Disabled Birding Tours

Bo Beolensby Bo Beolens, The Fat Birder

Having organized and sometimes guided disabled birding trips for well over a decade I’d like to shares a few thoughts on the problems and pitfalls and how to avoid them.

The very first issue is the nature of disability itself – all too often the world, even the most enlightened of providers, assume that ‘wheelchair user’ and ‘disabled’ are interchangeable terms. It is vital to first understand that not all disabled people are wheelchair users; in fact only a tiny percentage are. Indeed wheelchair users are only a small percentage of those disabled people that have mobility issues, there are far more people who do not use wheelchairs but find walking any distance painful, difficult or downright impossible.

This is really important as even enlightened provision is often merely a case of making facilities wheelchair accessible. It is not recognized that a sizable chunk of the population need benches every couple of hundred yards if they are going to walk the 1k boardwalk circuit that many wheelchair users can zip along.

In birding it is pertinent as a guide might reject a site that has no wheelable tracks instead selecting one requiring miles of flat walking, assuming they are catering for disability needs.

The second purely guiding issue is lazy assumptions about finding birds. Many, many guides build a portfolio of birding sites where certain species are guaranteed… faced with a client incapable of getting to that spot they cross the bird off the list of possibles, instead of finding alternative, more accessible sites.

As a birder with limited and unpredictable mobility, I have many alternative places to see birds depending on how I am that day. Sometimes sites are viewable without leaving the vehicle, sometimes they are ‘easy to walk to’ with plenty of benches to rest on, and on other occasions I can manage a few hundred yards of wandering around. I do not let life’s exigencies dictate what I will see, and a good guide will have several possibilities and tailor outings to fit the client without precluding too many birds.

Having said that, some birds just will not oblige. On a five-week trip to southern Africa just ONE bird proved beyond me – the Dune Lark. My wheelchair-using friend and I watched Dung Beetles while our group trooped over impassable sand dunes in search of the endemic. Every other bird was ‘doable’ because those planning the trip with me had searched for alternative sites. I’m never going to see every bird on a trip, but then, often perfectly able-bodied people dip out too. I know in advance what is and isn’t worth the effort and accept that some things are beyond my reach, but I am also acutely aware how many are possible if the guide puts in a bit more research.

It also depends on the sort of birder you are… I was never one to spend five hours hunting for a drab pipit just because it’s a rare endemic, I’d rather spend those five hours seeing 30 other species, which, in all probability, will be new to me anyway. All guides please note – know your client’s birding needs regardless of their physical abilities. My wheelchair-using mate is happy to be tossed into the back of a 4×4 and carried under an arm like a parcel, suffering any indignity just to see a new bird. On the other hand a 5.30am start means a 4.00am wake-up as, like many people unable to use the lower half of their body, just washing and dressing can be a time-consuming trial. A good guide needs to know this stuff and the only way of finding out is to listen – not as common a practice as one might hope.

Some guides make the fatal error of thinking they are leaders… happy to slog on regardless of their group and unable to listen as they fill the ether with their own anecdotes. We all like a good story, but we all like our chance to tell them too.

Good guides will say, “here’s my idea of the plan for the day, what does everyone think?”.  Bad guides tend to say “tomorrow we will…”.

One guide we hired in our early days of overseas all-ability birding trips, went off for 45 minutes down a trail only to come back to tell us it was unsuitable and then say how many good birds he had seen. Not just crass and irritating, but a complete lack of planning. Another guide got miffed when everyone didn’t want to stop at his favourite watering-hole for a sundowner, preferring to get back to our B&B to rest up before dinner.

Its hardly brain surgery – ask the client what they want and what their physical restrictions are, then plan accordingly.

If you are planning the whole trip – not just birding outings – there are four main considerations, one of which, sussing out alternate localities, has been mentioned.

The other three are crucial for groups with mobility problems regardless of the day’s itinerary.

Accommodation Accessible accommodation often isn’t! That is to say many places claim full accessibility and turn out to have problems because the managers do not understand disability at all. For example, I have lost count of the number of times where a ‘disabled room’ turns out to be identical to all the rest save for a few grab rails and other parts of the place cannot be accessed at all. There seems to be a total lack of realization that wheelchair users cannot, miraculously, stand once they get to their room, the dining facilities or bathrooms! Yet its really easy to get it right. All you have to do is strap your self to a dining chair and see if you can turn around in the room, get up close to a washbasin, alongside a lavatory or between beds. See if, without standing you can reach the spare toilet rolls, towels or closet hanging-rail. If you cannot, then nor will a wheelchair user be able to. If you cannot hop your dining chair over a shower tray then a wheelchair user will be stumped too.

I’ve been in a ‘fully accessible’ hotel where the bar was up a flight of six steps and the dining room was in the basement and the only way down were stairs or the dumb waiter (luckily it was big enough to wheel into)!

Oddly, the more ‘third world’ facilities are, the easier the access is. When the shower consist of a shower head in a large room with a floor that gently slopes to a drain its ideal… far better than some marbled pavilion with gold taps and a damn great sill into a ridiculously small shower cubicle – pretty useless too, for some of us horizontally challenged (for this read ‘fat’) birders.

Transport This is another area where a little thought can eliminate problems. Yes there are fully accessible vehicles and often with transfers from airports etc one can ensure that the taxi service is adapted. But, far more often, it is a matter of working out how to make an ordinary vehicle suitable. The crucial question here will be whether the client is prepared to be manhandled a bit, a lot or not at all. Sometimes metal ramps can be hired but there are always ways around the issue if there are enough people around. In India we managed to get a wheelchair into the back of a small pickup/Jeep hybrid by the use of several strong young men and a few beer crates acting as stepping stones. Solutions are not always possible without fit helpers stoic wheelchair user. Almost always the design of the vehicle is crucial and minibuses with sliding side doors set in the middle are far superior to those with the only opening to the front. Moreover, many a problem has been overcome by having a low stool to hand to act as an extra step for those who can walk.

Toilet Facilities This is such a taboo subject in some cultures that it is often neither addressed as fully, nor as full-on as it should be. It’s not just a matter of ensuring that the most appropriate accommodation is booked. Long car journeys between destinations should usually have some sort of rest break, and a bit of research will reveal which type of facility has a ‘disabled’ toilet. In the UK, Europe and North America virtually all petrol service stations will have an accessible lavatory. In the third world it may be a matter of a convenient hotel, maybe building in a break where refreshments can be purchased so that the rest stop owner doesn’t feel they are being exploited.

This article just touches on the logistics involved in low mobility birding trips hinting at a few solutions, but the watchword remains ‘listen’. No two people have identical needs, be they fully physically fit or with a handicap*. Successful guides will be those who ask for preferences, listen to needs and research solutions.

1500 Words

*NB The very terms are not universal – in the UK the word ‘handicapped’ has become non PC and ‘disabled’ is used… the very opposite of the US. The totally right on prefer the term ‘differently abled’, which I think is just as patronizing as it can get…