WHEELCHAIRS IN WILD SPACES shouldn’t be an anomaly some thirty years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, but here I am, in front of another gate, asserting my right to exist in nature. The very fact of me seems to rankle the men I am here to meet.
King Estates Open Space Park is a verdant area of native grasses, wildflowers, and spectacular vistas overlooking the San Francisco Bay. During the darkest days of the pandemic, sheltered at home and half-crazed with fear, my daily sojourns here replenished and sustained me. But today I am shut out, blocked from the most usable entrance to the park by a poorly designed and inaccessible chain-link fence. The City of Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation hastily erected the barrier at the request of a few vocal homeowners angry about the recent increase in park use.
Better neighbors were horrified when the gate appeared. They recognized it would impede access for me and other mobility device users, and together our angry phone calls quickly got the attention of the city. But the heart of the gate debate is just so ridiculous: do I, a disabled person, have the right to basic access to this public park? Federal and state law settles this question. Courts have codified it. I feel righteously peeved that I have to miss an hour of work to have this discussion. Here at the gate, the city reps tell me the fence is needed to deter troublemakers from ruining the park. Their arguments are weak, hedging on discriminatory. It would be a waste of city resources to rebuild the fence, they say. And if they made one park entrance accessible, the city would have to make more accessibility improvements elsewhere, and where would it end?
I had already gleaned from chatter on neighborhood Listservs that as the pandemic wore on and people looked for safe outlets for exercise and recreation, traffic in the park increased. A handful of residents were bringing motorbikes into the area, potentially harming native habitat and creating concerns about noise and pedestrian safety. Rather than speak to one another directly, or work with the city to identify appropriate alternative spaces for off-road vehicles, a few people suggested involving law enforcement. To weaponize police over what amounts to nuisance complaints at this particular moment of racial reckoning in the country hits me, a Black woman, in a certain way. If the goal of the meeting was to quell uproar and mitigate accessibility concerns, ableism and privilege thwarted that. The conversation at the gate devolves from there.
My last raw nerve snaps when a representative from the neighborhood association pipes in to tell us this space was never intended for disabled access when residents first organized to establish the area as a land trust decades ago. I remind them disabled people existed then and exist now in all spaces.
I cut my teeth in the arid fields of the Mojave Desert where, as a child, I maneuvered around ruts and boulders, tumbleweeds and Joshua trees, learning what a wheelchair could do on undeveloped terrain. I learned to gauge physical access on my own terms. My best friend and I free-roamed all over our sleepy neighborhood, exploring desert habitats and hideouts, making little-kid trails in the dust with our footsteps and tire marks. Leaving evidence. That experience sharpened my navigational skills as a wheelchair user, and I learned to discern where it is safe to go. Where I choose to go.
Now, when the rest of the world spins out of control, being here in my park calms and centers me. I feel my body unclench and relax moment by moment as I lead my pup up the gentle, hard dirt trail, home to so many plant and animal siblings. Passing through the oak grove, I meditate or sing or talk to God and the trees, both one and the same to me. As we curve around and join a paved trail, I inhale deeply. A gorgeous vista unfolds. The magnificent bay below is mine to be with. This place has my whole heart.
But I don’t honor these men with that part of the story. Nor do I waste breath explaining that not everyone is satisfied with the access crumbs many able-bodied people involved in land stewardship dole out to the disability community. These men I am in conflict with, these literal gatekeepers to the outdoors, remind me of the men who established the National Park System, who stole Native land and preserved it for the pleasure and benefit of white colonizers. People of color were excluded from that grand vision. Disabled body-minds are clearly not part of these men’s vision either, and inserting myself into the business of our park does not endear me.
When I moved to the area, I tried to make friends with the neighborhood association. I offered to get involved, to help steward this ecological gem I felt so lucky to have in my backyard. Initially, I was met with enthusiasm. After the gate incident, I was quietly removed from the association’s email list. But the problematic gate was removed too.
My follow-up communications with the parks department and suggestion for an informed process toward better access planning have gone unacknowledged. But I’ll keep trying. My heart belongs to the lupine and wild fennel up on the ridge. If I let this go, who will sing my special song to the oaks? The trees will not abide my absence. They would miss me so very much.