Accessible Gardening: Creating spaces in nature for all
The first image that comes to mind when the word gardener is mentioned might not be a grower in a wheelchair tending to seedlings, people with walkers watering plants, or people with other disabilities working with the land. But why not? On most farms, gardens, and public natural spaces, accessibility isn't a given; the terrain may be rough, and universal design is not always considered. When it comes to growing food or other plants, doing so directly in the ground can make participation seem like an impossibility for people with various disabilities. Being able to enjoy outdoor gardens and landscapes without assistance come down to design. The social model of disability suggests that disability is a result of one's environment, both physical and social. This environment creates handicaps and barriers, not the disability. So the way to address disability is to change the environment and society, rather than people with disabilities.In many places, breaking down barriers between people and the natural environment through universal design is priority, whether just to enjoy proximity to nature or be a part of tending to it.
I work at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO). Classes and guests are invited to Seminary Hill Farm, which produces food for our dining hall, CSAs, and local food security partners. As a disability advocate and ADA coordinator, making interactions with the land as accessible as possible is a priority. When Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a passionate wheelchair hiker, avid gardener, and a lover of wild places, came to campus to offer a lecture, we visited the greenhouse full of seedlings and began to dream with the farmer about varying heights of raised beds and interspersed seating areas.
A talented fellow churchgoer, Ron Headings, worked to put our dreams for a universally designed garden area at MTSO into action. An AmeriCorps team plus volunteers and leaders from the nearby Stratford Ecological center also worked to build accessible beds that await placement in an area outside the dining area, where some of the food will be eaten and shared. MTSO staff are currently working to finish the project. High school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who intern on campus will be among the first to try out the new garden.
Take stock of the green or lack of accessible green space near your church or organization. What creative strategies could you employ?
Resources for creating accessible gardens:
Organizations like Accessible Gardens make, sell, and ship accessible garden boxes that can enhance outdoor spaces and increase involvement with the natural world.
Sarah Jay, "Wheelchair Accessible Garden Beds: Seated Options," Epic Gardening, April 7, 2023.
Julie Bawden-Davis, "How to Create a More Accessible Garden," Garden Tech.
Field Associate, ADN
Coordinating Council Member, Institute on Theology and Disability
First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, OH