Bo Beolens @ The Disabled Birders Association

Inclusive adventure travel opportunities are expanding in various directions. Pioneers like Dada Moreira of Aventura Especial in Brazil feature rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and various adrenaline-enhanced experiences. Menwhile, Bo Beolens has quietly been opening the outdoors for a more sedentary crowd "birdwatchers" or preferably, "birders". Here he speaks about his experience to Travel & Disability Editor, Scott Rains:

Question: The Disabled Birders Association (dba) is something unique. You rooted it firmly in the birding world but you lead it to speak articulately for disability culture. How did DBA come about?

Answer: I am a birder. I have a mobility problem (Ankylosing Spondylitis) which at times makes walking painful and certainly limits the distance I can walk. On a good day I can manage 300 yards, on a bad day I have trouble walking to the office � and I work from home!

I found myself getting frustrated with the way in which what we in the UK call "nature reserves" are designed for fit and able six-feet tall young men. It occurred to me this is because the majority of people who work as wardens of reserves are six-feet tall, fit and able young men! There were few concessions to the average person let alone those with any restrictions on their mobility.

So my prime motivation was selfishness - I wanted nature to be more accessible for me. Don't get me wrong, I never want any of the needs of wildlife compromised to meet my needs. I just wanted the designers to go back to the drawing board and make sure that the provisions they make for human access more friendly to all. The watchword is, of course, barrier-free access. Providers should be asking why a gate is needed and would a cattle grid be better, are steps the only way to enter a hide (blind) or could a ramp be used and so forth.

I always liken such provision to the shoe trade. Its as if the only shoes made were size 10 all-weather boots. those wanting size five pink stilettos would be sadly disappointed and have to try and make do. Most of us are not fit and able six-footers so viewing slots need to be at variable heights; not everyone can walk a mile non-stop so we, just like the birds need a perch every 150 yards or so; most of us cannot hear clearly as we age so loop-systems are needed in interpretation centers and so forth.

I soon found that my selfishness would help out a lot of other people too so I used my website www.fatbirder.com and various mailing groups to invite others to join me to campaign for more sensitive provision.

Question: This genteel sport of birding has a profound economic impact. According to the 2001 US report, "Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis," birders account for $32 Billion dollars in annual retail spending items like field guides, binoculars, bird food, houses, boats, transportation, guide costs and other direct birding expenses. Has the Disabled Birders Association had any success convincing governments or industry to reinvest some of that income into site accessibility and appropriate products?

Answer: You will have to ask the dba-usa chapter about what's happening in the US but I can report progress in the UK.

Birding here is still seen as a minority, not to say weirdo, pursuit. Twitchers as we all tend to get labeled, are on a par with train-spotters � sad, anorak-wearing, bespectacled, border-line Asperger's, spotty youths without the physiques to be footballers nor the brains to be nerds.

I don't know why its still the butt of tabloid fun-poking but it is. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has over 1 million members making it the biggest membership conservation body in Europe, 20 million households (out of 25, million) feed wild birds in their gardens yet birding still has this rather silly image.

Nevertheless, the dba has begun to have an impact on the direct service providers and is helped with its costs by commerce in the birding field. Our sponsors include birdfeed companies, optics retailers and bird book-sellers and in the UK virtually all companies that have interests in birding equipment or supplies do donate a percentage of their profits to conservation in general.
As to nature reserves, changes are happening. When I set up the dba in 2000 and went along to the British Bird Fair (BBF ; the biggest of its kind with around 20,000 participants) I spent half my time there badgering the RSPB to think about disabled access to its reserves. Last year at the BBF their Director of Operations came to me and asked what they could do to improve things� so changes are afoot.

In my local area there have been improvements at nearly all reserves, observatories and parks. This coincides with a recent bit of legislation making disability access a requirement of all premises and all types of provision. I feel most encouraged.

Question: At your web site, FatBirder.com, you wrote, The Disabled Birders Association was set up to combat poor attitudes and provision across the board. It exists to encourage everyone to think about what can be achieved with sensitivity and good design. What have you found to be the most effective strategies that birders can use to reach those goals and make birding more inclusive?

Answer: I think that the onus really does lie with those of us who have a disability.
We should not wait for others to make provision for us but get off our proverbial backsides and make things happen. The first thing we need to do is admit to our disability. Daft as it may seem nearly everyone I have met who has a disability doesn't want to be thought of as disabled. Someone might say Yes, I only have one leg, am blind and have heart failure; bit I�m NOT disabled!� I have no idea why we are so unwilling to admit to our limitations, as if it is something to be ashamed of.

We need the equivalent of "Black is Beautiful" or "Glad to be Gay" to own our disabilities and flaunt them, not hide them away. Only this way will people see that they are actually in the majority. Most people are either young and small, elderly and frail, disabled and sick etc.

