Garden Visiting on Wheels

I learned a great deal about accessibility in my work in community garden design before my husband used a wheelchair and I had to buy myself a mobility scooter. I created the Accessible Gardens website for people-on-wheels, now run by Mark Lane.

detail-fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, repton, 1818.

detail-fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, repton, 1818.

Historic gardens, especially if grade-listed, have their own problems, how do you reconcile an historic landscape which has to retain steps, meadows and slopes with the requirements of people-on-wheels? Their original owners would have had servants to carry them up and down, or push them in their bath chairs, much like Humphry Repton. And I expect he had trouble on wet grass and gravel, wheels falling off narrow paths into soil, shrub branches banging him in the face…

While I do have to accept that there are places I cannot go, I do want to feel I am welcome, that someone has made an effort. My first action on planning a visit is the website, some may use a leaflet. There is often a wheelchair symbol – but what does that mean? That everywhere is accessible/ or that there is a toilet that obeys all the regulations, but has a door that is so heavy, I can’t open it on my own, for many of us often visit alone, no friends to open doors. And there is a difference between wheels which have motors and wheels that do not. Try pushing a 14 stone man in a chair on gravel, try being on a mobility scooter on a long gravel path – the noise upsets the peace and quiet. Yes, I know,

I know! concrete paths don’t look nice, the cost of a resin-bonded half-a-mile path is prohibitive and gravel is cheap. BUT, with a little thought, there could be firm hoggin paths through woodland, there could be a short path to a viewing point, there could be benches or seats at regular intervals for people-with-sticks?

And, yes, I do know about heritage and restoration integrity; as a trustee years ago of a garden which included a sunken garden, I had many a discussion about installing a lift down into it versus purity of restoration. I wanted people-on-wheels to experience the quite astonishing change in the atmosphere down those nine or ten (inaccessible) steps to one of complete tranquility..

Those of us on wheels have to prepare before a visit – how accessible is it? Is there a description, a map on the website? Or will we see the dreaded phrase ‘wheelchairs are available on a first-come first- served basis’ which will put off any visitor who does not have their own wheels and is an indication of thoughtlessness. The Accessible Gardens website was set up to inform visitors, describe the route, the gardens were given reports to respond before they were published. This sometimes resulted in an increase in awareness by garden owners, and some action, but was quite often ignored. My advice, if asked, started with ‘have you gone around the garden with someone-on-wheels, have you pushed a chair, have you hired a scooter and wheeled yourself?’ Recently, I went to the website of a very well-known garden to find nothing about accessibility, and was told ‘it’s in small print, you have to scroll down’. I pointed out that nowhere did it say scroll down, and how were people with poor eyesight to read a font 9? It has to be said that the Manager did ring me up to apologise and say he would put it right. I’ve just heard there will be an accessibility tab and they have asked me to copy-read the text! Well done Hestercombe!

I visited a garden which was part of a national organisation, assuming the wheelchair sign on the website meant well, to follow a wheelchair sign up a path which led me onto grass and a four-inch drop (the metal edge) onto gravel. There was no way from there into the house or café - or toilets. I complained, was told the disabled loo was by the ticket office…I was given a table and a free cream tea, but I wanted to see the garden. I do tell people that a tiny step which legs just cross without thought or a dip in the ground at the end of ramps is a full-stop for wheels without kerb-climbers. I tell them that grass will have hidden lumps and dips which twist wheels, cut out motors, and is impossible when damp. And I write letters and e-mails…

What do I want? To see phrases such as ‘you cannot go here, but there is a resting place for you to view here’. I do not want to see the immensely irritating phrase ‘wheelchairs are available on a first-come first-served, they are not bookable in advance,’ i.e. ‘on your head be it!’, shrug, we don’t care.. I want to see maps with routes, annotated, path surfaces labelled. I want to be told of narrow paths between plants (temporary claustrophobia, even panic). I want spaces beside benches so I can sit next to people. Oh, and I want audio-described tours for people who are blind. At Writtle University College, I give occasional lectures to design students.. I tell them they can look up the equality act and buildings regulations on the internet, I’m going to talk about the psychology of having disabilities. I suggest they hire wheels and go around the campus, to learn by doing I tell them to think of the person first, to watch that person them move, to ask them about the disability – to listen. Think beyond raised planters, think beyond the legal requirements. Say ‘what is the easiest way for you to…?’ Remember that we like to be independent.

Language affects attitude: a ‘disabled toilet’ is one which doesn’t work, an accessible toilet is one which has sufficient room to open the door and wheel in without it banging on you, to turn around, do your stuff and wheel out. ‘Accessible’ means that someone has thought beyond the regulations, about the person who is on wheels.

My name is Bella, I am a writer. I have disabilities.