new paths

I’m currently working on a couple of chapters for my book. The first chapter looks at learning to walk (which, unless you’ve experienced injury or disability most of us will never engage in as an acquired skill) and the second chapter explores some thoughts I have about walking itself (one of my favourite activities, which I’ve experienced as both an able-bodied and a disabled person). As part of my research, I returned to many of the books I’d previously read and enjoyed about walking.

Reading these books, I’m very struck by how strongly as a genre — and perhaps particularly in the past decade — the literature of walking has been written from an able-bodied perspective. Walking’s ease, inclusivity and independence are routine topics of enthusiasm in many of these popular and beautifully-written books. Walking is gloriously solitary, the walking authors effervesce, and, unlike so many other activities, no special equipment or abilities are required! You just put one foot in front of the other! But the disabled walker knows these are ridiculously blithe, ableist assertions. For the disabled walker, interdependence, on both people and equipment, is an a priori essential for any basic pedestrian act, and any kind of walk might involve the embodied experience of exclusion (in the encounter of uneven surfaces, inclines, obstacles, or the ignorance of others).

(thinking about every step on my first post-stroke walk round Arthur’s Seat)

A couple of years ago when I was learning to drive again after my stroke, my instructor and I were pootling around the streets of a quiet estate north of Glasgow when we came across a young woman, walking unsteadily towards her local shops, not on the pavement, but by the pavement, in the road.
“What a stupid woman!” exclaimed my driving instructor, “what does she think she’s doing? Why doesn’t she walk on the pavement? She’s going to get herself killed.”

I looked at the woman – who, with her leg brace and elbow crutch could have been me – then I looked at the surrounding pavements and the road. I explained the situation to my instructor.

“She can’t walk on the pavement,” I told him, “because there are no drop kerbs. I know the step up doesn’t look like much, but its probably more than she can manage. She needs a continuous, even surface to be able to walk at all, and that’s only available here on the smooth tarmac of the road. Walking on the road at least means she’s able to get out and go to the shops. This pavement is only designed for a certain type of pedestrian.”

(one of my first post-stroke “goal” walks was along the promenade at Lytham -which I selected because of its flatness and accessibility. My dad came with me, and is kindly carrying my bag)

My instructor said I’d made him think that day, and it occurred to me just how much thinking about matters of everyday accessibility disabled walkers routinely find themselves performing. The mind of the disabled walker is continually filled with important questions about surfaces and inclines, places to rest, available facilities, calculations of potential risk. You might think of all that planning ahead, all of that focus on tiny environmental details as a terrible imposition – and yes, it is true that thinking about accessibility has many annoying aspects. But there is also a kind of attentive wisdom to that thinking, and I wonder why that’s not more often talked about in the mainstream literature on walking.

Disabled walkers experience urban and rural space very differently, and, by necessity are continually engaged in a focused attention to their surroundings from which I think the able-bodied walker (and perhaps in particular, the able-bodied walking author) might have quite a bit to learn.

(picking my way over uneven ground at Finlaggan, toward the place where Tom and I were married a few years later)

If you find these issues interesting, you might enjoy exploring the brilliant walking interconnections website. I particularly recommend downloading, and listening to Dee Heddon’s audio-verbatim play, Going for a Walk which brings many insights into disabled walkers “daily practices of resilience.”