Barrier Free

Barrier Free Access

Barrier Free Access – not difficult to understand is it? Just like it says on the tin, to misquote the popular TV commercial, it means access is easy if there are no barriers in the way. So why should such an easy concept prove such a mystery to so many service providers? Why is access the very last thing considered by those who own or manage reserves? How can perfectly decent people ignore the needs of the majority and go on designing facilities for an elite?

Consider this – at any moment in time only a small percentage of the population are fit, over five feet six inches tall, have 20-20 vision and perfect hearing, are able to walk a kilometre along a rugged track carrying a telescope, binoculars, fieldguide and flask without needing a rest. Ever sprained your ankle or worn glasses? Ever had a toddler wanting to be carried? Are you getting on a bit? Then join the disabled birders association because you are not part of that elite!

I started the dba [disabled birders association] in April 2000 because I was fed up with the lack of response and sensitivity at Bird Reserves. Paths too steep, narrow or sticky for wheelchairs, car parks miles from hides with no benches to rest on, signs too small to read and hides with flights of steps seem to be the norm. When concessions were made they were too little, too narrow in prospect or carried too much cost to the user.

Too little because wheelchair-friendly paths led to hides with steps, upward-opening viewing slots and fixed seating, or beyond impassable kissing-gates. Too narrow as reserve providers, like most of the world, saw “disabled” to be synonymous with “wheelchair user”. Too much cost in embarrassment at having to seek permission to drive to hides and suffer the dirty looks of able-bodied birders thinking that you must be a lazy so-and-so. Furthermore, where people were making an effort they brooked no comment and expected gratitude.

In the last three years things have begun to change but the majority of providers still do not get it. So, for their, and your, benefit, this is how it goes.

If you take away all the barriers to access everyone benefits. We all age and most of us find walking harder the older we get. All of us have been children and have had to struggle with out of scale facilities. Cyclists and pram pushers cannot cope with cattle grids.

There are, according to most sources between seven and ten million people in the UK with some form of disability; there are many millions of people over retirement age and many millions who are not fully grown – none of us are average. Basing all facilities on the needs of fit and able young men (which most reserve wardens happen to be) is like selling nothing but size ten boots – no size 5 slippers or size six stilettos – would people put up with that? Clearly not, so why should birders with sensory or mobility restrictions put up with this lack of respect and arrogance?

Most of the problems that exist do so because of lack of thought or poor design and not because what is needed costs more than what is provided. A simple wooden bench [virtually cost-free when put together by volunteers out of re-cycled materials] every 150 yards along a trail could double the number of people who make it all the way round – in woodland reserves this could be a fallen tree. Movable benches, lower viewing slots, downward opening slot covers and ramps to doors would make hides accessible and usable by children, the infirm elderly, etc. not just to those who have to use wheelchairs to get about. Firm, flat and wide paths and large print notices make it easier for everyone. There is nothing that you can do to improve access for people with mobility or sensory restrictions that make anything harder to use for anyone else! What is more, nothing one can do to make access easier does anything that compromises the needs of the birds the reserves are created to protect.

So I am calling on all birding facility providers to think about access. Call in the dba or a local disability group at the planning stage of any improvement. Better still ask for their members comments on what exists now as many annual maintenance tasks could be done in a way which starts the barrier-free ball rolling.

In my home county of Kent the dba is regularly consulted by the local wildlife trust, the RSPB, the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory and the like. Some improvements have been made and many more are in the pipeline. But wardens at Northward Hill and Cliffe, Elmley, Dungeness, Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, Oare Marshes and so forth are really clued in and see every disaster (like a rotten hide collapsing) as an opportunity to make access better for all. What they are doing right now could easily be taken up by their colleagues nationwide. Furthermore, if the idiocy of an airport at Cliffe goes away then it could become a flagship for access – the blank canvas will be written on by people clued in to barrier-free access. Whenever new reserves are planned access should be on the agenda right after the needs of the birds – if a reserve is open to the public it must be accessible by all the public not just fit birders in the prime of life!

There are only two choices, either the facility should be closed to the public or it must be usable by everyone – anything else is elitist and unacceptable. This is not a minority issue needing action by the sufferers or on their behalf by worthy citizens. It’s high time that all birders championed this cause – out of selfishness; you may not need special provision today but someone you know does and one day you probably will too!

Rant it out!