Bushwalking with a disability

Bushwalkers walk in groups for safety

Walking with a disability

Phone the bushwalking club secretary or walk leader well in advance of the walk, introduce yourself and explain your abilities and limitations. The club secretary or activity leader will be able to recommend a suitable activity for you to participate in. The leader may need to consult with the committee before accepting you on a walk. If a particular club is unable to meet your needs, don’t hesitate to contact another club which may be more responsive to your needs.

Leading walks for people with a disability

Bushwalking clubs and activity leaders should not be afraid to lead walks for people with disabilities, whether they are people with mobility restrictions, vision impairment, or intellectual disability. The key to any good bushwalk is planning. If you or your club receive an inquiry from someone with a disability, talk to them about their needs and adjust your walk plan accordingly. For example, you will need to consider the accessibility of the entry point to the track head and the condition of the track. You will also need a contingency plan in case the activity needs to be curtailed or a medical evacuation is required.

The National Parks Association of NSW and Wildwalks are working towards providing bushwalking track notes for people with mobility restrictions, including wheelchair users, people with walking aids, people with arthritis and so on. The Naturally Accessible project aims to empower more users to get out and explore natural places. The first stage of the project is about researching the type of information that people require. For example, tracks with minimal steps are important for wheelchair users, whereas regular seating is essential for people with arthritis or respiratory conditions. In time, they want to provide users with enough information on track conditions so that users can decide for themselves what bushwalking experiences are suitable for them.

If you’re keen to help out or have suggestions for tracks that might work under the Naturally Accessible framework, their contact details can be found on their website.

See the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Wildwalks websites for information on some short access-friendly walking tracks.

Leading or guiding walks for people with a vision disability

Talk to the person in advance of the walk to establish their abilities and limitations and explain what they need from you. If the person has a vision disability, don’t assume they are completely blind. Ask what they can and can’t see, which side is best to guide on and “how can I best guide you?” Don’t rush the new walker, as they need to feel that they are in control in order to relax and enjoy the bushwalk.

When guiding a person with a vision disability you must walk next to the person, not in front or behind. The exception is when going through a narrow space when you must lead from the front. Never grab their arm, but instead relax your arm and the hand holding the guiding strap so that the strap is not taut, which could impede movement.

Give loud clear commands such as “ramp up, ramp down, come left, come right, uneven/rough ground, tuck in close, step up, step down, stop”. Don’t hesitate to interrupt a conversation in order to give a vital command. Only use essential commands and information about obstacles, so that the person is able to concentrate on walking. However, your companion will appreciate a description of things of interest such as flora and fauna or a stunning view.

Allow more room than usual between yourself and obstacles in case of the unexpected. If something unexpected happens say “STOP” and stop immediately in order to regain control of the situation

Approach steps at 90 degrees. Pause, but do not stop, before ascending or descending stairs at a steady pace. offering a hand rail if available. When going past low obstructions such as bollards, line the blind person up to keep going straight ahead, while you move around the obstacle. If people are impeding your progress, warn pedestrians ahead by calling “blind walker coming through.”

Ask the vision impaired walker for feedback so that you can improve your guiding skills.

For more information on guiding a person with a disability see Achilles Running Club Sydney 

Leading walks for people with reduced mobility

As bushwalking club members age or encounter physical difficulties, they often drift away from the club, because they can’t walk as fast or as far as they used to. Clubs can retain these members by scheduling walks that specifically address mobility issues.

  • Consult members who might be interested in these walks. They will be able to identify the types of activities they would like to see scheduled, their mobility limitations, and abilities.
  • Design shorter walks.
  • Avoid rugged routes.
  • Allow additional time for a reduced walking speed.
  • Identify toilet stops en route.
  • Create a new walking grade for these activities e.g. Easier walking, Gentle walking. This enables less-mobile members to identify walks that are suitable for their needs. It also alerts faster walkers, who might push the speed or feel dissatisfied with a slower speed, to avoid these activities.
  • Ensure participants communicate with the leader prior to engaging in the activity, so they understand the walking conditions before committing to the walk.