Recognising the resourceful dimensions

Walking Interconnections has enabled us all, as co-researchers, to recognise the creative, adaptive, resourceful dimensions of disability. For me our chief insight has been that disability can teach us—in the words of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson—“to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to rein in the impulse to control”.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2012). The case for conserving disability. Bioethical Inquiry 9: 342:432.
Sue Porter, PI

(available at Springer, ) (chargeable )


On functional and recreational walking

At the event last Monday 25th at the Aquarium for this project, someone spoke of differentiating between walking as functional and recreational, and how all the walks taken were recreational. I don’t think that’s accidental for the disabled people involved.

Speaking personally, so many years of medical history have been of doctors telling me I should walk – that is, functionally, place one foot in front of the other in order to move from one point to another. In almost 30 years of using a wheelchair, I’ve never yet seen a doctor who understood that that’s not what walking ever represented to me. It was moving through space, connecting with natural and social environments, relationships, meditation, relaxation, pleasure, mental health, tactility, and more. Those are the really important features of walking and it remains all of those things when I ‘walk’ with wheels.

More than that, in the context of this project, I chose the recreational focus for good reasons. A few people mentioned how widespread barriers mean that planning become central to disabled people’s lives. My whole life feels like planning: can I get into a place, move around, participate, be amongst people equally, what are the energy/health demands, what will be the energy/health consequences, etc, etc. It’s about all the dry stuff, the equivalent of placing one foot in front of the other in order to move from one point to another (routine, joyless). The point for me of Walking Interconnections was to explore liberation from that; it was about reconnecting with all those other things that walking always represented to me and that the medics never knew.

Liz Crow


Planning and “Walking” – by Liz Crow


I have a weekend on my own and intend to go for a trike ride but I can’t get myself out of the door. I scour the internet for cycle routes and wonder if I need to acknowledge mild agoraphobia. I am afraid, but realise the fear is rational. I am afraid of too-steep hills and muddy/gravely backsliding, of punctures and running out of battery power, of being too far from a road and in a place deserted so that I cannot call for help, of being without a phone signal when I most need it, of finding myself stranded between a rocky path behind me, unnavigable for a return journey and a steep-beyond-steep hill ahead because the map ran out of explicit information, or of the flight of steps that materialise from nowhere and leave me stranded on the wrong side of an underpass, or of getting lost because I can’t remember or recognise the path or decode the map because my brain doesn’t much work that way anymore, or of the crash landing from the trike or seeing the engine begin to smoke, every last one of which has happened some time over the past few years. The last two scare me least, but the others immobilise me. And yet I love my trike.


For me, it’s a biting of the tongue at the word walking (because I’m not, am I?) for the gain of a ‘walking’ buddy. It’s a temporary answer to a well nigh on agoraphobic anxiety I feel at taking the trike out along anywhere with a modicum of adventure, ruggedness or isolation (that is, all the best places).

Various things occurred to me from the workshop:

That what should be pleasure is predominantly anxiety. Pleasure is mainly a thing of hindsight rather than in the moment. And whist I exaggerate a little – my broad grin whilst triking ‘wild’ belies my anxiety – even at its best there is always an undercurrent of fear.

There will always be a degree of risk (puncture, isolation, etc and fewer options for extricating myself) but much of the risk is linked to environmental design (eg. choice of terrain when laying paths), equipment design and information availability (eg. how steep, what ground cover, how accurate the information is).

That places change with familiarity. They – and the conversations we have – may, by necessity, begin chiefly access-focussed (rather than broader sustainability), but this shifts with knowledge of a space, of our own mobility and of our partners, as well as with features that change, such as the weather.

That I’m not sure I’m ready to share the scale of my anxiety (or my grief) with a stranger, but it’s a part of any evaluation of ‘walking’.

A child asked one of the researchers the most perceptive question of all: “How long is a walk?” I can answer that: it is 20 metres according to the Department of Work and Pensions. They have brought in a whole new ruling that sees people eligible for mobility assistance through PIP only if they can walk no further than 20 metres. There’s scarcely a blue badge space within 20 metres of any shop or public place and it’s a measure that bears no relation to real life, yet people will lose their vehicles, their mechanisms of managing everyday life and even their jobs because of it. It’s a change in the system that is meant to support disabled people that ushers in a whole new fear of being seen to walk. While sustainability encourages walking, even using it as a rod to beat people into compliance, the DWP turns it into an offence.


