Sandra and Millie: no ‘no entry’ sign on the countryside for wheelchair users

Avatar for Sandra Clarke
By Sandra Clarke

Thanks to a Yorkshire disability charity, Sandra has been able to get out and about in the countryside for over 15 years with her assistance dog, Millie, by her side.

Sandra Clarke has been a wheelchair user for 25 years. Support from local charity Open Country has meant she’s been able to still get out and about in the countryside – with Millie by her side.

She tells us more about her experiences of accessing the countryside as a wheelchair user – and what the opportunities from Open Country have meant to her.

‘I absolutely love the opportunities for adventure it provides me with’

I’ve been a wheelchair user for 25 years and although I like to think I’m relatively independent thanks to my electric wheelchair and my assistance dog Millie, getting out into the countryside alone is virtually impossible for me. There are so many barriers, physical and emotional, to overcome.

Poor surfaces, incomplete signage and stiles mean that for people with mobility issues or those who use a wheelchair, there may as well be a ‘no entry’ sign on the countryside. It’s just another area of our lives where we can feel excluded.

'It's just another area of our lives where we can feel excluded.'

I’ve been an active member of Open Country for over 15 years and absolutely love the opportunities for adventure it provides me with.

Open Country literally unlocks the countryside for people with a disability, particularly those whose mobility is limited. I’m a member of a number of the groups they run including the Wild Things club, which is all about appreciating the natural world around us.

I also go on outings to countryside sites, both indoor and outdoor. It gives me the opportunity to meet new people and visit places I would never normally be able to access.

‘I can get to the far reaches of the wonderful Yorkshire countryside we’re lucky to have on our doorstep’

Getting away from the tarmacked streets of Harrogate and venturing to areas where nature thrives is a huge challenge for me. I can’t transfer from my wheelchair so Open Country’s fully accessible minibus means I can get to the far reaches of the wonderful Yorkshire countryside we’re lucky to have on our doorstep.

A flat accessible path down a grassy slope to a water's edge
Accessible paths at Swinsty Reservoir, Yorkshire, make it possible for everyone to enjoy the outdoors | Humphrey Bolton / CC by SA 2.0

My favourite place to visit is the seaside and, with Open Country, I can get right down to the water’s edge to paddle my feet – bliss! I love that I can get all the way around Swinsty Reservoir thanks to Yorkshire Water’s fantastic accessible path work.

'I can get right down to the water's edge to paddle my feet - bliss!'

A day spent outdoors with Open Country’s wonderful staff, volunteers and members is the highlight of my week. The combination of the fresh air, the wonderful Yorkshire countryside and the friendly group means that I always end the day with a smile on my face.

‘There have certainly been some hairy moments!’

When I’m going out to the countryside, there are so many things to think about. Are the surfaces wheelchair friendly, will the paths be wide enough for me? Most importantly, can the cafe accommodate both me and Millie?! (Always the most important thing, we at CPRE agree!).

But I know I can rely on Open Country to take me places where all these things have been considered and I know I can enjoy it as much as the other members.

There have certainly been some hairy moments, like getting my wheels stuck in the sand and having to take a huge detour because the supposedly accessible path suddenly has a barrier.

'I love a bit of adventure and it's all part of the fun of getting outdoors.'

But I love a bit of adventure and it’s all part of the fun of getting outdoors. Anyone who accesses the countryside has to accept that whatever measures you put in place, there’s still an element of risk.

Four people and a dog on a boat deck
Sandra and friends taking to the high(ish!) seas | Open Country

‘Lockdown has been tough for me’

Lockdown has been tough for me, as it has for many people with a disability. I normally get out to the local shops daily with Millie, which is a great opportunity to get some fresh air and give her some exercise. Without that, my world has been reduced to the four walls of my home and it’s been a very lonely time.

When Open Country relaunched some of their activities again in August, I signed up straight away. I knew that they would have all the safety measures in place and that getting out into the countryside was just the tonic I needed.

'Getting out into the countryside was just the tonic I needed.'

Just recently, we did a lovely woodland and lakeside walk near Leeds. As we were getting close to the minibus, there were three large embedded stones that my wheels just couldn’t get over. With a large tree stump on one side and a pond on the other, there was no way of getting around so we had to retrace our steps and extend our walk significantly. Luckily the weather was on our side and we got back to the minibus before the light was fading!

I enjoy a challenge and have learned to be pretty resilient, but these experiences can often leave me frustrated and feeling like I’m causing problems for the rest of the group. Just making simple changes and removing unnecessary barriers will eventually help to make the outdoors even more accessible for people like me.

‘I hope that more landowners take positive steps’

In an ideal world, landowners and countryside organisations would engage more with people with a disability when they’re considering improving their access. There are some organisations doing brilliant things, but they sometimes just let themselves down in one or two minor ways that they probably had never considered.

Three walkers, one using a wheelchair, and a dog on a grassy path
Adjustments to paths and surfaces can make visits possible for all | Open Country

For example, a bird hide window that is just too low or too high, or uneven ground which manual wheelchairs could tackle but are too tricky for low wheel-based electric wheelchairs. If they involved people like me in the planning stages, it could make a real difference to our experience of the outdoors. I hope that more Yorkshire landowners take positive steps so that I can enjoy more trips out into the countryside.

'If they involved people like me in the planning stages, it could make a real difference to our experience of the outdoors.'

My message to anyone out there who doesn’t think the countryside is for them is: if I can do it, anyone can! The charity is called ‘Open’ Country for a reason. With the right support, an open mind and a ‘can do’ attitude, you too can unlock the countryside and enjoy its treasures.

In the meantime, Millie and I will continue to enjoy our adventures with Open Country and look forward to overcoming the challenges that the outdoors throws at us!

Yorkshire-based Open Country gives people with a disability the chance to get out into the countryside by providing a variety of activities including walking, cycling, conservation, nature study and outings. Fully accessible transport and support from staff and a team of volunteers enable members to improve their physical and mental health by enjoying the pleasures of being outdoors.

With 30 years of experience in countryside access, they also produce a number of directories to help people discover accessible places to visit, clubs to join and things to do. They use their experience to provide information, training and advice to landowners, councils and outdoor organisations looking to improve disabled access.

Three people and a dog on a snowy path; one is using a wheelchair
Sandra, Millie the dog and friends getting out and about on a snowy day Open Country

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