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Access Intimacy in Nature: Accessing Care through Direct Experiences

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

In celebration of Disability Awareness Month, we share a series of stories that portray what true access intimacy is and the lesson that Nature provides us.

Blog article originally published through ANFT.

ID: Summer is wading in a pond, touching the water to pick up a feather. Text: Access Intimacy in Nature. Photo credit: Summer Lajoie

I am Deaf. My father has Alzheimers. My other father has chronic pain and auto-immune disease. I have a co-worker and partner who has cerebral palsy and identifies as a DeafDisabled person. I used to date a DeafBlind woman. Myself and many of my friends and family require accommodations. Disability, the experience living with disability (deafness and my most recent diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder), and interacting with people with disabilities is deeply interwoven in my life. My world has been expanded by interacting with them, not limited. But I have seen the limits that the able-bodied world has imposed on them.

Growing up, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to successfully find a job in an outdoors-related or healing profession. As a child, I wanted to become a vet or an animal rights activist, but I didn’t have role models of Deaf people working in those industries nor the skills yet to advocate for myself to pave that path. So I chose the comfortable and acceptable space of the Deaf/signing community and became a teacher at a Deaf school. When I got diagnosed with anxiety and had to leave my job, I had a spiritual awakening. I had a vision that revealed my real purpose on earth- it was to expand my care for all living beings, including More Than Human World. I became a Nature and Forest Therapy guide to heal both myself and help others heal. It is through my connection with the Forest that I have explored and discovered how Nature can provide a place for healing, through access intimacy and care webs.

So, what is access intimacy?

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. -Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence

Every year, 40 million people with disabilities are denied jobs. I am part of that number, unable to work certain jobs not because of my inability to hear, but because the price of accommodations makes it hard for small businesses to hire. Furthermore, Deaf and hard of hearing people lack access to healing: Statistics reveal that they are 3-4 times more likely to have emotional and psychological disorders (like anxiety & depression) compared with their hearing peers, approximately 65% of deaf women experience suicidal ideation, approximately 40% Deaf/HOH people will attempt suicide in their lifetime, at least 50% will consider suicide at one point in their lives.With these numbers in mind, we as Nature/Forest Therapy guides should create a container that is accessible and inclusive. And that it should incorporate radical love and ensure that no one is left behind.

“Access should come from love, not obligation.”

ID: Black and white photo of group of people sitting close, touching, smiling, and protactiling. Text reads: "access should come from love, not obligation." Photo credit: Mariana Krueger

What my Forest and Nature Therapy training program provided me (access to interpreters, captioning), etc. felt like a gesture of love, not obligation: access intimacy. During my immersion where I was the only Deaf participant in the group, I was able to articulate my thoughts and feelings through our interpreters. The ending of the ceremony had us all singing and signing songs, so rather than being excluded, I was invited to teach the translation of the song in my language. We all sang and signed in unison.

It was in the hours after the immersion, when I gathered with my cohort, that I truly felt a sense of access intimacy. When my interpreters departed the immersion, I carpooled with a group downtown and went out to dinner. I started to become anxious because I knew that without interpreters, communication within a group where I was the only Deaf person would be difficult to follow. However, my group asked how they could support my access needs and we settled on writing back and forth in candle-light, gesturing, and using whatever sign language they learned from the immersion. It was the most accessible dinner table conversation with a group of hearing people that I have ever experienced. I felt instantly accepted by my “Forest Family '' and safe to be able to be fully myself and to ask for accommodations without the feeling of shame or guilt.

ID: A group of guides sit around a wooden picnic table under a pavilion learning sign language.

Mia Mingus, a disability rights activist and writer, has been one of my favorite disability justice leaders for their efforts in dismantling the system of oppression caused by able-bodied white supremacy. Mingus is famous for her work related to disability justice and inclusion: she is quoted “where you are is where I want to be.”

This saying pleads for the inclusion of disabled people, on a collective level, where we socialize and navigate interdependently. It is often rare to see someone accessing care that’s very intimate, without shame, and with everyone laughing and having a good time. Collective access is access that we intentionally create collectively, instead of individually. Most of the time, the responsibility for coordinating access is placed on the individual who needs it. It is up to that person alone to figure out their own access, or sometimes, up to them and a caregiver or random friend. This is sometimes taxing on our health, self-esteem, and depletes us of our energy. “Bring your own interpreter” is a slap in our faces when we ask for access.

Nature’s Way Of Showing Access Intimacy:

ID: Photo of a human hand touching a horse's jaw with the words "nature does not judge, humans do."