Trying to shortlist routes for my meeting next week and I realise how hard it is – a combination of adapting my way of moving to that of a walker (distance, speed) but also wanting to seize the opportunity of a hiking-triking buddy to try out somewhere new and push the bounds of access whilst not knowing how far I can without knowing her capabilities and willingness much more. Can I risk there being a stile or deep gravel, a too-steep hill necessitating we turn around and retrace our movements? Or do I have to play safe and turn to routes tried and tested and a little tired of?

We’re both expected to suggest a route to take the other along, but I’m wondering whether to suggest she makes a shortlist for us both. I just don’t want to find myself triking the same old same old.


This morning was a hike-and-trike with my friend H, from our front doors, up and round the Downs. Lovely: green and talk. Thought about it in relation to Walking Interconnections. So easy to do with a friend such as her, where we each know the other’s limitations but also know each other well enough to ask or state upfront when we don’t.

I always begin, years of training, from an assumption that I am the one putting out everyone else. We detour in search of dropped kerbs, around steep hills, flights of steps, stiles and other objects. Along a street, our conversation is disrupted as I divert to the road and we try to talk around and between parked vehicles. My companion waits, time wasting, as I attach my trike to my chair. Today, we stopped twice while H took a phone call and the waiting was mine and I realised it was fine (not always, perhaps, but today): I looked around me, saw what I would not otherwise have seen had we been absorbed in conversation or moving ever forwards.

I would like to join a rambling group. I listen to Clare Balding’s Radio 4 Ramblings and envy the ease with which they discover new places, discover familiar places more deeply, deepen friendships and even fall in love. For me to join a ‘mainstream’ rambling group, I would need to know people first, to know whether they could/would take me in their stride, and yet I could not know them, or they me, without first joining. I do not want to join a disabled people’s rambling group, where disability becomes the linking theme and non-disabled people under the guise of fellow rambler are more truthfully there as volunteers. I want an experience more often like this morning’s with H.


What I found today is that much of Leigh Woods – 400 acres of woodland just across the suspension bridge; what R referred to as the lungs of Bristol – is trikable. In dry weather at least, I have a new space to explore.

Asked to draw a map of the route in advance, we decided instead to explore as we went. Instead, we each produced a map of our impression of the woods before setting out. R’s was leafy green and full, the river a buffer between city congestion and breathing space, whilst mine was a large blank canvas bordered by river and road. Today has begun sketching into that canvas, light and loose but with promise.

Liz Crow
Walking Interconnections participant


Notes and thoughts about language

by Alison Parfitt

We, the Walking Interconnections research team, were invited in June 2013 to The Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems conference. The conference was part of the Converge project which involves the Schumacher Research Institute and other research bodies across Europe. We were asked to talk about the Walking Interconnections research as a starting point for one of several break out discussion groups.

As you see from the notes of that discussion, (see below), there was a strong plea to be more aware of diversity; diversity amongst the disabled and folk in need of support or particular consideration. Diversity in more ways than you have ever thought of. And for me this is a strong starting point for any sustainability consideration. But what sticks with me now is what is NOT in the notes.

Early on in our group conversation, while talking about umpteen forms of diversity, someone said ‘…the disabled community has the Good, the Bad and the Ugly just like any other community in life …’ or something very like that. I included this communicative phrase (as I saw it) in the write up of our discussion, the notes. However, when I circulated my write up to the others who had been present this phrase was picked on because there were worries that it could be misconstrued, it might be read to mean a statement about physical bodily form etc etc. After more email exchanges and re-drafting that phrase is NOT now in the notes.

So what sticks with me is this sensitivity, walking on egg shells. We can’t use the communicative phrase that was spoken. Of course I know that most of us need to be more sensitive to these issues of labelling, conscious and unconscious etc. I am sure masses will have been discussed and written about all of this. But I just notice, that in everyday life, there is this caution, quite right, yet somehow I also want to be more relaxed and communicative with language.



A New Contract for Sustainability conference includes Walking Interconnections

The Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems  invited Walking Ingterconnections to describe our research for a discussion group workshop at a June conference, A New Contract for Sustainability.  At the Arnolfin in Bristol on 20 June 2013, this conference was  part of the Schumacher Institute’s Converge project which is described as  Rethinking globalisation in the light of Contraction and CONVERGEnce.  These notes are from our particular workshop.

