When people consider making an activity more accessible, what often comes to mind is adding things like ramps, handrails or special seating to buildings and outdoor spaces. For Virginia Rose, creating accessibility isn’t just for those with mobility issues now. It’s also about creating a space that every one of us can enjoy.
Rose is the founder of Birdability, a nonprofit that started small in Austin, Texas, and has blossomed into an interconnected movement to bring birding to anyone who is interested via a crowdsourced map of accessible birding spots across the United States and even in Canada.
“What I realized pretty quickly was that when I am talking about people who have access challenges, I am talking about grandparents, moms with strollers, people who are just done with the bushwhacking, all life stages,” says Rose. “It’s for you in 20 years, when you want to keep birding.”
Rose has been in a wheelchair most of her life after a childhood accident, and she didn’t take up birding until she was 44. But once she got started, she was a literal force of nature.
'No Walking People Allowed'
The Travis Audubon Society offered a seminar, so she attended and took all the organization’s birding classes and went to all the field trips. “No field trip leader ever said ‘no’ to me. They just took me with them wherever they went.”
It was during a Travis Audubon birdathon in 2018 that an idea sparked. “For 20 years, I have been barreling around with all my walking friends at birdathons and I decided I was going to have my own birdathon.” These events involve people forming teams and enlist sponsors to pay them for each bird they spot or to donate a lump sum.
She had been leading birding events for a while, all the while making a list of about 30 accessible or at least partially accessible parks around the area that were good for birding. Rose decided that for her version of a birdathon, she would bird from dawn until dusk, one accessible park at a time. Her friends thought it was such a great idea that they wanted in, too. “I said ‘No walking people allowed!',” Rose says.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to share the space. Rose says that she had two reasons for wanting to tackle the event solo. “First, a park is not accessible unless I can do it alone,” she says. “The point of being accessible is you don’t need anyone to help you.”
It is very important for people to bird alone, to be alone in nature.
Her second reason focused more on the essence of birding as she sees it. “It is very important for people to bird alone, to be alone in nature,” she says. “Anyone who is a nature buff will recognize that something happens when you are alone in nature. My recognition was that I show up because I have to. I meet myself on the trail and something happens. You draw on resources that may otherwise be hiding. And I feel like those resources are creative and empowering.”
The requirement of being present is central to birding, and to Rose, that is exactly why it is so satisfying. “You are listening carefully to bird vocalizations and watching the leaves and branches. You have to require yourself to be so present that all other things vanish. It really does take you away.”
Rose’s birdathon drew media interest and attention from the National Audubon Society, which asked her to come speak at its national convention. When she returned to Austin, she visited support group meetings for spinal cord patients, amputees, people with multiple sclerosis and other disorders and talked to them about birding. Some of these people joined her for quarterly walks and birthday bird events.
Travis Audubon gave her a web page, and Birdability was born. Rose started a blog that piqued the interest of people all over the country, some with their own challenges and others who had children or other loved ones with mobility issues. She wanted to share this idea of accessible birding with everyone, so Rose created a document called “Access Considerations.” The list started with nine items she had written for herself and evolved into a full manual that anyone could use to implement Birdability based on what Rose had done in Austin. “We now have over 50 captains, some in Central America, Canada, all over.”
Birdability really took flight at the National Audubon Society’s 2019 conference, when Rose ended her presentation talking about her dream of having Birdability teams in cities all across the country. It just so happened two audience members were storymappers and they said “We can do this.”
Open Access Maps
Rose’s new friends took her access considerations and turned them into a survey. Now people can go to a site anywhere in the world and complete the survey from their phone, and the information is forever pinned to the Birdability map. “You don’t even have to know if it’s accessible,” she said. The answers given to the survey indicate the site’s accessibility.
The nonprofit gets a lot of support, financial and otherwise, from the National Audubon Society, Rose says, as well as from Cornell and others. “So many groups have pitched in.”
Birdability’s map has sites pinned in every state including Alaska and Hawaii and upwards into Canada. There are even sites pinned now in Europe but Rose isn't about to rest. “Next on my list is to get Birdability programming at all the disabled kids camps around the nation. There is a mystery waiting for you every single day.”