Everyone, including disabled people, deserves easier access to natural spaces
How do we value a tree body? By the board feet of wood they supply; the number of other species they support; their age, size, height? How do we value a human body? By the number of hours it can work in a day; the educational achievements it attains; the way it conforms to a standard of beauty? The ways in which colonialism and ableism assign value to animal, plant, and human bodies are the same. This is often replicated in conservation and is in fact intertwined with the creation of the conservation movement. Species must demonstrate their value to be worthy of protecting.
My disabled body is deemed by society to be less worthy than non-disabled bodies. I wouldn’t have to fight so hard for access to the same spaces, places, and opportunities that non-disabled people have if my body and mind were valued in the same way. Everyone has access needs, whether they are disabled or not. Even in the redwood parks, which are often called the greatest forests on Earth, I have to constantly be aware of how I access and interact with the place. Because of my disabilities, I need features including benches, water fountains, designated parking, smooth trails with few obstacles, and good information so I can plan accordingly.
Fortunately, this awareness makes me much more mindful and respectful of a place. The awareness that I have cultivated as a disabled person helps me notice many of the small things that other hikers often miss: the way that birdsong carries through the forest, how the mist shapes itself around the trees, how the light changes as it filters through upper branches and low understory. I pay attention to the way every footstep lands on the ground in an effort to maintain my balance; I notice how the earth feels under my feet and how my steps make an impact. I can appreciate an entire world within a short distance.
The redwood forests certainly offer a lush world to experience. The first time I met a redwood forest was almost by accident. I grew up in Florida and then spent several years in the southern Appalachian Mountains before moving to California. The forests of the Pacific Northwest were completely new to me, and I was in awe as I drove the coastal highway through Northern California. I have to take frequent breaks on road trips, so I pulled over at a gravel parking area off the road and got out of the car. I eyed the tall trees that surrounded me, wondering who they were as I stretched. I noticed a small footpath leading into the forest and decided a short walk might do me some good. After a few steps into the forest, the road noise faded away, and all I could sense was stillness. I realized then that these must be the redwoods that I had only read about. The redwoods towered above me with mist clinging to their branches–I had never seen trees so tall before, and I felt dizzy for a moment as I gazed upwards. My body relaxed for the first time in weeks, the tightly coiled pain around my muscles and joints releasing for a moment as I leaned against a strong and ancient tree. The trees seemed to have such a stately presence–existing exactly as they are, simply because they always have.
Disabled people also exist exactly as they are, simply because they always have. There is nothing inherently unusual or unique about disability, though the conditions of our climate and society do have an impact, just as they do on the redwoods. I don’t want the redwoods to be something that people only read about, but for so many disabled folks, that is the only way they can experience them. Lack of accessible infrastructure, limited information, and a culture of exclusion in the outdoors prevents so many people from connecting with natural spaces–places that they may find they have more in common with than they thought.
We can all unite in fighting for these places, because we all exist interdependently with one another, not because one place has more value than another. The threats to these ancient forests also threaten the lives of people with disabilities and chronic illness. We are all connected, we all deserve to exist, and we all deserve respectful access to the natural spaces of our world.