The social model of disability suggests that disability is a result of one's environment, both physical and social. This environment creates handicaps and barriers, not the disability. So the way to address disability is to change the environment and society, rather than people with disabilities. In many places, breaking down barriers between people and the natural environment through universal design is priority, whether just to enjoy proximity to nature or be a part of tending to it.
I work at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO). Classes and guests are invited to Seminary Hill Farm, which produces food for our dining hall, CSAs, and local food security partners. As a disability advocate and ADA coordinator, making interactions with the land as accessible as possible is a priority. When Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a passionate wheelchair hiker, avid gardener, and a lover of wild places, came to campus to offer a lecture, we visited the greenhouse full of seedlings and began to dream with the farmer about varying heights of raised beds and interspersed seating areas.
A talented fellow churchgoer, Ron Headings, worked to put our dreams for a universally designed garden area at MTSO into action. An AmeriCorps team plus volunteers and leaders from the nearby Stratford Ecological center also worked to build accessible beds that await placement in an area outside the dining area, where some of the food will be eaten and shared. MTSO staff are currently working to finish the project. High school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who intern on campus will be among the first to try out the new garden.
Take stock of the green or lack of accessible green space near your church or organization. What creative strategies could you employ?
building raised garden beds
raised garden beds, built and awaiting installation.
Resources for creating accessible gardens:
Kathy Dickson has spent 20 years in roles in higher education, including her current role at MTSO and former role at Bluffton University. This article and project are a result of converging perspectives from her place as a family member, an ADA coordinator, field associate for ADN, and coordinating council member for the Institute on Theology and Disability with work supporting MTSO's campus regenerative farm and related community food and climate projects. She lives in Bluffton, OH and serves as a deacon at First Mennonite Church.
. Rhoda Olkin, "Conceptualizing Disability: Three Models of Disability," American Psychological Association, March 29, 2022.