Flipping wheel chairs and blinding stairs

Day 1: Self-Awareness

When trying to create offers for people with disabilities, it can be difficult to anticipate how those offers need to be designed, which aspects have to be considered and what possible barriers might be there. After all, it is difficult to know how a person in a wheelchair or a blind person experiences a hiking trip.

Thus, our experts from BSVÖ and ÖZIV gave us the chance to spend the first day experiencing these situations as much as possible ourselves. Armed with wheelchairs, a tremor simulator, blindfolds, white canes and special glasses simulating different visual impairments, we got to experience first-hand which possible challenges people with disabilities might face. First and foremost, all participants agreed that it increased the respect they have for people navigating daily life with disabilities. “There are so many aspects you just don’t think about – I never realised how difficult it is to navigate bark mulch while sitting in a wheel chair for example. It’s really exhausting!”, said one of the participants. Heavy doors can pose a problem as well:

Peter from ÖZIV explained the basic rules and safety concerns when using a wheelchair. “Many people don’t realise that it is really easy to tip over a wheel chair”, he explained. Also, paths with very low slopes might be easy for us but can be tricky for people in wheelchairs. Isabella explained that it is important to keep hikes at a length that is manageable. Electric wheel chairs have a limited range – she suggests asking participants beforehand how long their batteries last. Last but not least, checking if facilities have accessible restrooms is a must!

Mahendra and Doris from BSVÖ introduced the Naturefriends to navigating the world without sight, explained the use of white canes and gave tips what to do when you help a blind or partially sighted person move around. “Again, communication is the key: Ask the person you are supporting what is comfortable for them. Would they like to hold on to your arm? How many verbal clues do they need?”, Mahendra emphasizes. That walking down stairs or on uneven terrain requires trust, is something the group learned. “Suddenly I am totally dependent on the person guiding me – I have no clue where the stairs begin and end!”, participants observed. Daily tasks, such as navigating a bathroom suddenly become complex. Some Naturefriends ate their lunch while blindfolded: Where was the fork again? Where did I put my glass?

After lunch, it was time to test ourselves in the real world and we spent the afternoon exploring the National Park. Note: A 3km walk might seem short, but we had to realise that it is quite the distance! Suddenly, there were other hikers, families with children running around and people on bicycles. “It was especially interesting to realise how others look at you differently when you sit in a wheelchair”, one person described her experience.

What are the challenges, when going on hikes together? Isabella described that for her, the speed is important: „Make sure the group stays together, so no one feels stressed or left behind. Give people a chance to experience their surroundings without being rushed.” David gave valuable tips how guides can incorporate all senses: “Experiences on a hike are not limited to sight! Give the group plants to touch and smell. If you know the plant well and it is safe, taste is important, too!”, he explained. 

Naturefriends Italy also shared a video they created: View here.

Day 2: Practical implication

On our second day, it was all about the question what our member organisations can do at home. In groups, we worked on ideas and first concepts.

Then, we shared our ideas and discussed chances and possible challenges. Naturefriends Romania already started their first project (pictures and report will follow soon)! It was apparent that there are plenty of ideas floating around already – it will be exciting to see what sort of offers will be developed.

After a fantastic weekend it was time to say good bye. But: Thankfully not for long, because we will meet again in September in Belgium for our second workshop focusing on climbing! Thanks TB and FROS already for hosting us in the fall.