StoryWeaving: Co-Navigating with Disabled Bodies

Article written by Summer Crider and Meredith Burke

[Image description: An overhead shot of two DeafBlind people sitting on limestone at the water’s edge, canes at their sides, arms intertwined, touching one another’s bare legs with leaves]
[Image description: An overhead shot of two DeafBlind people sitting on limestone at the water’s edge, canes at their sides, arms intertwined, touching one another’s bare legs with leaves]

StoryWeaving: Co-Navigating with Disabled Bodies: Part 1


In the beginning of my newly certified status as an ANFT guide, I was asked to write a blog explaining my perspective on guiding people with disabilities, including Deaf people, and provide tips for current and future guides. While I understood the importance of making Nature accessible to all, including people with all kinds of disabilities, I didn’t feel I had enough guiding experience, so I only wrote about my own perspective as a guide -- as Summer -- including my intersectional identities as a sighted, Deaf, queer polyamorous person with mental health disability. Now, a year has passed, and I’ve had several opportunities of guiding people with various abilities; I have learned and relearned a lot through my connections with them in an inclusive space provided by the Forest. I’ve decided to write this blog, not from my own perspective, but to weave together other Disabled people’s stories of their experiences connecting with Nature as a form of Story Weaving1. I will also add some perspectives from the field of Disability Justice/Disability Studies and Crip Theory to those stories of my participants who identify as having a disability, or more than one disability. I would like to honor each ancestral land where I have written this blog (Dakota, Ojibwe, and Lakota) where these stories take place.

[id: two hands overlap, touching moss, ferns, and lichen on a rocky surface]
[id: two hands overlap, touching moss, ferns, and lichen on a rocky surface]

Everyone wants to be included when it comes to being outdoors, and having access to healing means different things for everyone. Disabled activist Mia Mingus reminds us to consider inclusion in every form. Most of the time, we as forest therapy guides craft our guiding practice based on able-bodied ways of guiding. Sometimes our well-intentioned action comes from ignorance: We may invite people to “listen” to the sound of the creek, forgetting that there are Deaf participants, or we ask a Blind person to gaze at the clouds. Perhaps in a group, we encourage people to be silent and sit alone, not realizing that this may be triggering for those (particularly disabled folks) who are often already excluded in outdoor activities or have had too much time “alone”.


Let’s first deconstruct the concept of ability and disability in the Natural world. Disability is a social construction where society puts a value on being able to be stronger, better, and/or faster. Nature does not discriminate nor decide who or how someone is more able-bodied to do certain things. We humans do. Perpetuating the thinking that Nature is for everyone, but not taking the time to actually learn from people with Disabilities can be counter-productive, no matter how well-intentioned we are. So first of all, relax… slow down, and listen with an open heart and mind.


Co-Navigating with DeafBlind and DeafDisabled bodies

The philosophy of Forest Bathing emphasizes interdependence and reciprocity: We are reminded to put away our “expert” ego as guides, and rather trust that the Forest and Nature know what we need. There is no prescription for what a person “should” experience, and what benefits they “should” receive. This aligns with the view of Disability Justice where interdependence and reciprocity are also valued.


Co-navigating, a term in Disability Studies, is much like the relational (or reciprocal) relationship between the Forest and the participant, where humans find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of each. In co-navigation, we use our bodies, our skills, our experience to navigate in a system that is mostly inaccessible. For example, in the able-bodied space where information is presented visually, sighted people may provide visual information through touch or protactile, the new emerging language of DeafBlind community. But in DeafBlind spaces (like homes of DeafBlind people, DeafBlind gatherings, or camps), sighted people rely on DeafBlind to support them by showing them tactical knowledge or ways of being. There will be more examples of co-navigation in this article.


[id: Summer and Meredith’s hands intertwine, their feet and a patch of woods blurry in the background]
[id: Summer and Meredith’s hands intertwine, their feet and a patch of woods blurry in the background]

Slowing Down at a Turtle’s Pace…. Lessons from the Turtle

Most outdoor-focused or adventure-bound programs, especially expeditions, are focused on reaching the summit or getting to a destination at a competitive pace. There is often a lot of applause given to disabled people who achieve in individual sports. Here, Meredith, a DeafDisabled queer, explains their first experience with Forest bathing:

"I have hiked, backpacked, camped, and been active outdoors, so I knew what to expect, which was to move at an able-bodied pace which is challenging for my cerebral palsy. However, with this session, it really felt like Nature was saying, “Slow down, Feel it, Live it, Stop when you need to, and be like a turtle.” You know in the turtle and rabbit story…. You know the turtle wins at the end because it took its time. Being in nature, I don’t have to worry about time; and this session reminded me to follow my own pace."

Summer and Meredith share their recollection of the time when interdependence helped in building trust and saving us when co-navigating in nature:

My recent session with Summer was a challenging hike up a waterfall, it was rainy and wet. I didn’t trust Summer, nor did I trust myself out in nature. But as the hike went on, I started to trust Summer more and knew they would prevent something from happening and we co-navigated hand-in-hand interdependently. As we were walking back to where we started, Summer was near the edge and started to lose their balance. But because we were arm in arm, I felt Summer stumble and was leaning towards the edge of a cliff. I immediately tightened my grip and pulled them towards me preventing the fall. This experience made me trust myself more and become more confident in Nature. Meredith

Meredith has cerebral palsy, a physical condition where the muscles are not coordinated and the body needs time to do physical activities a certain way, so hiking at an able-bodied pace is often challenging. As a guide, I was responsible for creating a safe container where their disability did not hinder them from full participation in nature. Together, we adapted our walk to a waterfall, which was quite challenging with uneven surfaces (roots, rocks, and unpaved trails). During this walk, I noticed things more -- my sense of balance was more focused, and we slowed down to a turtle’s pace. For some folks, walking this slow may be considered “boring”, but for me, it invoked creativity and made me more receptive of to how our disabled bodies navigate in various environments -- how we flow with water, how we run our fingers across the moss-lined rocks, how we balance ourselves as we hike. I also felt a sense of compassion and interdependence guiding, arm-in-arm, laughing, and exploring Nature together.


