Sunday, 6 June 2010

The politics of footpaths

Most of us take footpaths for granted – unless we are disabled, or want to go on forbidden routes. My mother had a stroke last year and is totally dependent on others. This weekend we went to Bowhill Country Park near Selkirk so that she could see the magnificent rhododendron blossoms and my six-year old son could enjoy the adventure playground with the longest scariest slide I’ve ever seen.
Pushing her wheel chair round the loch among magnificent trees, reminded me of the campaigns for the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005 which mean that all service providers must take reasonable steps to give disabled people access to facilities, including the countryside.  In many cases this would not be commercially viable, particularly as many wheelchair users like my mother only pay a concessionary rate, but the law overrides commercial considerations and has opened up many places, buses and trains to wheelchair users as well as baby buggies. We could get my mother's wheelchair into a taxi, take her to the circus and enjoy the countryside in a way that would have been almost impossible ten or 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago I visited Berkley California and was stuck by how many wheelchair users there were in the streets. I wondered where they came from, until someone told me about the Independent Living movement started by Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-dependent people in the 1960s. In Britain wheelchair users were almost prisoners in their own homes, barred by steep steps, narrow doors and inaccessible loos, and you hardly saw them.

Anyone who thinks politics is unimportant should consider the difference which campaigning has made to basic things like wheelchair access to facilities which able-bodied people take for granted.

Long campaigns for wheelchair access, for freedom to roam the open countryside, public footpaths and protection of rights of way are all part of the complex politics of footpaths which improve everyday life for all.

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