I like the Crips with a Chip's (cripples with a chip on their shoulder) movement. But most people will never be part of that radical wing, they still need to be part of a positive movement that rejoices in our diversity rather than trying to make do with "average" provision.

Question: In the October 2004 issue of Birdwatching Magazine you wrote, Our trips overseas have taught me that simplicity of design is king we had far fewer problems in Kenya or India than we did Canada and Australia because all facilities were more basic and simple and so much easier to use. Can you elaborate, perhaps with a story?

Answer: In Kenya one of our party, Brian who is the dba treasurer, had a puncture in his wheelchair tire on the way into lunch. One of the waiters asked if he could transfer Brian into an ordinary seat whilst he sussed out a solution. He returned before the meal was over with the puncture repaired. As people cannot afford cars but lots have bikes, repairing punctures happens all the time. In the west such a problem might have taken days to fix.

At another lodge we arrived to find steps into Brian's room. We pointed this out and, also whilst we were lunching, a wooden ramp had been built and put in place. In Africa people make do and mend because they do not live in our throw-away culture.

Another thing were shower rooms. The did not have fancy power showers in bathrooms with lips and sills around the shower unit - just a shower head in the middle of the room over a small drain with the floors sloping imperceptibly to the drain. So showers were accessible where they rarely are in Europe or North America.

Question: Accurate destination information that details features of interest and necessity to travellers with disabilities is a need that is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to fulfil. In a review of "Best Birdwatching Sites in Norfolk" by Neil Glenn you commented:

This book sets the standard and all other writers and publishers should follow it. Tthere are no excuses now as the book does it and tells you how... The author not only includes notes on disability access for each site and uses an appropriate symbol for quick reference, he also has a couple of pages listing sites that are fully accessible and those that have some disability access.

Answer: Have you run across other books, web sites, or other resources that set a high standard worthy of imitation? How about travel agents, tour operators, or managers of birding sites that provide exemplary service?

One of our oldest Observatories, at Sandwich Bay, has really tried hard to make provision for disabled people. As the best birding site can never be made accessible because the land is privately owned where access trails run.

The "Obs" has created a new "scrape" (definition below*) put in a disabled accessible hide, and a special car park. What is more, the accommodation block for volunteers is fully accessible and they continue to look for ways to improve. The dba has run several overseas trips and some of these were organized by Sarus Bird Tours www.sarusbirdtours.com which has accumulated access knowledge and always given their help at cost.

Question: Birding is a set of skills that requires knowledge, persistence, and patience to acquire. Some describe birding as a lifestyle; a discipline. It occurs to me that the same can be said about learning how to provide quality service to those with abilities that differ from one�s own. Each type of disability is different. What advice do you have for those working in the fields that make birding possible designing or managing parks, hotels, restaurants, transportation systems, or birding products? Regulating natural resources or access to them? Working in travel agencies or as tour guides?

Answer: First- It really ain't rocket science! Think outside of the box. Make sure that, before any project is undertaken, you have asked local disabled organizations to discuss the plans - not just one group.
Second, Remember the dictum of barrier-free access. Start by questioning ANYTHING that might cause someone a problem�I i it really necessary?
Third, remember disability is NOT just about the use of wheelchairs.
Lastly, remember that a very large percentage of the population has some sort of physical impairment and that their dollars, pounds and euros are vital for your revenue!

Question: From your point of view what would be the top priority changes that the travel and hospitality industry could do to further open birding to people with disabilities?

In the UK commerce has cottoned on to the idea of the "grey pound" and the "pink pound" That is the buying power of the elderly and the gay community. Its time they realized that there is also a "disability dollar." That they can only get their share of if they offer accessible trips.

Question: Are there any final thoughts you would like to leave with our readers?

Answer: When I was a youngster an accident prevented me from walking for six months. My father, wanting me to have an interest started taking me to a local lake to fish which I could do without having to run around. Through this, with his shared knowledge, I started to take an interest in the natural world. Now it is my sanctuary and as close as I get to spirituality. Being in the wild yet tranquil world is necessary for my sanity. Just like me the vast majority of birders feel this way about wild places and free flying beauties.

Such beauty deserves its widest possible audience. I feel about birding the same way I do about a good film or a stand-up comic. half the pleasure comes from sharing it.


Its not just our duty to make sure that everyone can enjoy what we enjoy, it should be our pleasure too
.

* Scrape:
A very shallow lake - created by scraping topsoil away so that a wetfield/marsh becomes like a very large puddle - ideal for wading birds to feed on. Often these are enhanced with tiny islands that are great for roosting or ground nesting as they are not too easy for predators to get to.

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