Monday, 3 June 2019

What do I mean by accessible?

I thought I knew what "accessible" meant as an engineer - step free access to the building and a push button front door.
No! Not even close.

I thought I knew what "accessible" meant as a minister - a ramped route to the church, an open door for services, a hearing loop and friendly helpful people.
Getting better, but... Not enough!

I thought I knew what "accessible" meant as a blind wheelchair user - all the above plus wide door ways, rooms with space for wheelchairs and their turning circles, places for wheelchairs in various locations to give choice, Braille and large print and (even better) electronic materials in advance, accessible toilets and people who understand that disabled people have much to offer.
Much better. But what about provisions for other disabilities such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, pain and fatigue disabilities and autism....

I'm still learning what accessible really means, both through my own experience and that of other disabled people I meet.  But what I've learned is that there is no definition of "accessible" that fits everyone. Or at least not anywhere I've found.

As a disabled person I can never make any assumption on accessibility anywhere.  I need to take into account all of the following issues:

1. The driving and parking or public transport access and it's proximity to the venue
2. The energy this travel uses and therefore what will be left
3. The access to the venue
4. The toilet facilities at the venue
5. The information provision for sight loss at the venue
6. The noise levels inside the venue since echoes and lots of conflicting noise are pain inducing (though music is not)
7. The food options at the venue (though I can bring my own)
8. The length of time I need to be at the venue
9. The possibility of any rest space at the venue
10. The return trip home

Everywhere I go I have to ring to check all of these details.  This is true for every form of transport, every church, every museum, every concert, every place I eat, everywhere I stay.

I can't rely on the internet, although I've no idea how anyone coped before it; I've learned the internet can be mistaken or just plain wrong.  I have to email and ring to get details of facilities and even then I've learned to get confirmation in writing after a wheelchair accessible room couldn't fit my wheelchair into the bathroom!

So please don't ever assume that somewhere is accessible unless you know what access I need; and please don't state somewhere is accessible without stating what that means exactly.

Provision of clear access information is essential for everyone but especially anyone with disabilities for whom it can be a catastrophe (literally) if we arrive somewhere and there's no adequate facilities.

I don't expect everywhere to be perfect, but I like to know what I'm going to find before I use a lot of energy getting somewhere inaccessible to me.

PS - would you be surprised that some of the worst places for true accessibility are...... Hospitals!

A wheel walk in the wild with the Bible

Cruise poetry 2019

Sailing the oceans
A great way to roam
Only memory suffices
Now we're back home

Two weeks of adventure
Visiting places anew
Through storms we travelled
To skies of pure blue

Vigo surprised us
A safe change of port
Dodging the showers
Luckily we weren't caught

Onto Oporto
The beach was our place
Chilled in the sunshine
Warmth on our face

Sea days brought singing
A treasure hunt too
Reading, revising
A cocktail, or few

Next was Valencia
A gem of a city
So much to visit
Soaking up history

Beautiful cathedral
Palm Sunday processions
String trio busking
Music to the heavens

Sea days and nights
Relaxation a plenty
Acrobats, Showtime
Music and Comedy

Gibraltar, a rock
Much more than expected
A monkey in hand
Photo perfected

Freak high tide so ...
No wheels on Cartagena
But family got ashore
Video'd from amphitheatre

So much food choice
Relaxed or formal
We tried it all
Waist bigger than normal

Last port was Lisbon
But ramp was too steep
At least missed the rain
And caught up on sleep

Last day at sea
Busy programme of mine
Can't squeeze it all in
Before choir concert time

Throw clothes in cases
Final dinner onboard
Music comedy genius
Keep spirits soared

We've brought the sun home
Still warm on the deck
Thank you Azura
For our waterborne trek


Creative prayer

I created this during my personal worship one morning, whilst praying and singing. 

The background shapes and colours were very much a gift through the music whilst the words in white circles came as in prayers of thanksgiving and the words in black circles through prayers of lament.

  There’s a lot in this which I know God is working through in me.

Blind Bartimaeus: my blind reflection

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.”
Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

Mark 10:52

My brief reflection on the healing of blind bartimaeus is that it was more about the healing of his spiritual sight than of his physical sight. That we're all too blind to fully see the true majesty, wonder and glory of God.