Interdependence, not Independence

A fast-paced mindset focused on overcoming obstacles can be harmful. This doesn’t do much to help us create interdependence. Individualistic adventuring divides us, forcing us to be independent, thus increasing our chance of “running out of spoons”.4 That is so often praised in our culture, but it can also have negative results; it creates competition, comparison, division, and violence. It feeds our hubris, it isolates us, and this eventually may increase our sense of loneliness which leads us to depression and suicide.


In truth, we are social creatures. We need each other more than ever. That’s why interdependence, not independence, is a more desirable part of Nature and Forest Therapy.


No one is ever independent. Even in nature, if you’re hiking or camping alone, you normally think you are independent, when in reality you depend on nature to provide you with something. For example, trees help us survive by providing oxygen; that’s interdependence. Like as Summer wrote above, “This act of individualistic adventuring divides us, making us independent thus increasing our chance of ‘running out of spoons’.” I personally do run out of spoons quickly when I attempt to do a lot of things independently in nature. At times, I do want to try things myself to make myself feel good, the “YAY, I DID IT!” feeling. But being interdependent helps me achieve more of my goals and to feel fully part of the experience. Meredith

[id: Three individuals, one blindfolded and the others’ eyes closed, embrace one another and walk barefoot on soft, herb-covered ground]
[id: Three individuals, one blindfolded and the others’ eyes closed, embrace one another and walk barefoot on soft, herb-covered ground]

Access Intimacy and Holding Space for Collective Access

Interdependence fosters a sense of collective access. What is collective access? Collective access is access that we intentionally create collectively, instead of individually. “Most of the time, access is placed on the individual who needs it. It is up to you to figure out your own access, or sometimes, up to you and your caregiver or random friend. Access is rarely woven into a collective commitment and way of being, it is isolated and relegated to an afterthought (much like disabled people are.)” Access is complex and there’s no one perfect form or structure that will fit all people with disabilities. You have to ask the person what their needs are.


Witnessing DeafDisabled and DeafBlind people practicing reciprocity and interdependence supports our reciprocity with Nature and other humans. For me, using protactile out in nature makes my experiences feel deeper and more connective (interconnectedness). It allows me to focus on other sensory experiences. For example, making a fire blindfolded or exploring plants through the sense of touch and smell.


Forest and Nature Therapy guides should build a container where the practice allows people with Disabilities the space to be themselves and think about equity and interdependence… Rather than doing activities individually with the mindset of achieving a destination or goal, work together using the principles of collective access.


People with disabilities and their “care webs” are excellent models of what collective access looks like.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” — Lilla Watson

Stay tuned for more stories from DeafDisabled and DeafBlind in the next blog article!


TakeAways:

● 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.


I give credit to all the DeafDisabled and DeafBlind that have guided me to connect with Nature and the More Than Human world:

-Meredith Burke

-nai damato

-Sarah Morrison

-Hayley Broadway

-Kim Powers

-Robert Sirvage

-Bruce Visser

-Riss Leitzke

-Kelly Monahan

-Sierra Woosley

I give credit to those who spread awareness through Disability Justice

-Mia Mingus

-Taesha Raella

-Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha


If you feel compelled to support and have the financial means to do so, please do. The funds will cover sessions that I would offer for underserved and those from low income families, and some will go towards scholarships for the Luna Moth cohort. Contact thegivingcypress at gmail.com Heartfelt thanks in advance!

Resources:
  1. Last No More: Last No More aims to empower Disabled people to make their experiences and stories known. For so long, Disabled people have been an afterthought, added into when they speak up, and oftentimes the last to know things. Last No More also aims to bring non-disabled and Disabled people together to learn and to empower each other. https://sites.google.com/view/last-no-more/home

  2. CareWork: Dreaming Disability Justice- https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/C/Care-Work

  3. 5 Ways to make Outdoors Inclusive- www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/rei-2018/five-ways-to-make-the-outdoors-more-inclusive/3019/

  4. Why We Need Intersectional Environmentalism- www.sustained.kitchen/latest/2020/6/9/intersectional-environmentalism

  5. Diversify Outdoors- www.diversifyoutdoors.com


1 From Integral Forest Bathing (Ben Page) Story Weaving is a community building exercise wherein people learn to harvest and incorporate the wisdom found in the stories of others. Story Weaving is also a practice of personal exploration that invites us to let go of narrative separateness and become enmeshed as part of an ecological world. In this way, Story Weaving represents an interwoven inward and outward journey, connecting us more deeply to ourselves by helping us recognize our fundamental interconnectedness.

2 Co-navigating means to guide along with people with disabilities, where interdependence is valued. Rather than the patronizing view of “helper” or support service provider (often used in DeafBlind guiding), co-navigate means both humans support each other in spaces that fit their needs or way of navigating.

3 Protactile is the emerging language created by the DeafBlind community, where communication happens interdependently with touch being a huge component of the grammar of the language. The grammar of this language structure is tactile, it requires touch, rather than vision, to communicate information and thoughts. To learn more visit: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/deafblind-communities-may-be-creating-a-new-language-of-touch


4 When the Disability community says, “I’m out of spoons, or I’m low on spoons” it means they are exhausted from having to keep up with fast-paced, able-bodied ways. This expression is used more in Disabled communities, but DeafBlind and DeafDisabled are starting to use that phrase when it applies.

5 This quote came from: p. 47 of “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice”.

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