Over the weekend of 15 - 17 November the Lake District hosted a sold-out gathering of outdoor folk, from big name climbers to ordinary people, with one thing in common: a passion for adventure.
This wasn’t a festival in Kendal however, but the BMC Disability Symposium in Keswick.
What could possibly attract such an enthusiastic crowd when the UK’s biggest mountain event was rumbling away just the other side of the Lakes? Lucy Wallace was there to find out.
The BMC Disability Symposium was intended to give people the skills and support they need to introduce people with disabilities to adventurous activities. The event brought together a diverse range of people from teachers to climbing instructors and adventurers. Held over two days, there was a variety of practical and discussion workshops on offer, as well as lots of opportunities for networking with colleagues and meeting new people. Many attendees had a wealth of expertise, others, like me had limited experience but a willingness to listen and learn.
I came to the symposium as a freelance mountain leader, who has worked with people with disabilities, but with no formal training or support in this area, I was unsure about how to make my work fully inclusive. I was also keen to find out whether I was doing enough to encourage people that I’m already working with.
The symposium began for me with a workshop run by Sally Vetta, a communication support worker for deaf people, and freelance outdoor instructor. As someone who doesn’t sign, and with no real clue about how it feels to be deaf I found this to be a useful myth busting session. We looked at some sign language, and also strategies for instructing without sign, using mime, lip reading and clear verbal communication. Sally opened our eyes (and ears) to the obstacles to communication, such as light, background noise, and over enunciation- in a funny and frank way. By the end of the session she had us all laughing and signing/singing the Christmas carol “Silent Night”.
Photo: Demonstrating how to use a Larkin Frame
Elsewhere, workshops were in full swing tackling subjects such as coaching visually impaired climbers, DofE navigation and wheelchair abseiling. Across the Calvert Trust’s compact site, people were hard at work discovering new and exciting ways to make the outdoor world more accessible. Later that day, we would get together to hear from the keynote speaker, John Crosbie of Edinburgh University. He gave an encouraging talk based on his research on the positive impacts of the work of the Calvert Trust, who specialise in providing adventurous activities for disabled people.
After dinner, we were visited by a twinkle of stardust in the form of Jamie Andrew and Andy Kirkpatrick. Jamie lost his hands and feet in a storm in the Alps and has successfully returned to rock climbing, skiing and a life of high adventure. His story is one of triumph over adversity- his determination and a can-do attitude are an inspiration. Andy is a big wall climber who has partnered with a number of people with disabilities in extreme adventures, most notably on El Capitan. His account of climbing Zodiac on El Cap with his girlfriend and paralympian Karen Darke was a hilariously honest tale, but the humour barely disguised the powerful resolve on both their parts to succeed. These were two very different presentations, but the message was the same. Whether it’s learning to brush your teeth again, or tackling a big wall in Yosemite, by focussing on the immediate task and climbing what is in front of you- one move at a time, great things can be achieved.
The next day, we heard from Nick Colton about how the BMC is working to break down barriers to participation. He was followed by Andy Coltart of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Paraclimbing Commission, who showcased current developments in paraclimbing as a sport. Andy also encouraged any disabled climbers to come along to the British series, an open event with a warm welcome for climbers of any level. We then broke up for the final practical session of the day, which for me was a lively discussion on the practicalities of organising expeditions for people with disabilities.
A big highlight of the weekend was Paraclimbing World Champion Fran Brown's coaching workshop. Unfortunately there was so much on offer at the same time and I was sorry to have missed Fran's session. I spoke to teacher David Gwillam about the workshop afterwards: "The thing that struck me is that her chair is very much a secondary factor. She's a coach and climber first. Fran encouraged me to look at what a person can do, not what they can't do, to coach the climber not the disability. It’s like coaching anyone- you adapt your coaching to the way they climb." David's words summed up what for me was a major revelation from the entire symposium- that improving my practice as an mountain leader working with people with disabilities, might just make me a better leader all round.
I came away from the weekend feeling very excited and with renewed enthusiasm for my job. The outdoor environment can pose specific challenges to people with disabilities, but likewise, fear, lack of knowledge and low expectations amongst participants and staff can be as much of a barrier to participation as physical disability. Adventurous activities enhance the lives of everyone, and although many of the benefits are common to all of us, these have particular pertinence for people with disabilities. Getting outdoors promotes improvements in physical health, boosts self confidence and generates new friendships. I had my preconceptions about disability challenged throughout the weekend. I gained numerous practical tips and a deeper understanding of specific conditions, but more than that, I learned to see all of us, both able bodied and disabled, as individuals with skills that can be coached and nurtured with a positive can-do approach.