Nature: Accessible For Everyone? Thoughts From Our 2020 Environmentalist in Residence

November 5, 2020 | Diana L.

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What does it mean for something to be accessible?

Accessibility is a difficult term to define; it can mean different things to different people. Even the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) does not define the term.

To better understand the concept myself, I had the great pleasure of hosting a conversation on Accessibility in Birding with three exceptional people – Jerry Berrier, Freya McGregor and Virginia Rose.

A collage with Jerry Berrier, Freya McGregor, Virginia Rose and Andrés Jiménez, TPL's Environmentalist in Residence (EnvIR).

To introduce you to the featured speakers in this conversation:

  • Jerry Berrier is a self-taught birder and accessibility consultant for technology users who are blind. He has helped develop Mass Audubon’s 11 All Person’s Trails, producing the audio tours and helping design trail experiences and materials.
  • Freya McGregor is a birder and occupational therapist who works around the clock, and a National Audubon Birdability Affinity Group member. You can find her on Instagram @the.ot.birder.
  • Virginia Rose, an avid birder for over 15 years and creator of Birdability, a program designed to help people with mobility challenges get outside. 

 

You can watch a recording of the Live & Online program from October 16 event with closed captions on the Toronto Public Library YouTube channel.

 

Through our conversation, I came to summarize the following factors and recommendations to consider when making a space accessible for all – they are equally important, and therefore not ranked.

 

Physical accessibility

Ensure that a space has different options for people who with different physical abilities to navigate around. These are typically infrastructural considerations in the development of a space. Examples include a paved path for wheelchairs or a trail rope to guide people who are blind or partially sighted.

A person navigates the park by holding their wrist along a trail guide rope.
A guide rope next to a sign with braille at McLaughlin Bay.


Financial accessibility

Remove a cost to experience nature. A fee, especially a set one, not only makes it harder for financially-challenged people to enter, but it also serves to deepen the divide between economic lines. Not to mention that financial struggles translate to social and personal health struggles – which can be significantly alleviated by spending time outdoors.

 

Accessible transportation

Having multiple transit methods to a space makes it accessible to a broader community. While national and provincial parks located outside the city are crucial to protecting dwindling habitats, the carbon emitted by single-occupancy cars travelling to these destinations may be counter to these spaces' work. A transportation service such as Park Bus offers city dwellers a more sustainable way to access nature through collective transportation. A service like this also helps increase access to the great outdoors by breaking down several barriers.

 

Social accessibility

This aspect speaks to the feeling of belonging or welcomed into a space. I take a deeper dive into this aspect of accessibility in my previous blog post. Carolyn Finney’s book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to The Great Outdoors, gives a much more detailed insight into this idea.

 

Another thing to highlight from the program is the idea that birding is not just being able to see birds; it's about enjoying birds around you. Here's the part when Jerry talks about why he still enjoys birding without being able to see the birds.

 

A white gull hovers in the air at Rosetta MacClain Gardens.
The Caspian Tern is a vocal and loud bird which you can also hear plunging into the lake to catch fish.

 

With these factors in mind, I have put together a list of Accessible Birdwatching Trails in the Greater Toronto Area with some of the more accessible outdoor spaces to enjoy birds!

For this list, I considered the following accessibility criteria:

  • Surfaces (e.g. slopes that can be difficult for people in a wheelchair to navigate)
  • Parking (e.g. accessible parking spots and their proximity to the trailhead)
  • Access cost (all of these locations are free of charge, but the cost of public transportation or parking in these locations should also be considered).
  • Frequency of resting areas
  • Transit accessibility
  • Aides along the trail (signage, ropes, etc.), and;
  • Birds that can be found at the location

 

While this list is based on conversations I've had with birders that shared their personal, lived experiences navigating the challenges of what makes a place accessible, I acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all concept. While there is room for improvement in every outdoor space, I hope this list serves as a starting point in creating awareness around what accessible can mean.

 

A hawk takes off from the top of a pine tree.
Red Tail Hawk at Queens Park.

