My sister runs a charity for children with autism in South London, and I was talking to her recently about an incident that one of her young people experienced.
The young person and his father had attended an adventure talk at a prestigious adventure venue in London, and whilst the lad was fidgeting a bit during the talk, the lady in front turned around and told him to “shut up”!
The father bravely waited to the end of the talk and approached the lady to explain that his son had autism and that what he was doing during the talk was normal and due to his autism; on hearing this the lady retorted arrogantly, “Well, maybe he shouldn’t be here then!”
It got me thinking… If he wasn’t supposed to be there, where was he supposed to be?
This is clearly one ignorant person, though it does make you think about wider attitudes towards people with disabilities and inclusion in the outdoors. How do people from all areas of society see themselves in the outdoors, regardless of colour, ability, social status, age and gender?
The visibility and inclusion of disability in society has increased in recent years with growing exposure through the Paralympics, Invictus Games and plenty of media exposure covering stories of achievement and performances of people with disabilities, but it seems to take longer to filter into the outdoor world.
Adventure and the outdoors historically pictures a fit, healthy, athletic, predominantly white male identity. It has become almost like an ancient Greek homage to physical and mental beauty; a lot of what we see shows non-disabled people enjoying active adventure sports and a rugged environment that they have mastered.
'Adventure and the outdoors historically pictures a fit, healthy, athletic, predominantly white male identity.'
In creating this image of outdoor activities and adventure the sector has, possibly unintentionally, completely alienated people of colour, women, people with a physical disability and people with mental health, behavioural and learning difficulties.
Recently the CEO of a large Canadian outdoor retailer wrote an open letter, where he publicly announced his belief that he and his company were guilty of building and perpetuating an image of the outdoors that didn’t represent everyone. And that from now on they were going to change this paradigm so that the outdoors can be a place where everyone sees themselves.
This refreshing admission was backed up by action and the company’s website for a start has already begun to show a diversity of people, colours, shapes and abilities. You may think that this might be a cynical attempt to try and sell more outdoor kit and equipment, and in some ways it is, it is about opening up a revenue stream from a new audience. But it is also an admission by the manufacturing sector that it might be doing something wrong, and a will to start catering for an underrepresented sector of society.
So how do people get to see themselves in the outdoors?
If we are looking to make the outdoor more equitable we need to look at how people from a range of backgrounds see their place in the outdoors, what do they want to do and how do they want to participate. This has to be through cultural, social and functional lenses.
'Changing perceptions of what disability is, and how people with disabilities can engage and perform in the outdoors and in outdoor activities, is key to increasing participation'
We need outdoor publishers and kit manufacturers, organisations and providers of adventure sports, outdoor landowners, disability organisations and outdoor practitioners to all help create a new picture of inclusion in all areas of the outdoors, so that no child or person with a disability of any sort has to feel that they are not included, or can’t see themselves in the outdoors, and no one is able to tell a person with a disability that they shouldn’t be there.
We need to create an aspiration across the sector that allows people to be involved in outdoor recreation, and to enable them to perform to the highest levels.
There are organisations that do some amazing work in this area. Some are traditional outdoor centres, others are community-based organisations or support organisations who might provide adaptive equipment or training. Many of them have a long history of inclusive practice. But the same applies to disability as it does to all inclusion: the door is open but the route to the door is hard and littered with obstacles. We all have a role in helping to remove these barriers so that more people can get to the door, be this having a broader diversity of people in outdoor magazines and adverts for equipment, making equipment that fits a wider range of participants, having more coverage of amazing projects that show people of all abilities enjoying and performing in the outdoors, and training community change drivers in organisations or outdoor professionals to work in a more culturally aware and inclusive way.
It would be my hope that anyone who comes to one of my talks is more than welcome to shift about and make a bit of noise, it might make a welcome change to the heckling and shouting.