Since becoming blind I've also come to realise the blessing that sight loss has been to me in my relationship with God. I have to rely on him now, I can't rely entirely on myself any more; ever single day I am thankful to the holy spirit for guiding me and for Jesus's teaching of patience and for God's love in my life. Without my sight loss I never would have experienced these blessings. Blindness has healed my blind heart.

Out of this world

Create a planet
A world of your own
Whatever you fancy
A place to call home

What would it look like?
Where would you roam?
Who'd be invited?
Would you live there alone?

It's a place of peace
Where none seek power
All working as one
All pulling together

Caring, sustaining
Improve for the better
Growing and pruning
Ensure future forever

But does this ideal
Have to be elsewhere?
Can't it be Earth
If enough of us care?

Let's form the ideal
Right here on this planet
Let's turn things around
There's enough of us want it


Bereaved son
Caring husband
Family man

Peace keeper

Cheeky, appropriately
Creative, practically
Present, fully

Playful with kids
Cool with teens
Understanding of parents
Available for his friends
Compassionate to bereaved
Endlessly present

Sharer of memories
Sparker of ideas
Smiler in troubles
Saver of situations
Simply fantastic

Dignified in ill health
A model of patience
Living each day

I'll never forget
The chats and tales
The wisdom he shared
The laughter and tears
The amazing man he was.

A few flakes

Just a few flakes
A short flurry of white
Not enough for a snowman
Unless it's quite slight
Another day on and it's
Raining instead
You don't know what you'll see
When you get out of bed.

Preschool Easter songs

I've been asked a few times of the years for preschool songs about Easter.  It's obviously too late for this year, but here are three which will hopefully help someone in the years to come.

"The Bible tells me so
To the tune of "Mary had a Little Lamb".

God the Father gave a gift;
Gave a gift, for you and me;
Jesus is that special gift;
The bible tells me so.
Mother, Father, family, Friends
Everyone who loves me so
They are gifts God gave to me;
The Bible tells me so.
Jesus gives the gift of love;
Peace and love into the world;
Love to share with everyone;
The Bible tells me so.

Hot cross buns song

Hot cross buns,
Hot cross buns,
On Good Friday,
They are yummy,
Hot cross buns.
Before the Easter eggs,
Enjoy a hot cross bun,
On Good Friday,
They are yummy,
Hot cross buns.
Spice from his homeland
A cross on the top
On Good Friday,
They are yummy,
Hot cross buns.

Twinkle twinkle Easter star

Twinkle twinkle Easter star
Jesus saw you where you are
Up above the world we know
Like 2000 years ago
Twinkle twinkle Easter star
Reminds us just how loved we are


A time to remember a
Beautiful lady who
Chatted and chortled,
Dreamed and discussed
Eight decades of life
Full of lessons and love.
Gorgeous of soul
Hopeful of heart
I was inspired by
June every time we met
Knowing she'd share her
Love, wisdom and heart.
More than that, she had
No pretences, no acts or falseness
Only honesty, as she saw it
Purely her take
Quoted from memory, often
Riotously funny.
Today at her funeral we
Uplift June's soul
Venturing through grief
With family and friends
eXpressing our sadness
Yet thanking God for her
Zest for life.

Wild wheels: Accessing God's Natural Cathedral.

I started Oakwood forest church five years ago in an urban nature reserve to the east of Reading in Berkshire.  I was finding myself praying outside more and more; and talking to lots of people who didn't go to church but found God in the wild.  Searching for whatever was available I discovered the forest church network and decided to have a go at  bringing people together to meet God whilst walking in the woods. The sessions took a lot of the forest school ethos with a focus was on providing all age, active, explorative, off road sessions whatever the weather; and people came.  Sadly the team was struck with illness and disability just two years after we started.  Despite our best efforts to meet in some way, we had to accept that a break was needed and Oakwood forest church had an 18 month hibernation; although we retained our online community.  