 

 

Queen’s Park, Downtown Toronto

  • Surfaces: There are three flat and paved bike trails.
  • Parking: Limited parking nearby. Closest Green P is at 15 Wellesley Street East.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: There are plentiful park benches for taking a break anywhere in the park.
  • Transit: By car, TTC (South of Museum station, North of Queen’s Park station) or bicycle (city streets).
  • Aides: Occasional signage describing the biodiversity in the area.
  • Birds: This park has the most unexpected diversity of species year-on-year! Expect to see orioles and some warblers during migration, even owls and raptor species like hawks!

 

A heron holding a fish in its mouth while wading through shallow water.
Great Blue Heron at Etienne Brule Park.

 

 

Etienne Brule Park, Etobicoke

  • Surfaces: A one-way flat, paved trail.
  • Parking: Accessible parking located right at the trailhead.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: There are park benches approximately every 100 meters along the river and picnic benches on the opposite side.
  • Transit: By car, TTC (10 minutes south-east from Old Mill Station) or bicycle (Humber River bike trail).
  • Aides: Occasional signage describing the biodiversity in the area.
  • Birds: Rivers are lifelines for many bird species in urban environments. Other than in the winter months, you can expect to see egrets and herons hunting in the river. During the fall and spring months, birdwatching along the river is extremely easy.

 

Three birds float along the water with the Toronto skyline in the background.
Hooded Merganser at Colonel Sam Smith Park.

 

 

Colonel Samuel Smith Park, Etobicoke

  • Surfaces: A mix of mostly flat paved and gravel trails.
  • Parking: Accessible parking is located close to the three different trailheads.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: There are park benches approximately every 100 meters along the lake.
  • Transit: By car, TTC (the 44 south bus from Kipling Station will take you right in; the 501 East or West streetcar drops you off at Kipling and Lakeshore - ten minutes from a trailhead) or bicycle (Lakeshore bike trail).
  • Aides: Occasional signage describing the biodiversity in the area.
  • Birds: This park is a key stopover location for many migratory birds, including whimbrels, grebes, raptors and warblers.

 

A bird with soft pinkish feathers sits on top of a No Parking sign.
American Kestrel at Downsview Park.

 

Downsview Park - Natural Heritage Self Guided Walk, North York

  • Surfaces: Many flat paved trails that branch off to gravel trails and others.
  • Parking: Accessible parking located close to the main trailhead at Canuck Avenue.
  • Rest areas: There are places to sit around the pond.
  • Transit: By car (enter from Canuck avenue for most convenience, TTC (The 101 bus from Sheppard West station will take you right in; exiting from Downsview Station will also bring you right in), and bicycle (no connecting recreational trail – access off Sheppard Avenue).
  • Aides: Some signage describing the Indigenous history of the park and describing some restoration efforts at the park.
  • Birds: Owls, harriers, hawks, sparrows, herons, killdeer, waxwings, flycatchers.

 

A brown bird with a yellow chest sits on a branch.
Cedar Waxwing at Edward Gardens.

 

Edwards Gardens, North York

  • Surfaces: Flat paved trails.
  • Parking: Accessible parking is located close to three different trailheads.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: Many park benches, picnic shelters and areas for rest stops.
  • Transit: By car, TTC (take the 54 West from Midland and Lawrence to Leslie and Lawrence – the park is across the street from bus stop, or take the 162 East from Lawrence and Englemount to Lawrence and Leslie or the 54 East from Eglinton Station), by bicycle (access off Martin Goodman trail, or Don Mills trail).
  • Aides: Occasional signage describing the biodiversity in the area. The Toronto Botanical Gardens (TBG), which also calls Edwards Gardens home, offers programs, garden tours and has an extensive horticultural library.
  • Birds: Insect and seed-eating birds love this place! Warblers, vireos, cardinals, waxwings!

 

A hawk soars in the air with a clear blue sky.
Broad-winged Hawk at Rosetta McClain Gardens.

 

Rosetta McClain Gardens, Scarborough

  • Surfaces: A flat and paved trail that branches off to other paved and gravel trails. This fully-accessible park (as described by City of Toronto Parks & Recreation) is part of the Scarborough Bluffs.
  • Parking: Accessible parking located off Glen Everest Road.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: There are plenty of park benches and a picnic shelter.
  • Transit: By car, TTC (take 17 Birchmount South bus to Kingston Road or 12C East bus from Victoria Park station to Lakehurst Drive) and bicycle (access off Glen Everest Road).
  • Aides: Occasional signage describing the biodiversity in the area with Braille signage and a sensory patch.
  • Birds: Being close to the lake and on a cliffside, this is a great spot to see migratory waterbirds, hawks and swallows.

