Birdwatching is for Everybody and Every Body

Blog: Birdwatching

“There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.”
Grant Hutchison, The Complete Lachlan

Birdwatching is a deeply satisfying pursuit in any season and summertime is no exception. But if you use a wheelchair, are blind or deaf, have a chronic illness or are neurodivergent, you may have concerns about negotiating forests, parks and trails independently. That’s where Birdability comes in.

A nonprofit founded by retired English teacher, wheelchair user and avid birdwatcher Virginia Rose, Birdability’s mission is to make birding accessible to everybody and every body.

Rose has been using a wheelchair since she was fourteen years old when a horseback riding accident resulted in a spinal cord injury. Seventeen years ago, Rose discovered birdwatching and fell in love with it. She wanted other people with mobility challenges to enjoy the emotional and physical benefits of her new hobby. Yet, she knew that many trails were inaccessible, particularly for disabled birdwatchers who prefer to go out on their own, something Rose believes all birders should be able to do.

“What I want to achieve is for people to be able to bird independently,” Rose told Matt Mendenhall of BirdWatching Daily magazine. “The beauty to me of being all by yourself on a trail is just magnificent. I think it’s really important for people to be able to be unattended on a trail in the forest.”

To raise awareness about the need for accessible trails, Rose held a solo Audubon “Birdathon” for herself in 2018. Birdathons are usually competitive events that draw large groups of people, but Rose had never attended one of them because she didn’t want to slow the group because of her mobility challenges. She also didn’t want to be rushed. When news outlets got wind of the solo “Birdathon,” they were intrigued. Media coverage brought Rose to the attention of two map creators who helped her design a geographic information system where people with disabilities can obtain real-time reports about the accessibility of various parks and trails. The map can be found on the Birdability website.

Since founding Birdability, Rose, Birdability staff and members of the public have rated at least 500 locations based on terrain as well as access to parking, restrooms and more. Birders with disabilities are encouraged to submit reviews about birding locations they have visited so that other disabled birdwatchers know which locations are fully accessible.

As Abigail Krump, one of the map creators and a person with mobility challenges told Sierra magazine, “A trail that has a steep incline or that has many tripping hazards, those aren’t just hindrances. They can cause physical harm. Most able-bodied humans don’t think about how these small things can be detrimental to someone else’s health. That’s the beauty of the Birdability map; it returns power to the actual user so that they may make informed decisions before they arrive at a trailhead or park. As soon as a user uploads their Birdability site review, it’s live on the site. It’s empowering.”

In addition to its GIS map, the website includes guidance documents that help individuals and groups understand how to evaluate sites for accessibility, provide information about adaptive birdwatching equipment and give suggestions on how to plan inclusive birdwatching festivals.

In October 2020, Birdability coordinated the first Birdability Week to raise awareness about accessible birdwatching and to encourage more people with disabilities to try it. Writes Mendenhall in BirdWatching: “Rose stresses that she is not only advocating for people who use wheelchairs, crutches, or other assistive devices. ‘We are all temporarily able-bodied,’ she says. Everyone’s body, even if they don’t suffer a severe injury like Rose did, will slow down as they age, and so when accessibility is improved at outdoor spaces, everyone benefits.”