears and biases about what women with disabilities can and should do than the evidence of the reality of risk on the trail.
On this twenty-third anniversary of the (U.S.) Americans with Disabilities Act, it is easy to think about the removal of barriers to access that are physical, structural, and institutional. But there are attitudinal barriers as well, and after a lifetime of people telling me I cannot or should not do things because of my hearing loss (starting with my high school vocational rehabilitation counselor’s suggestion that I forego college for cosmetology school), I’ve become quite deliberate about questioning their assumptions.
Why assume that the risks of solo hiking are significantly greater for a deaf female hiker than for an able-bodied hearing dude? Shouldn’t the assessment be of the particular hiker’s capabilities — of which being able to hear is only one capability?
I 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: