GOB 111 – American Access

GOB 111 American Access

This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine December 2018

Despite being exhausted the day after the last British Bird Fair, I still had to wake at sparrow-fart because I’d promised to take a visiting American friend birding. After all, he had shown me Swallow-tailed Kites near Kissimmee and taken me for a magical morning on Merritt Island.

We added some birds bringing his life list to 1300. However, even with my built-in British bias I could hardly claim that Grey Partridge and Garden Warbler were fair exchange for Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Worm-eating Warbler. We chatted about our different experiences and his day-job as ‘Recreation Co-ordinator – Trails’, for a Florida county. The difference in accessibility between there and here is a chasm, and to my mind an outrage. We might pride ourselves on political correctness but we should be ashamed of our pitiful response to the needs of the mobility challenged. As I am in those ranks it makes my blood boil!

The Canadian’s have it even better than the US… I visited Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario once, where a boardwalk circuit of a kilometre with benches every 100 metres allowed me and my wheelchair using mates to watch nesting Prothonotary, Wilson’s and Black-and-White Warblers galore.

On a visit to Texas’s Aransas Wildlife Refuge we used the three-storey concrete ramp to get views of Whooping Crane. It was tough for Brian as having pushed his wheelchair up the ramps he had just glimpses of crane as the parapet was too high for him to see much from his chair. The park centre was closed so I emailed from my hotel expressing our disappointment. Before I got home I’d had a message telling me a temporary wooden platform had been installed, a week after that I was told a permanent concrete one was in place so everyone could see over the marshes.

Contrast this with the recent experience I had with my local wildlife trust. The issue there may reflect our changing culture whereby our British reluctance to complain remains, yet our legendary politeness and courtesy has all but disappeared. I complained that the ‘give priority to blue-badge holders’ sign at a road-side viewing layby is mostly ignored… even by the warden’s vehicle! It took three weeks to get an acknowledgement, and three weeks after that I still haven’t had a proper reply!

The Bird Fair is a great event raising over four million pounds for conservation, but accessibility there has actually taken a step backwards. Pushing your wheelchair along on grass is hard enough without an IKEA style entrance extending the distance. Why should disabled birders have to ask for barriers to be removed, no-one else has too?

This year a complainant saying the disabled car park had even less space because of expanded portacabins was told “what do you expect? This is a field event”  Well, I expect a better attitude! Does this mean volunteers were not adequately briefed? Also a charity charging £25 a day for mobility scooters puts the fair beyond the pocket of many.

My American friend told me that all his staff, including volunteers, must go round in an unpowered wheelchair before they serve the public. It wasn’t until he nearly toppled over backwards on what he thought was a gentle incline, that he began to understand the needs of those less physically able. His reserves must display maps with distances measured and all paths, gates, ramps and blinds marked.

I’m also sick of being told conservation comes first as if I didn’t know! Reserves are there to educate and raise conservation consciousness for everyone, not just the fit few!

Rant it out!