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. 


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.

Guest Blogger


Concrete Purpose of ‘Aimless’ Walks

by Dr Shawn Sobers


It was said by someone in an early research planning meeting that, for them, walking was the natural thing to do if they wanted to have a good chat with a friend.  Most of the rest of the group agreed but I didn’t, as walking for walking sake isn’t something I normally do, and if I arrange to meet a friend to chat we would usually go for a drink.  I only usually walk if I am going somewhere.

Well yesterday was slightly different.  After a work-related meeting with a friend, we both knew we had something on our minds and wanted to speak about it to each other straight away in private.  This intuition was prompted by a brief email conversation the week before, so after the work meeting I suggested we go for a walk to chat.  (I did not suggest a walk with this project in mind, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time).  They put their bags and things in the car, and we proceeded to walk up the high street, around the block and back to the starting point, which in all took about 45mins.  Along the way we slowed when the talking got intense, negotiating narrow pavements by walking in the middle of a quiet street, I stopped them at one point walking through dog mess, and we even sat on someone’s front garden wall for a while to talk more closely.  The owner of the house opened the door and was coming in and out with bags, putting them into his car.  I shouted to him laughing, “I hope you don’t mind us sitting on your wall!”  He laughed back saying he didn’t mind.  Whilst sat there another man came past whom my walking partner knew, so they chatted for a while, and in their exchange I found out new things about them – about musical talents they were both pursuing together, which was lovely to find out.

Of course I cannot see through parallel lives and envisage what our conversation would have been like if we had drove aimlessly, if we went to a café, or if we found an empty meeting room in the building we had just left.  There was something about walking being a confidential space.  I knew what we were going to speak about was confidential, so on a walk any ears are transitory, not fixed or fixated.  We could easily have driven somewhere, but where? The negotiation of traffic, burning petrol and trying not to crash whilst concentrating on an important conversation would not be ideal.  The passenger would get the impression the driver is only half listening, (and rightly so!), and would not want to distract from the safety of the road, so the communication would not be equal, candid or spontaneous.  In hindsight we probably should have gone to a café, as our previous meeting ran through lunch time, but I didn’t have any money on me so that would not have been my first option at that precise moment.  It wasn’t raining, so a wandering walk it was.

The walk was beautiful not only for the incidents shared along the way, but also as a platform of communication.  We shared personal things we didn’t know about each other, both directly in the conversation we had, and also in the ease of our body language in such circumstances – for example, giving way to each other, moderating our pace of walking to accommodate the other.

I started this article saying I only usually walk if I have somewhere to go, what I now realise I actually meant, I only usually walk if the walk has a concrete purpose.  Yesterday, the concrete purpose was to communicate.  The exchange of communicate was the destination that gave direction to an ‘aimless’ walk.  Aimless only in the geographic, not meaningful sense.

Near the end I reminded them that this was not the first time we had such a long heartfelt conversation during a long ‘aimless’ walk, the first time being about ten and a half years ago when we got lost together during a group trip to a holiday camp.  They had forgotten all about it, but recalled it instantly when I mentioned it, and laughed.

Walking is a metaphor for many things, and can attach itself to many concrete purposes; you can take ideas for a walk (brainstorming), walking to clear you head, to calm down, to get fresh air, to save money, to see new sights.  Some can only walk with music pumping in their ears, others (like me ) need to feel aware of their surroundings.  During this research I will be interested in pulling some of these threads of social uses of walks in my writing, entwined with the core themes of this research project – of the communication and awareness of environmental concerns through the ‘meeting of minds’ of the people we recruit to go on mutual walks.

My walk yesterday was intimate, not romantic, but it reminds me of the song ‘A Long Walk’ by Jill Scott.  Enjoy.