The discussion began with a short description of our research project  Walking Interconnections: conversations of sustainability, based at University of Bristol. This action research project  pairs disabled folk and environmental/sustainability folk to go out for walks and share their life experiences, particularly of assessing risk, meeting barriers and obstacles, and being (inter)dependent on others. This is to gain insights or knowledge that could be useful when thinking about how we can all live more sustainably. There are arts methods involved; an agenda about bringing out the wisdom of disabled people who are not, it seems, much linked into sustainability activism as well as interests in walking experience.

This input was merely a prompt, subsequent discussion was not about the project but an airing of feelings , observations and experiences. Here are key phrases from that discussion:

We all have assumptions about who we are and how we are but really we don’t know as much as we might think. People often have less obvious capacities and incapacities. We are often not as we might seem.

 “Different” people (the many who are not ‘the norm’ whatever that is) can make different contributions .  Offering  from  another perspective.

“Different” people are often ‘tarred with one brush’ whereas there is great diversity. And disabled people include  all sorts – folk who can fit in in any sense and those who can, or who choose, not to. All sorts. Diversity. (This remark was made to emphasis diversity and is as much about atitude and not in any way as a description of different or disabled people)

How is the sustainability movement going to include contributions from “different” and disabled people?

If we are going to create/have a paradigm shift  (eg. the transformation that our German colleagues spoke of in the morning? ) are we going to include DIVERSITY from the start?

If you want to test something out … ask the people who find it hard to start with.

As well as the disabled let us not forget the wisdom of the elderly people (who are not valued enough in our society) and the wisdom of , say, child carers.  We currently over value attributes we have, such as intellectual abilities we are born with, at the expense of acquired wisdom, life skills.

Education ‘sucks’ for disabled people (there are often severe disadvantages, not the least because access (in widest sense) is very very poor for disabled and minority groups… (and that would include older people – life long learning etc.)

Society/we need to guard against having a ’ patronising ‘ attitude to the wisdom of different and disabled people.

There is no way forward without interdependence and trust.

There was discussion about the proposal to introduce special and charged parking arrangements in St Pauls, Bristol. This is an area where many charities, who ‘employ’ volunteers have their premises. A parking scheme for residents will not accommodate the comings and goings of volunteers. The envisaged result was described as being like ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the short term this situation is seen as a potential clash between social and environmental needs. In the longer term this proposal can be seen as an important step towards getting the much needed integrated city transport system.

It was suggested that we measure how well we are doing (with moving towards greater sustainability in life or anything …) by understanding how well we accommodate and value the weakest and most vulnerable. 

St Paul wrote ‘When I am weak,  I am strong’

The Walking Interconnections: conversations of sustainability project (described above) involves disabled people and sustainability practitioners sharing life experiences. However, this self selected group at the conference were interested to note that this topic had only attracted people who were themselves disabled or, in one case, a person who lived with a profoundly disabled daughter.  So, folk in this discussion group did not reflect the same ‘mixture’ of people, contributing  their experiences,  as the project does. 


kindness of strangers

Reading the blog, and talking yesterday with Liz, one of our researching walkers, I’m reminded of a walk I took this time last year. The whole walk followed a European walking route over a stretch from Stroud in Gloucestershire to Derby – a walk of over a hundred miles. My walking companions were able bodied and I was walking in a wheelchair. Needless to say there were lots of stretches of the walk that were inaccessible to me, and this story records one of the more subtle things about access, how we (or more accurately in this case I) experience obstacles emotionally. I often find myself chastising myself for being a wimp, feeling that I should be brave, take more risks, challenge myself and sometimes others.

In May of 2012 a small group of friends and I made a walk to Derby from Gloucestershire. The original motivation came from a conversation with my friend Richard, who is doing his PhD using drawing to facilitate people to engage in discussions about landscape. He had noticed that the second Affective Landscapes conference was being held in Derby, and saw an opportunity for us to do some more researching together, continuing some of the themes touched on in our slow walking towards the Severn project and some of the issues from our talking/writing group of friends, who had originally met through Local Agenda 21.

