Disability and the countryside
Kuli Kohli is a Wolverhampton-based poet, writer and full-time council worker.
Taking a stroll in the countryside may be the normal thing to do if you live near or in rural areas. I live near the Seven Cornfields which is on the boundary of Wolverhampton and Staffordshire. Although I thoroughly enjoy the countryside, it is a bit of a battle for me to go for a stroll alone. I suffer from mild cerebral palsy; this means I find it difficult to do a lot of things that a ‘normal’ person would be able to do. I don’t like using the word ‘normal’ but it’s the simplest way to compare myself with able-bodied people. CP makes me wobbly and I struggle with everyday activities like walking, talking, hearing etc. I have to depend on family and friends to take me out. I cannot drive or ride a bike and travelling on public transport proves to be a challenging activity for me.
Realistically to be able to enjoy the countryside you need to be fit and healthy. For many disabled people, this is very challenging, especially for those who have mobility problems and those people who use a wheelchair. I know many disabled people who have never been into the countryside to have a relaxing wander. Only in parks and on specially adapted paths can access be given to people who have little or no walking ability. Some disabled people are housebound and will never be able to experience the countryside without extra support and access.
From childhood I have had an interest in birds and nature. I was lucky to learn so much in my early years at Penn Hall Special School. The gardens at the school were amazing, full of trees, bushes, lawns and flowerbeds. There was even a small wood and a pond, which fascinated me. I remember running into the woods and searching for the tawny owl that lived there.
Being in the Young Ornithologists’ Club, I knew most of the birds’ names at age 10. The school staff would often take groups of children, all of whom had various disabilities, into the countryside to learn about the habitats of birds and animals. I loved this because I would never have had the opportunity living in a migrant family from India.
As I got older and joined mainstream school, all visits into the countryside sadly ended. My parents didn’t understand my fascination with the natural world. However, this did not stop me from being aware of the birds and animals that surrounded me and lived in parks and my back garden.
Later in life, when I got married and had my own children, my connection with nature was found again. We went on small holidays and days out with my husband and children into the Seven Cornfields, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Wales, the Peak and Lake Districts. Although I needed a lot of extra support, my family was always there for me. All my knowledge of birds and nature came flooding back.
I know I would not be able to go alone into the countryside because of my walking and balancing difficulties. However, I still enjoy days out with my friends who support me and never let me fall or get hurt. I love breathing in the fresh air, rain or shine, muddy or dry, where I feel connected.
The Seven Cornfields is a very special place for me and my family. My local community and I are campaigning hard against contractors and councils building on green fields and green belts. We should have protected spaces for nature to thrive naturally. All animals, birds, insects should be free to build their homes in threat-free environments, where we all work together to support one another. This world does not all belong to human beings, we should support the wildlife in every way possible.
Before lockdown I thoroughly enjoyed going to Pant Writing Workshops, on the border of Shropshire and Wales, which are organised by Offa’s Press. It is a magical experience to be able to walk into the hills and winding paths filled with wild orchids, butterflies, birds and trees. I could never do this without the help of my friends.
During the lockdowns in 2020, my visits to the countryside stopped. I have been upset physically and mentally over the months of the coronavirus pandemic. I know a lot of people, up and down the country, have struggled to find a light at the end of the tunnel. I have missed meeting up with friends to go for a walk in the woods or just for a coffee and a stroll on Cannock Chase or Baggeridge Country Park.
In these months I have realised how important it is to get out and about, just to take in the fresh air and see and hear the birds. Many of these aspects have been expressed in my new poetry collection ‘A Wonder Woman’ which comes out in early April 2021, from Offa’s Press.
And I wish everyone, with or without a disability, could experience these marvellous walks. I am very grateful to my friends who have thought about getting all writers, artists and members of the community involved, no matter what their physical state may be. It’s a good thing for our mental health as well as physical health.
I urge everyone to take a ‘simple’ stroll into the countryside even though it may not be simple at all. Most importantly I urge the countryside authorities to think about disability and access for the most vulnerable citizens in our communities, so they too can experience the wonders of the countryside. The countryside authorities should be working together with disabled people who have issues with access and gather their views and understandings about the countryside and then assess how to improve the ‘access for all’ in these areas.
I wrote Escape as part of a writing workshop:
At school, not an obedient child, all day I dreamt of escape. I would squeeze past my teachers; my love for one very special place, a magical pull that led me to the wood. I enjoyed the freedom, the sounds, the colour of danger, the texture of taking a chance. Engulfed by the beauty of flowers and butterflies, taking me to another world. The wildness becoming more intense as I went deeper in the wood where the ferns grew thick. There in a gap, inside the winding neck of a huge dark oak tree, next to the holly bush, I would gaze up high. Here time stood still, as still as I could be. I saw my handsome tawny owl, he always pretended to be asleep, but he knew I was visiting my special place.
Now when I desire an escape, a getaway from the chores of normality – I tell my family, “I’ll be back shortly,” then disappear. My thoughts unwind from tangled knots of anxiety into straight lines of poetry. Into the open space of clarity, the wind blows through my hair. I stretch out into the open acres of fields where birds feed abundantly, wild weeds, flowers, fruit-bearing hedgerows and naturally painted meadows. It’s where I dance freely with the horses of the Seven Corn Fields. Magnificently uplifting, I feel a relaxant running through my blood, as I breathe in the intoxication of being alive and being free.