Despite a large and growing body of research examining the links between human health, wellbeing and nature, there remains limited critical engagement with the nature experiences of people living with impairment and disability. Such encounters tend to fluctuate in the public imagination from that of sub-human to super-human, often permeated by constraining narratives of risk and constraint, or what lecturer, Georgina Kleege describes as ‘the ancient myth of compensatory powers’.
Drawing on the narratives of people living with sight impairment, the Sensing Nature study sought to respond to recent calls to ‘imagine a crip interaction with nature… that doesn’t rely on either ignoring the limitations of the body or triumphing over them’ (as stated by prominent Disability Studies scholar and activist, Alison Kafer in 2017).
Combining in-depth narrative interviews with in-situ go-along interviews, Sensing Nature examined how people living with varied forms and severities of sight impairment experience a sense of wellbeing (or otherwise) with nature through the life course. In doing so, it has made several contributions.
Firstly, it has encouraged more critical engagement with the ableist assumptions that tend to underpin popular discourses of nature and independent nature access. The study foregrounds experiences of freedom from ableism with nature (characterised as social, mobile and exploratory freedoms), whilst also identifying conditions and emotional encounters that undermine such experiences in people’s everyday and whole lives.
In highlighting a range of opportunities to facilitate more inclusive nature experiences (visit ‘Outcomes’ section of the website for more details), Sensing Nature folds issues of social justice into the growing momentum to connect people with nature in the name of health and wellbeing.
Secondly, Sensing Nature has highlighted the importance of attending to the more ephemeral qualities of nature that shape experiences of health, wellbeing and disability. This includes the somewhat ‘absent presence’ of the weather, and the potential for different flows and intensities of wind, light and precipitation to soothe and invigorate, but also to disorientate and isolate.
Sensing Nature has also identified the importance of both routine and more fleeting ‘social’ interactions that contribute to feelings of positive connection amongst people living with sight impairment, moving the ‘social’ beyond the typical realms of human-human interaction to recognise the importance of nonhuman socialities. By attending to the role of sound and touch in shaping these socialities, Sensing Nature has identified approaches for opening up more widespread opportunities to forge meaningful nonhuman relationships in the context of life with sight impairment.
These findings are currently being put into practice through productive working relationships with VocalEyes, Andy Shipley (visually impaired facilitator and sensory explorer), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Sensory Trust, Vision UK, Moorvision, British Blind Sport, and the Ramblers, amongst many other great organisations (visit ‘Outcomes’ page for more details).
Thirdly, through a series of interactive academic workshops held around and beyond the UK, Sensing Nature has encouraged more critical reflection on the methods currently used to understand the links between nature, health and wellbeing. In particular, it has called for greater attention to life-course, mobile and in-situ methods that are genuinely tailored to people’s diverse sensory needs and priorities.
Overall, Sensing Nature has and continues to advocate for more inclusive approaches to research and practice that appreciate the plurality of embodied human experience, respecting and supporting a multiplicity of ways of sensing, being and moving with the world.