Then, at the start of 2018 we received a flurry of requests from different people in the area who wanted to come along to our sessions; it definitely felt like God was on the move with Oakwood again.   I spoke to a few of the previous team and some new people and there were 4 of us keen to create a leadership team.  Due to my disability I felt convicted to make OFC as accessible as possible, allowing anyone to connect to God through nature and experience the joy and peace of being in nature.  We were able to secure a small amount of funding to allow us to rent the rangers teaching centre at the nature reserve for 2 hours each month.  With toilet facilities and a kettle we had a base from which sessions could start and end; spring allowing us to offer a truly accessible form of forest church We've had 6 sessions in our new format and are thrilled that people of all abilities are about to join us and that numbers are increasing again.

The importance of nature connection

The majority of people who choose to join an Oakwood Forest Church session say that they feel at peace and closest to God when they're close to nature.   That shouldn't be a surprise; we believe that God was the spark of creation and he needs us to care for the plants, creatures and environment of the planet.  We know that God is in every living thing and is the sustainer of life; his spirit flows in the rivers and blows on the wind.   What better way to feel close to God than to connect with creation; to touch the leaves, smell the flowers, taste the fruit and hear the birds?

We, as humans, are part of nature; evolved from the wild world and unable to survive without the rest of creation. Just look at the next meal you eat and try and identify all the parts of creation that are sustaining you.  Yet, as we've moved into towns and created safe, man made ways of living, we've become disconnected from nature.  Our children are less able to identify where food comes from; we struggle to tend the plants in our gardens; and although we know we want to save the environment we don't really know what that means.

There is nothing 'wrong' with the way we live in built up towns, cities and urban sprawl; but there is evidence ( that connection to nature is good for our happiness, well being and health; especially self esteem and mood.

Interestingly, the presence of water generated the best effects on the research; but that won't surprise those of us who love to visit the sea, walk by rivers or sit by lakes.  There's something calming about water, something about baptism and renewal and cleansing.  At Oakwood forest church we are blessed with a large lake which we tend to gravitate towards every time; it is full of the miracle of life and can calm even the most fussy toddler.

Barriers to nature
I didn't realised how inaccessible the natural world can be until I couldn't get into the wild.  It's not just about getting over stiles in a wheelchair, or walking on rough ground with a visual impairment or appreciating bird song with hearing loss or processing all the sensory inputs if you're autistic; it is bigger than that.  It is the lack of disabled parking, toilets and guides for disability access and, perhaps even more importantly, the lack of interest by both disability and outdoor organisations to help disabled get into the wild. 
My experience with social services and disability charities is that their aim is to help me live life to the full, but they are focused on the built environment rather than natural places.  They couldn't understand why I still wanted to get into the woods. Less than 10% of the places I used to visit for a walk in the wild are able to give me information about wheelchair access; most just apologise or even tell me that wheelchairs might damage the environment.  Even garden centres can be a challenge for those of us with disabilities. 
The resulting disconnection from nature, which many disabled people experience, is bad for health and especially impactful on well being and mental health.  But don't take my word for it....

Experience disconnection yourselves
I invite you to try and experience what this disconnection from nature feels like with four simple exercises.  Each time ask yourself:
* how you feel in yourself (eg frustration? anger? disappointment?);
* how you feel about the environment you're in (disconnected or connected?)
* how you could change forest church sessions, worship, socials and events you lead to ensure everyone can take part?

A) mobility constrained
Sit on a chair on a path, you are not allowed to move from this chair.  Find a representation of God's creation.

B) visually impaired
Put on a blind fold of some sort.  Find a representation of God's creational beauty.

C) hearing impaired
Put on ear muffs or headphones.  Find a representation of God's voice.

D) depressed or anxious
There's no way of mimicking this; but perhaps think of a time you have felt depressed or anxious... Find a representation of God's peace.

Benefits of reconnection to nature
Until I became disabled I never fully appreciated the health benefits of getting into nature; how a walk in the wild is calming yet rejuvenating, mood lifting and anxiety reducing.  After a year of barely leaving the house I felt I could breathe deeply again the first time I went to our local nature reserve. 
I used to walk past the lake in that nature reserve with a passing glance, not appreciating it's value; but now I can sit in my chair for hours listening to the ducks, feeling the breeze in my hair and touching the plants along the path.  This is when I feel alive and at peace; when the worries of the world are put back on perspective.

