I came across an inspiring story that I just have to share with you. The story begins way back in 1973, with a 14-year-old girl, Virginia Rose, who fell off her Arabian horse and broke her back. From then on, she spent every day in her wheelchair. Incredibly, she remained an enthusiastic teen, and nothing could stop her from engaging in full with life as she knew it. Read on to see how, in her forties, birds and nature ultimately brought something she missed for years.
Virginia Rose with her horse Charley in 1973, the same year she broke her back in a riding accident
Before and after discovering the magic of birds and nature
After going to college, Virginia became a teacher and lived her life as fully as she expected. When she reached her forties, she retired, and that was when she realized that there was an emptiness in her life up to then. Her younger sister suggested Virginia share her bird-watching hobby. The day she headed outside, armed with binoculars, changed her life. For the first time since her accident, she realized that her paralysis need not keep her indoors.
With her manual wheelchair, her explorations brought empowerment, and nothing could stop her. As she explored parks of which she was unaware, she scored peace of mind and exercise. Nature brought self-discovery and fueled her to use online apps and guidebooks to identify the countless birds and their songs. She realized then that she was wrong to search for fulfilment in other people all these years. She now knew that she had finally discovered the great healer, Nature, who prescribed bird watching sessions of three to four hours at a time.
Taking classes to learn more about birds and nature
A regular, run-of-the-mill birdwatcher was not what Virginia wished for herself. No, she wanted it all, and the Austin, Texas lass joined the Audubon Society in Travis County. The Audubon Society is a nonprofit environmental organization with branches nationwide. With members dedicated to birds, they promote the conservation of their habitat. She started by taking birding classes and then joined the group outings. The fact that she was the only person in a wheelchair set her mind racing about getting more people with mobility problems to discover the magic of birds and nature.
After learning all about bird identification, conservation and ecology, she completed the course to become a master birder, ready to lead outings as a team leader. Her research indicated that she was only one of approximately 30 million adults across the country with mobility challenges severe enough to exclude them from most life activities. That was when she set her mind on finding a way to give as many of those people as possible access to the empowerment and joy she discovered.
Navigation challenges when exploring birds and nature
Virginia, who has managed to get outside and explore nature for many years now, explains the challenges. It is just about impossible to navigate a manual wheelchair over uneven terrain, sand and gravel. Birdwatchers negotiate trails with grades and slopes that challenge walking people, but nothing will stop her.
A quest to identify accessible trails
Starting in 2015, Virginia worked with Travis Audubon in identifying trails that are entirely or partly accessible for people with mobility problems. She attended a convention of the National Audubon Society and used the opportunity to present her findings. That led to her collaboration with mapmakers to develop an interactive map of trails for all bird watchers. The access information includes bathrooms, parking, gates, slopes, ground cover, and detailed information about each trail. The available considerations and information on the maps now include the deaf and hard of hearing, the blind, and those with limited vision. Furthermore, as Virginia explains, they even include those whose “grumpy knees” keep them indoors.
And then came ‘Birdability’
After playing with the idea of “Birdability” in her mind for a long time, Virginia Rose founded a nonprofit group to carry that name. She aims to help every person with access and mobility limitations enjoy birding. To date, Birdability has identified and mapped more than 500 sites for birding, each with accessibility scores. Even more impressive is that some of the mapped birding sites are international. Finally, Virginia Rose has reached her goal and became part of a vital community. Included are 40 Birdability captains and countless members. Many of whom might have been, like Virginia, looking in the wrong places for something to fill the emptiness.