Saturday, July 21, 2012

MY FEET, SIX INCHES FROM THE GROUND: Disability and Our Connection with Nature

(NOTE: The following has just been posted on Children and Nature Network. It is a version of a piece written for PHI Communique, a publication of Post-Polio Health International. I'm biased toward this important organization, which also operates the wonderful Polio Place , but then I am on the PHI board.)

When I was 8 years old, my family moved from a big city to a tiny town (pop. 600). We lived in a rented house, complete with an outhouse. I loved it.

There were farms nearby, and I got up-close to a different world, helping to herd and milk cows, “assisting” in the fields, and “riding” farm horses.

There was a small creek down the hill from our house. My buddies and I fished from the bridge over the creek. (I am on the right in this photo taken by an area newspaper photographer.)
I wandered along the mostly ankle-deep creek, looking for fish or turtles. About a half-mile from home, a little railway bridge went over the creek; at times, a couple of us would try to catch fish there, and while we did, we would build a little fire to heat up a can of pork and beans.

Riding my bike around
country roads, exploring the woods, climbing trees, getting caught in the rain, jumping into puddles and off a bridge and swimming in a deep pool said to be filled with old tires and other discarded trash, consumed summers.

I loved it all. There is something about getting dirty, touching and feeling the real natural world that thrills and energizes me at some level.

Two years later, when I was 10, polio came calling and for the next three years I worked (“worked” is the right word isn’t it? for polio people for sure) my way through rehab institutions away from home.

Then I returned to our newly built house in town. No more outhouse – thank heaven, since that old one was not accessible!

And there were many other “no more’s” No more wandering along the little creek, no more fishing from the bridge, no more exploring the woods, no more riding my bike.
Now when I went out, someone pushed me in my wheelchair. My feet stayed put, about six inches off the grass, the sidewalk, the gravel roads.

The natural world seemed to slip away, vibrancy fading out of touch. After a while I didn’t notice, caught up with just getting used to doing as much as I could on wheels.

Fast forward several years, and I was back in a big city, working at a newspaper and living on my own (praise be to power chairs!) in a downtown high-rise apartment building. It was there in that ninth-floor apartment that I began to feel a certain anxiety.

I finally realized that I was going back and forth to work and leading a busy life, but that I was going for long periods of time without seeing anything green and growing. No grass. No trees.

I tried growing corn on my balcony. No corn either.

After three years, I was able to buy a house, with a backyard and elm trees. It was wonderful.

I took up photography and found myself spending lots of time in local parks, getting close to and making pictures of flowers, plants and outdoor life. That anxious feeling ebbed.

Nature, like the rest of society, is becoming more accessible to people with disabilities of all ages. Due to the efforts of people with disabilities, parks national, state and local are providing accessible trails and features that make it possible to get closer to flowers, trees and even animals – without paving paradise. And people with disabilities are more active than ever in outdoor sports, recreation and games. Or just hanging out in neighborhood yards and little parks.

But the truth is that people with disabilities, especially kids, still tend to be more isolated, and participate less in social and community activities with their peers. More home alone, even, than playing outside or exploring their world by themselves. Organizations such as Easter Seals (and many local and regional groups) offer more organized activities, from summer camp and sports.

But I fear too few kids get much unregulated, unorganized time encountering the natural world. Kids with disabilities love to touch the wonders of the earth, getting dirty in the grass, trying to grab a lizard or a worm or a bug. I still do too.

In the many years since then, I have kept up my picture making my picture making and it helps me connect with the real world around me.

My feet continue to skim six inches above the grass. Still, I can stick my nose closer to the roses in my front yard and take in the perfume. I can rub my hands over the bark on the big tree in my back yard. And even though the techs tell me not to, I can’t stop powering through puddles. Splashing and grinning. Life is good.