The project interested me, as someone who wants to challenge some assumptions about walking, particularly walking as research method (such as the assumption some people make that it should be a lone pursuit, undertaken in wild places etc), and to explore the distinctive contribution of disabled people in relation to embodied knowing, knowing about the body in space/place. It also pressed a lot of buttons in relation to physical access and the marginalised body.

The walk was planned in two and three day stages, to fit with our availability, and timed so that we would walk into Derby the evening before the conference and present a paper about the walk the next day.

Many things have come out of the Derby walking project for me, and one of them relates to kindness, specifically the kindness of strangers.

The towpath between Finwood and Kingswood Brook, north of Bushwood Grange.

Moving towards the M4 as it crosses the canal the speeding horizontal of the traffic sucks in the landscape around it, tugging at our attention, as if catching silk on a bramble. Tugged.

The other side of the motorway, pushing forward to find a lost tranquility we are stung by the rasp of quad bikes ripping their way out of the green lane and over the tiny bridge (‘insufficient to carry heavy cars’) and down the towpath the way we came.

So far, so far then…

At Kingswood Brook the towpath is commandeered by a garden, and the garden gate wears a ‘private property’ sign CIMG2925

 We take a detour onto the Grand Union canal towpath, passed (locked) facilities, including a disabled toilet – odd as this turns out to be a near inaccessible island! The alternative route at this junction of the two canals is guarded by steep steps. Just over the brow of the top step is visible another ‘private‘ sign on another garden gate.


Lunch in the pub for everyone else it seems, but not for me as the pub where we arranged to meet is on the other side of those steps.

Alison runs up and down towpaths looking for an accessible way out, at this point it looks as if I may just have to backtrack a mile to Kingswood Junction, where we met the quad bikes, and resign myself to travelling by van again. Helpful cyclists stop, they warn of more steps at bridges, and shake their heads as they try to imagine what an accessible surface might look like. It’s hard to step out of mobility and into being disabled.

Finally we return to the steep bridge over the Stratford canal, which we passed earlier, its blue engineering bricks shiny and smooth, the surface ridged by small brick steps. I feel anxious that I might overturn on the smooth surface, vulnerable and exposed as I would be unable to right myself or my wheelchair. Alison makes off over the bridge to see where the path leads on the other side, I wait impatiently, feeling like a wimp, what would once have felt fun feels frightening.


There is a way out beyond the bridge she says – still I dither, anxious, afraid of overturning like a black beetle. We turn away as Alison and I discuss what’s so hard about it.  And then it happens again, the kindness of strangers. Down the towpath two women are walking, both substantial, strong looking women. We are assessed, the immediate question ‘have you got a problem, can I help?’ I hesitate, then bolstered by the experiences of the last two days say ‘yes’. I admit my fears, explain my need. “Would it help if we came with you?’ another slight hesitation on my part, then ‘yes, please’.

We are on! I square up to the bridge, its brick lips, its camber and steep pitch. One woman either side of me and one behind I motor forwards, up and onto the bridge. I can see the basin and towpath on the other side. (What I don’t see is a real ‘view’ from the top. Getting over is such a struggle all my energy is expended on just overcoming the obstacle). Going down the other side is scary but do-able and talk-and-laugh-about-able. I reach the level towpath and thank them. They continue on their walk, smiling. I am warmed by their care, as I was stung by the ‘private’ notices and the steps.

Further round the canal basin we see evidence of the sell off of the waterways. Useful public buildings are turned into private offices, free boating facilities are locked up. Outside at the back of the building two chairs sit, sadly looking out through a gap in an overgrown hedge.




Dialogical Art

Dear all,
I came across a reference to ‘Dialogical art’ and looking it up (but not reading books or getting buried in relational aesthetics – well not yet) I am asking myself and you are we doing dialogical art? It feels like it. I am guessing there is some cross over between arts based research methods and dialogical art?

Its not the label that necessarily matters, I am just ferreting about, trying to understand. Looking at PAR, performance art, making change etc (This has also prompted me to remember people I admired 30 years ago who were committed to community arts and social change. )

Best, Alison


Walking and noticing

I’m at this moment heading back from Bristol to London after our first workshop on the Walking Interconnections research, where as a group of around 25 people we gathered to begin a journey of exploration together on sustainability and disability. Already on the train, and with a couple of hours ahead to get to Paddington Station, my mind starts to fly all the way back through the day – I love these trips back home right after a group activity, where I get flashes of images, sounds and tastes of it; it’s like my mind is trying to grab those nice memories so that they wouldn’t slip away. It was, indeed, a great day.