I used to take for granted that I could watch butterflies and birds and that the world changed colour through the seasons; I never questioned picking up stones and twigs with my daughter, or playing hide and seek amongst the trees. I didn't think it was a blessing to identify a dozen different birds by their calls or that some people feel scared by the sound of wind through the hills.  But now I count my blessings when an especially bright flower blooms in the garden, or when a pile of autumn leaves glows orange and catches my attention on my normal grey route, or when a fish breaks the water in the lake and I can identify the sound.  These connections remind me that I still have a place in the natural world.
But there's something else; being in nature reminds me that I am an important part of creation.  That might sound strange, but becoming disabled made me feel like a flawed creature, a broken part of the world, less than I should be.  But nature teaches me that there is no flaw or failure, everything has a role to play in the circle of life.  The broken branch becomes a home to thousands of creatures; a caterpillar changes to emerge as a butterfly; and autumn is an essential season without which spring could not bloom.
Being in nature reminds me that God made everything and is in everything in nature.  There are no mistakes, all of creation is a representation of God.
Romans 1: 18-20.
"... God is being revealed from heaven .... since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made..."

God loves me just as I am, as he loves every plant, tree and creature; and that He knows my value even when I might not know it myself.

Small actions for access
The Bible tells us in Psalm 34:8 to "taste and see that the lord is good.". That is an invitation to everyone. 

My hope is that those of you reading this article take at least one small action to connect with God's creation yourself and help the 20% of the population who live with disability to be able to connect with nature and taste and see God; as you age it is highly likely you will become disabled. 

It isn't as difficult as it might seem; and here are some simple ideas you can try for yourself.
• Plant seeds in small pots.   Invite people to tend the plant as it grows; perhaps a favourite flower or even a tasty vegetable.  See, smell and touch God's creation.
• Tell people how they can connect with nature and God in their garden or park.  By using all five senses, everyone should be able to make a nature connection.
• Plant a community garden.  You can use a small area of your church grounds or even a few pots; plant vegetables and invite the community to tend it through the year and harvest it in the autumn. 
• Organise a walk in the local park or accessible garden. Invite people to join you in an accessible walk or wheel, making it obvious that it will be suitable for everyone no matter what their ability.  Again, use all the senses to find God in His natural cathedral.
• Ask your local nature reserve, garden or wild space about accessibility.  Organisations often don't think disabled people want to access their wild places because no one ever comes along; by asking about access you are raising the issue and hopefully this will lead to improved access.  If you find somewhere accessible then please tell people; tell local disability charities and churches; let's celebrate it.
• Prioritise access over location. There is something magnificent about climbing the Brecon Beacons but it isn't accessible for all.  Instead, meet at an accessible location near a car park and provide alternative, accessible routes for those who need or prefer them.
• Provide access information for every event and location: information is empowering for everyone.
Greenbelt experience
The basis of this article was written as a talk I gave at The Grove at Greenbelt Festival 2018.  The article could end there, but the challenges of access to my talk lead to further discussion and I feel they are useful to include.
My talk was at The Grove; a wilder area, across the lake from the main festival. A great location for forest church sessions but one with access challenges.  Greenbelt access team are amazing and had improved on the access from the previous year, with walk ways laid along the slopes which helped me as a wheelchair user; but it was still a long walk for those with mobility constraints. 
My talk was at 2pm on Sunday; the weather forecast on the Saturday was for heavy rain and strong winds.  Take a long walk on tricky ground and add rain and wind into the mix and even the most determined able bodied festival goer might decide not to go into the wild; it was almost impossible for many of the people who had wanted to hear my talk. 

I was blessed to have eight people make the trek for my talk in the driving cold rain, three of who had mobility challenges; another twenty messaged me to say they just couldn't get to the talk.   If nothing else this told me about the importance of creating access to nature.
As a group we talked about disability, forest church and nature connection; about how accessibility is more important than a stunning location; about how introducing nature connection to someone can be as simple as planting and nurturing seeds on a window ledge; and about how accessible gardens in care homes are invaluable for residents health.
I learned as much from those who came along as they might have learned from me; it was a blessing to have these conversations and the challenged me to write this article in fullness and share it widely.

Over to you
With just a little extra thought and planning, ANYONE can transform forest churches and nature connection events to make them accessible for all - will you take up the challenge?  I hope you will because one day you might find yourself in need of an accessible entry into the wild.