I grew up with a great love and respect for the outdoors and recently discovered the joys of birding. But after sustaining injuries and undergoing multiple surgeries from my time in the military, my relationship with the outdoors has changed dramatically. Before, I could just pick a place and go. Now I need to be concerned with the slope and surface of the trail, and if the distance is something I can manage. Finding this kind of information for my mobility disability can be difficult. For many others, finding information for other types of mobility, visual, auditory and intellectual disabilities can be near impossible.
A new movement, called Birdability, is working towards closing that information gap and making the outdoors accessible to all. Birdability’s goals include educating the public on access-based issues with the outdoors, producing guidance documentation and research, and providing real-world data on trail conditions and accessibility. The Birdability map includes valuable information like terrain, trail distance, bathroom accessibility, even parking lot layout. The data is gathered by volunteers who complete a brief trail survey. The map currently covers locales across North and South America with the hope of expansion across the globe.
Arizona has an amazing diversity of bird species and bird watching opportunities. Across the state, there are 48 designated Important Bird Areas (IBAs). These sites were established In partnership with Arizona Game and Fish, Tucson Audubon Society, and other partner organizations, These sites highlight the variety of habitats and the critical roles they play for our bird populations. Many of these sites are open to the public and are a great place to start when looking for new birding locations. Some places, like the Grand Canyon, have websites covering what kind of trails are available and accessibility resources. Other locations like Badger Spring Trailhead in the Agua Fria National Monument provide much less information on what the trail can accommodate. This is where the Birdability map can play an important and much needed role in planning outdoor excursions for people with disabilities. However, the map is still unfinished, with just over 20 sites currently documented in Arizona.
To help build out the map and fill in the information gaps, I started visiting some of our IBAs. In December, I traveled to five sites and completed the simple trail survey to better help those with disabilities learn about trails before they set out on the road. During my site visits, I got to see a small portion of the diversity that runs throughout our state; from having the need to wear shorts while I travelled along Bush Highway through Tonto National Forest, to wishing that I had brought mittens when it started to snow at Watson Lake in Prescott. I was able to see species ranging from House Finches to Ospreys and American White Pelicans.
Historically, the outdoors have been an exclusive place, particularly for people with disabilities and communities of color. Unsurprisingly, I also saw that a lot of areas are still not accommodating to those with disabilities, Now realistically, not all outdoor places can be fully accommodating, but a large percentage of them certainly can be. Making the outdoors more open can only have a positive effect as more people get to experience the health and physiological benefits that nature provides. The Birdability group will continue its work to document and raise awareness around accessibility and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get outside and learn about the natural world around us.