Two words are still resonating in my head very strongly: walking and noticing. As the workshop evolved, Sue, Dee, Shawn, Suze and Alison presented the background of Walking Interconnections project, and we talked about the practice of walking, disability, sustainability and engaging in interdependency with others, with our communities. More and more, this idea of ‘noticing’ grew into me strongly.

I began to ask myself: How much do I ‘notice’ when I walk every day? How much do I allow myself to “feel the Earth below myself”? How much do I look at other people’s eyes when I’m walking, strangers as they might be, but people I’m walking with at last? How much do I let myself lift my head up, turn around and enjoy while I pass by?

Yes, we are running all the time. And yes, that’s how “the world works”, supposedly. But do I want to feel trapped in the clock, rushing for the sake of rushing? How much do I loose when I do that? What does the world of ‘noticing’ have to offer me that I haven’t realized about yet?

Now I’m out of the train, walking through the station to the underground, and I see… I notice that I don’t notice. That insight made me reflect on something: how can we expect change to happen, if we don’t notice the world that’s around us? I don’t want to fall into the trap of being overly simplistic and say that all the issues of the world will be solved once we start noticing – I wish so certainly, but as much as I would like it to be so linear and straightforward, it is not. However, noticing does feel to me as a major first step. If we want to make things happen, if we want change to occur, we need to start noticing more, engage our whole being, our senses, when we walk, when we talk, when we listen – being present, embodied, showing up completely. Otherwise, it feels to me that it all begins and ends in our heads, sort of an intellectual mind game where we supposedly understand what’s wrong and how to fix it – that’s it! All done! Yet, we are still falling apart…

One of the most transformational things that I have done recently was an eco-walk through the High Moor in Devon. And now I realized why it changed me so much. That day, during that walk, I was able to notice, to feel with heart, mind and soul, The Earth and the community I was with. That’s where the energy came from for me, that’s where I realized that, once I start noticing, I’m not excluding myself anymore from the environment – I merge within, my noticing becomes part of me and I become part of what I notice. And then I can connect, and then I can change, and only then, I can be a helping hand to overall change.

I’m at home now, still getting flashes and glimpses of the great day at Bristol, and fantasizing about the walks ahead; in the meantime, I have my everyday walks to start noticing.

Sole Riestra


Reading and walking

Every now and then, someone will tell me they always see me reading and walking.

I feel like I’ve always read books while I walk and it’s never felt strange. Growing up in south-east London, I used to see a lot of people reading on their way to the bus stop or train station, or walking through the Tube, and I can clearly remember dawdling up the road on my way home from primary school, lost in a book, ignoring my brother. I started because I love reading so much – I’d be reading while getting dressed, and didn’t want to leave the story – and later it became a way of escaping from the world. Reading on my way to secondary school or on my way to work cut down the amount of time I had to think about being there.

It’s not that I don’t like walking – I love it, I love the time for thinking, and observing the world. My favourite walks to jobs have had boring sections to read on, and then getting to the river or the Harbour, where I stop reading and look at the water, how different it is ever day, how it always changes – the swallows over the water, the wagtails on the banks, how the light hits the river mud and transforms it. And I love smiling and nodding with the people I saw everyday, going in the other direction. I like taking time to think about things, and then read a little bit, while the ideas percolate in the back of my brain. And it’s a real boon for those times when I’m stressed and anxious, and my thoughts are racing a mile a minute – I read, and it relaxes me. It’s normal for me – when I leave the house I check I’ve got my keys, my phone, my wallet, my camera and a book.

It used to bother me that people mention it so often – when they pass me and ask don’t I bump into things – but now I smile and tell them no, I have radar, or that truly, I am paying much more attention to my surroundings than when I’m not reading, and pinballing off walls and pavement furniture, because I’m lost in a daydream. And it makes me feel part of the community – when I go to pick up a parcel, or a prescription, go to the coffee shop or the launderette, people will tell me they always see me reading and walking, and it’s the start of a chat. I like that, being part of the neighbourhood, like I belong.

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