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?


Active adventures in Iceland: Sam hikes to a hot river and gets her heart rate up in the process

I confess that although I list substantial dog hikes (not the everyday ‘around the block a few times’ kind but the kind where we go to the park for an hour or two) in the Facebook group 217 in 2017, somehow in my mind I don’t really think they count as exercise.

They’re not strength training. And I thought, they’re not really cardio either. (Unless, I dog-jog, and then they’re cardio.)

I now admit I might be wrong. At least if hills are involved.

This week, I’m in Iceland during our school’s fall break. Autumn temperatures hadn’t really hit Ontario yet so I took a drastic measure of finding cooler weather by flying North. Also cheap flights thanks to Iceland’s discount airline, WOW.

I went from 23 degrees for a high outdoor temperature last Monday to 8 for a high last Tuesday.

Our first day in Iceland was a bit sleepy. Our “overnight” flight got in at 5 am (1 am, Ontario time) and some exercise seemed in order to keep us moving. I also liked the idea of the hike to the hot river, because “hot” also sounded good.

It’s a 1 hour very hilly hike to the river in the Reykjadalur Valley. And looking at my Garmin watch data I may need to rethink my view that hikes aren’t really exercise. It seems hilly ones are hard as riding my bike at a good clip.

Here’s what the hilly part of my walk looked like on my Garmin.

Here’s me, all bundled up, near the start of the trail:

Here is the hot part of the river you can bathe in. It’s about 40 degrees. Much better than the hot water above with the warning sign. That can reach up to 100! Not for bathing…

Here is the whole area with lovely wooden board walks and privacy screens for changing.

You need to hike through some steam on your way to the river!

Geothermal activity is awfully pretty to look at!

There’s no selfies from the hot river because I was too nervous about losing my phone. It would be a great story to tell losing the phone in a hot river in Iceland but traveling is never a good time to lose your phone.


Midlife is a funny time of life, musings on aging from Iceland

Image description: View from inside the car (brrr!). Blue sky, white clouds, snow covered mountains, and yellow beach in Iceland. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Image description: View from inside the car (brrr!). Blue sky, white clouds, snow covered mountains, and yellow beach in Iceland. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Cate and I were chatting the other day about the weirdness of 52. It’s a strange time of life. Consider that person who’s looking at you and talking to you and being really nice. Do they think you’re hot or are they smiling at you because you remind them of their mom? It’s often not clear.

You’re not old enough to be out of the flirting game altogether. (When does that occur anyway? Never, I hope.) But you’re really not sure when you’re included.

Mother and potential object of interest. Those aren’t the only roles for women of course but still those possibilities do seem to colour our interactions with people.

I thought about it the other day when a man offered me a seat on the subway. Really? Should I be charmed? Offended? Amused? I wasn’t sure.

My mind went through all the possibilities. Chivalry? Flirtation? Or plain old deference for the elderly? I don’t think I look wobbly on the subway. But I took the seat, smiled, and thanked him. I’m super nice and polite that way. I joked the other day that I always say “please” when asking Google to find me things. I have to work to stop myself saying thank you.

Back to aging: I’ve been thinking lately about all the lies we tell about aging. According to this chart here, female attractiveness to men peaks at 23.

Women are most attractive to men at about 23. And men’s attractiveness to women seems to get better with age.

We sometimes act as if that’s a number that really matters. But why? Lots of us aren’t that interested in what men think about the way we look. I’m not interested in what strangers have to say about me generally. It’s not a thing that ranks high on my list of things to care about. And I suspect women, even women interested in men, care less about what men in general think, as we get older.

After all, that same chart tells us that life satisfaction peaks at 69, liking one’s body which peaks at 74, and well-being peaks at 82. Things get better, not worse, after 50. See Greetings from the happiness trough.

Why do we make getting older out to be such a bad thing if, from the point of view of subjective well-being, things just get better? Rebecca’s rant which I included in my post about menopause picked up on this same theme. There’s this narrative of misery about women’s lives that we all kind of learn along the way.

Aging is supposed to be horrible. Fading beauty, etc. Even those of us who don’t feel the sting of losing attractiveness in the eyes of random male strangers aren’t off the hook because we’re expected to feel bad. But some of us don’t feel bad at all.

Why might you not care?

A. You never had it in the first place. You’re sufficiently outside mainstream beauty norms that being attractive to generic men isn’t a thing for you. In that case, aging can feel liberating. Now no one your age has it. Finally.

B. You don’t much care what men think. They’re not your thing.

C. You care what some specific male persons think but not generic men on the street.

D. The attention of men has been painful rather than pleasurable on balance (think cat calling and street harassment) and you’re happy to have less of it.

There are many reasons not to care.

All of our lives we’ve been told that aging sucks. But most women I know who are older than me say things are pretty terrific. I keep telling friends in their 30 and 40s that the 50s are so far just fine.

I spent this past week at a conference on Feminist Utopias, in Iceland. While there I got to spend time with a couple of my favourite feminist philosophers, both in their 70s. They’re travelling, doing terrific work in feminist philosophy, and leading lives that seem pretty happy.

Friday night I saw a concert in the series “Music for Lesbians.” It was organized and  headlined by Carol Pope. She’s 70 and has a terrific energetic stage presence.

Maybe it’s time we stop telling the sad story about aging and started listening and learning.

Image description: Here’s me opining about feminist epistemology and open access publishing. My arms are widespread, I’m wearing a long grey “introvert” hoodie, I’m wearing sunglasses and standing on a wooden platform in Iceland. Location: Gullfloss Waterfall.
Image description: Sunset at Skálholt. This is the view from our conference bedroom window. The grounds are yellow. The sky is blue. And the clouds are majestic. There are two buildings, on the left a white historic church and on the right a newer conference structure.
Image description: Sunset at Skálholt. This is the view from our conference bedroom window. The grounds are yellow. The sky is blue. And the clouds are majestic. There are two buildings, on the left a white historic church and on the right a newer conference structure. You can read about Skaholt, the site of our conference, here: