Freedom from ableism

Opportunities to experience a sense of freedom with nature recurred throughout the Sensing Nature interviews, and we’ve explored this theme in more detail as part of a newly released research paper.

The idea of nature providing freedom from the stresses of daily life has long captured the human imagination, particularly since the Romantic era when the beauty and awe of nature was revered in both art and culture.

The idea of feelings of freedom exists in much research examining how nature might affect health and wellbeing. Yet, this work tells us little about how people living with impairment and disability experience these sensations, or how they might be undermined by processes of ‘ableism’.

‘Ableism’ refers to the dominant practices and attitudes in society that devalue and undermine the potential of people with impairment. It influences how everyday environments are designed and managed (and how social expectations develop and persist) with ‘able-bodied’ people in mind, often ignoring the realities of life for people with diverse bodily capacities and priorities.

In this paper, we have examined how varied nature encounters may provide a sense of freedom from ableism, as well as experiences that undermine these opportunities.

We characterise these as social freedoms, mobile freedoms and exploratory freedoms.

Social freedoms include freedom from disabling social attitudes informed by narrow conceptions of sight impairment; freedom from disabling environments that often generate feelings of anxiety and tension; and freedom from overprotective social encounters that fail to see past impairment to recognise and respect people’s individual skills and abilities.

Mobile freedoms allow people to move, and move safely, and provide the freedom to choose how and when to engage with nature. Recognising the importance of these mobile freedoms highlights the limits to short ‘accessible’ sensory trails or gardens that fail to accommodate the joy of movement (the ‘kinesthetic’ sense) and often inadvertently reproduce segregated nature experiences.

Building on these mobile freedoms, the value of exploratory freedoms was also emphasised. Several participants cherished opportunities to cultivate the skills required to explore new terrains in nature, from nearby neighbourhood parks to coastlines, caves and mountaintops. Participant descriptions of these freedoms emphasised the richly textured ways in which people come to experience nature, not to ‘master’ it or ‘overcome’ impairment, but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel a part of nature.

Participants also raised important questions regarding the notion of ‘independence’ and ‘independent access’ to nature.

When getting out into nature, everyone – impaired or otherwise – is dependent on various levels of human and nonhuman intervention; be it in terms of the paths and tracks built to guide people through parks and countryside; the maps produced to support orientation and wayfinding; or the skills training which teaches people how to appraise and manage risk when engaging in activities like caving, kayaking or sailing.

As noted by prominent Disability Studies scholar, Alison Kafer, the failure to recognise these broader forms of dependency in society ‘suggests an act of ableist forgetting’. All bodies have needs, yet these relationships are often overshadowed by our growing preoccupation with self-sufficiency.

Countering these ableist tendencies requires society to both respect and embrace bodily diversity. The more we address the ableist norms and designs that permeate our world – built, socio-natural or otherwise – the more likely it is that we can live in a world where embodied diversity is both common and unremarkable.

This paper is published in the journal, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space.

If anyone would like a screen reader-friendly word version of the paper, do get in touch with Sarah Bell via