I have been reflecting a lot on how Nature (and Nature/Forest Therapy) has provided access intimacy- here are some examples:

  1. First, Nature does not judge nor discriminate, humans do. Disability is a social construction and a product of the “tamed world”. As I wrote in my previous blog article, it is us (humans) who create those barriers- not nature. Nature doesn’t care if you crawl, swim, run 100mph, or just sit there. Nature doesn’t measure your weight, or care if you have makeup or about the color of your skin. It is our systems that cause prejudice. In nature, you can feel accepted for who you are. When you are in a safe and comforting space in Nature (perhaps with a guide you trust), you can totally relax, and that is access intimacy.

  2. Another idea related to access intimacy is that of a “care-web”, or a collective consciousness to help each other out. In the “tamed world”, access is rarely woven into a collective commitment and way of being. It is often isolated and relegated to an afterthought (much like disabled people are.) And access is complex. The More Than Human World, on the other hand, models innumerable examples of interdependence, of living beings working together: you see this “care web” in the many existing ecosystems and also symbiotic relationships between ostriches and zebras, elephants and beetles, woodpeckers and ants. And interspecies communities live at a collective level, incorporating interbeing: the pod of dolphins, the flock of geese, the mycelium supporting the trees, and quantum energy that moves us all. Native Americans show this. And disabled communities who bond have shown this. Why do they do that? One word: balance. To survive in ecosystems with limited resources, there needs to be the right amount of give-and-take. This is how ecosystems maintain integrity and sustain themselves.

  3. Also, we have an extended branch of nature therapy includes the More Than Human World providing service or guidance with our access needs- for example, we get healing support & benefits from horse therapy, dogs/cats can be service animals for Deaf and Blind people, or can be trained to detect upcoming seizures, we see how autistic children benefit from equestrian therapy, and so on. The unconditional love we get from animals, and even more so when we nurture the relationship by caring for them, feeding them, is what helps us feel less lonely. Forest Therapy also allowed me to embrace my identity as a Deaf human being, because Nature does not judge. There is a reciprocal relationship there- and I have received this firsthand with my emotional support and service dog, Petey, who provides me unconditional love and emotional support.

  4. Another example is slowing down to the pace of Nature. Often when we are spending time out in nature, time becomes less important. We follow sunrises and sunsets. I’ve called this “turtle pace”. Meredith, a DeafDisabled person who is now enrolled into becoming a Forest and Nature Therapy guide, is exploring ways to express their needs for accommodations through sharing their experience in “Last no more”. The forest provides that slowing down for Meredith and allows for listening/sharing:

ID: Two tattooed, light-skinned arms with turtle tattoos and the words "slow down to a turtle's pace.

When we follow hearing, able-bodied, sighted people’s pace, we [disabled people] don’t find ourselves being our natural selves. We constantly burn ourselves out when we attempt to internalize the system of able-bodied concepts of time… For example, I am annoyed by society’s expectations of communicating & responding quickly. I am constantly feeling pressured to keep up with their pace of communication. Most of the time, I just listen and not say anything, because I am either still processing or they’ve already moved to another topic. When I want to express something, my brain knows what I want to say but the signal is not sending to my hand quick enough for me to sign it. It takes a while for me to get it out, when it doesn’t come out quick enough, I stutter. Which makes me frustrated with myself and I’m feeling I’m wasting people’s time.- Meredith Burke

Being a guide out in Nature has taught me to have patience. This is the hardest thing for me especially because I was raised in a family of competitors, able-bodied athletes. I used to roll my eyes when people told me to slow down. But now, the tables have turned and people roll their eyes at me when I gently suggest slowing down. I understand the pain that Disabled people feel when their pace isn’t matching up. But the world is changing. People are realizing the importance and benefits of slowing down. If you’ve had a broken leg before, or been sick for weeks but then you’ve healed- that’s temporary. You go right back to where you’ve been before. Your Care-web dissolves. But this isn’t the case for people who are and will always be disabled for their lifetime. These people need permanent care-webs, and just imagine if we all have collectivist wisdom and support. This is actually a beautiful and healing process happening when folks understand the importance of slowing down and having patience.

What Collective Access and Care Webs has taught me:
Shouting self-care at people who actually need collective/community care is how we fail people.”-Nikita Valerio

Access intimacy happens both within Disabled communities and outside Disabled communities. Judy Heumann, a leader in the civil rights movement for Disabled people and also featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, started the collective disabled movement. Crip Camp, and most safe spaces for those with marginalized identities, shows that there is an empowering benefit in gathering those who are marginalized and often alone in their families/schools/workplace to come together. This is why we have the Luna Moth cohort, a safe space for Deaf/Hard of Hearing/and signing people to immerse together in the forest.