 

A welcome sign for McLaughlin Bay - Dogwood Trail, a self-guided walking trail for the visually impaired.
Welcome to McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.

 

A dirt trail leading into tall grass.
McLaughlin Bay

 

McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve – Dogwood Trail, Oshawa

  • Surfaces: A flat, wheelchair accessible, paved trail that loops around a wetland area with some gravel trails.
  • Parking: There is accessible parking located right at the trailhead.
  • Cost of Visit: Free.
  • Rest areas: There is only one bench along the trail.
  • Transit: By car only.
  • Aides: Braille signage and guide ropes on left-hand side of the trail are available. Dogwood Trail is also a designated Braille Nature Trail. More information about this trail can be found on the Nature for the Blind website.
  • Birds: Even though this is a small habitat, it has an abundance of diverse wildlife, making birdwatching very easy! I have seen Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tree Swallows and even a bobolink here!

 

A bird with a yellow and black cap, white chest, yellow and brown sections of feathers sits on a branch.
Can you identify this bird spotted at McLaughlin Bay?

 

Resources from Toronto Public Library

If you're brand-new to birding and identifying birds, here are some great books to get started!

Cover of Birding by Ear Audiobook CD

Eastern/Central Birding By Ear: A Guide to Bird-Song Identification (Audiobook)

 

Cover of More Birding By Ear Audiobook CD

More Birding By Ear: Eastern, Central (Audiobook)

 

Cover of Bird Brain DVD

Bird Brain: Discover the Intelligence of Birds (DVD with closed captions)

You can also browse our entire collection of DVDs with captions. There are thousands available!

 

Cover of Window of Hope Book

Window of Hope (Children's book)

A girl with a physical disability who spends her days staring out the window meets a little bird. Soon she learns that her disability does not mean the end of possibilities.

For more children's books that include positive disability representation, check out the Disability: Read Up On It booklist.

 

Index

Toronto Biodiversity Series (Book). Browse all of the City of Toronto's booklets on local wildlife.

 

Other Resources

Birdability Map has accessible locations (mostly US locations at the moment but there is work to map out other places in the world!) This is a crowd-sourced map - add your suggested locations to it!

Birdability Week 2020. A celebration that birding is for everybody! Everybody includes anyone who wants to participate in birding events but experiences accessibility challenges whether from disability, illness, injury, medical condition or other health concern. This event aims to spark conversations about how we can make birding more accessible and inclusive for birders who experience accessibility challenges, and inspire the birding community to make these changes. Freya also hosted Virginia and Jerry as part of a panel discussion and Virginia offered a webinar focused on access considerations as part of Birdability Week 2020.

Birds Canada's Birdability: Birding By Ear Course. A free course that is tailored for people with sight loss but all are welcomed!

Toronto Public Library's Accessible Collections. Includes print materials (e.g. large print, Dyslexia-friendly books), ebooks (e.g. Stories in Sign, Read-Alongs), audiobooks and more.

 

Do you find another outdoor space that is accessible for you? Feel free to share in the comment section below. Let's help to raise awareness of accessible outdoor places and your favourite places to enjoy birding!

 

Check out Andrés' last two programs:

 

Visit the Our Fragile Planet program series page for more programming geared towards our local environment!

 


The Environmentalist in Residence (EnvIR) program supports the Our Fragile Planet program series and will serve as an industry expert in conservation and sustainability.

This residency and the Our Fragile Planet program series is generously supported by the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

TD Friends of the Environment Foundation logo


 

Written by: Andrés Jiménez, TPL's Environmentalist in Residence (EnvIR) from August 31 to November 6, 2020. Presented as part of the Our Fragile Planet program series. Andrés shares his expertise and insights in this blog post. All photos were taken by and copyright of Andrés Jiménez unless otherwise indicated.

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