One model of collective access that I had experienced recently was at an indigenous ceremony gathering of about 50 people. A group of us, consisting of 5 Deaf people, requested interpreters, but the ceremony was grassroots and relied on volunteers, so getting access was a struggle.

Since I had been attending these ceremonies in the past and was familiar with the people and processes, I knew that I had to model what inclusivity would look like and it required me to speak out and share our access needs. Because there were no interpreters and the use of technology was forbidden on ceremonial grounds, we all struggled with language barriers and missed out on some information. So becoming vulnerable, we asked them to slow down. The leaders and speakers tried their best to enunciate their words, and those of us who could understand translated them into sign language. When I was lost with the flow of communication, I raised my hand, asked the speaker to repeat, and pleaded for one person to speak at a time. We explained how eye gaze was especially important in helping us feel heard/seen, and that even though we can hear “some”, it does not mean we caught everything they said. Over the course of the days, we volunteered with setting up the camps, tended the sacred fire, helped with the drum, ate, talked, and prayed together. We taught them sign language and showed them how important communication through touch and tapping was, especially at night or inside the dark sweat lodge.

At the end of the 2 days, everyone was waving their hands (cheering) and gesturing to each other. It was just a beautiful sight to see them receive our gift of communication and use it for everyone’s benefit. It in a way not having “interpreters” or technology had brought us all closer. It was direct personal experience that really elevated the true connection between humans, regardless of language or cultural barriers.

The “direct experience” is also very important in the DeafBlind community, where the Protactile movement is making a revolution on traditional ways of navigating language, culture, and identity and how we experience access. I personally often find that, when working or socializing with Deafblind people, enculturated in their space, I close my eyes and experience a whole new way of experiencing nature and human connection, which still can be appreciated, perhaps more deeply, without sight. John Lee Clark mentions the importance of direct experience in his “Against Access” article:

“When hearing and sighted people join us, they pick up Protactile and learn how to work and socialize with us in our space. They often find themselves closing their eyes, either literally or by dimming their visual processing, because sight isn’t necessary. Bodies in contact become as normal to them as they are to us.”

“...We [DeafBlind] insist on doing everything our way, fumbling around, groping along, touching everything and everyone. We are messing with traditional spaces, rearranging them to suit us better, rather than the other way around. The Protactile movement is obsessed with direct experience. As Robert Sirvage, a DeafBlind architect asks, the question we begin with is not “How do we make it more accessible?” Instead, we start by asking, “What feels beautiful?” - John Lee Clark

These experiences with access really gave me a deeper insight into what “access” looked like beyond access laws, policy, and rigid procedure for getting interpreters, and gave me an opportunity to be more open, vulnerable, flowing, and focus on the natural human connection. That is how things should be. Spending years teaching Deaf Studies and ASL, and dealing with political spaces, I realized that laws, policies, and procedures do not always help us when it comes to access. True healing is when the action of healing is inclusive.

It can be messy and awkward, and will never be free of all forms of oppression. True healing is not only self-care, but community care on a collective level. True healing comes from reciprocity with Nature, which Native Americans have shown through their action and traditions of giving gratitude to the Earth in the ways they farm, hunt, and gather/harvest.

So, if you are able-bodied, when you work with people with disabilities, don’t just check us off your list as a token to show diversity. Get to know us. Ask us questions. Invite us. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. Don’t be afraid to learn sign language. Join us in the Forest to build radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind.

To conclude, I’d like to share with a beautiful quote that Mingus wrote:

"I imagine a world where our organizing and activism is less segregated, where our movements and communities are accessible and don’t participate in the isolation of disabled communities. I imagine places where we fight for whole and connected people, families and communities."
  • Change your attitude and accept that access is complex

  • Reframe your thinking, instead of saying “I can’t because…” say “I want to do this… who wants to do this with me?”

  • Consider how you “prescribe” your invitations - it can be triggering

  • Build interdependency in your group

  • Allow difficult conversations to happen with non-violent communication principles

  • Create space in your heart

  • Offer support, with permission (how can I offer support, either passively or actively.)

  • Thinking and talking about accessibility at National and State Forests is important.

  • Testimonials of participants who are disabled and their Forest Bathing experience

  • Tips for trail access, how to ensure that “trails” and walks are accessible for people who are Blind, Deaf, Wheelchair, and other disabilities

  • Considering people with disabilities that may also have other marginalized identities, like BIPOC and indigenous folks. Also remember not all disabilities are visible.

Further Reading and Resources:

John Lee Clark

Meredith Burke

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