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Good birders: Meet Virginia Rose, founder of Birdability

Virginia Rose
Birder Virginia Rose visits the Magee Marsh boardwalk in Ohio. Photo by Linda Bouffard

In our column “Good Birders,” we profile birdwatchers who make a difference — people who devote their time, talent, and treasure to scientific or conservation efforts, public outreach, or the like. In this installment, meet Virginia Rose, a retired teacher who leads a movement to improve birding experiences for people with mobility challenges.

For the last couple of years, a movement has been building to help people with mobility challenges gain better access to the outdoors, specifically for birding. It all started thanks to Virginia Rose of Austin, Texas, a retired high school and college English teacher.

When Rose was 14, she broke her back in a horse-riding accident. She has used a wheelchair ever since.

One of her grandmothers was a birdwatcher, and when she died, she left Rose her Peterson guide, with her numerous and treasured pencil markings. Rose herself caught the birding bug in 2003 after attending a presentation about the House Finch given by her local Travis Audubon Society.

She joined the group and “took all their birding classes and went on all their field trips. Everybody was so welcoming, and there were no hesitations” about her mobility, she recalls. “Field-trip leaders just took me in, and off we went.”

While she was birding, leading beginning bird walks herself for Travis Audubon, and still teaching, she was thinking about “trying to help people who have mobility challenges get on trails, but I wasn’t really sure how to do that.” After she retired, Rose decided to do a birdathon on her own in 2018. She didn’t like joining other birdathons because she didn’t want to slow down walking birders and didn’t want to feel rushed.

She called her birdathon “Birdability” and went to five accessible parks around Austin on her own. Her effort gained attention from local media and the National Audubon Society, and soon, Rose was the face of the fledgling Birdability campaign.

It has grown a lot in recent years, in more ways than Rose could have imagined. “It happened really fast,” she says. “I feel like I landed right smack-dab in the middle of a movement.”

At its heart, the goal is the same as her first solo birdathon.

Accessible public lands

“What I want to achieve is for people to be able to bird independently,” she says. “The beauty to me of being all by yourself on a trail is just magnificent. I think it’s really important for people to be able to be unattended on a trail in the forest.”

Rose has identified several keys to making public lands accessible for people who use canes, walkers, or wheelchairs or otherwise need assistance.

Parking lots should have a handicapped-accessible spot for vans with 8 feet of space for loading. Gates should be manageable for anyone to open. Trails need hard surfaces, and slopes should not be too steep. Steps without accompanying ramps are verboten, restrooms must be made accessible according to Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, and viewing blinds should have lower viewing holes and space for a wheelchair to maneuver, among other considerations.

To these ends, Rose continuously works with county, city, and state parks and various conservancies to encourage the organizations to make properties more accessible to everyone.”.

Rose stresses that she is not only advocating for people who use wheelchairs, crutches, or other assistive devices. “We are all temporarily able-bodied,” she says. Everyone’s body, even if they don’t suffer a severe injury like Rose did, will slow down as they age, and so when accessibility is improved at outdoor spaces, everyone benefits.

Widening the circle

The movement involves more than a list of design changes to birding sites. Rose is working with organizations that can help get more people out birding as well.

She plans to approach assisted living centers. “I want to get Birdability programming at all of these centers for independent living across the country,” she says. “I mean, it’s a perfect fit. Where the trails are accessible, what’s better than to get a bunch of seniors out birding?”

Rose hopes to make similar inroads with rehabilitation centers, camps for kids with mobility challenges, support organizations for people with spinal cord injuries, Easterseals, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, veterans’ groups, and other similar organizations.

Publicity for Rose’s work has led many people to reach out to her, including birders who want to help. She decided to deputize them as “Birdability captains” who can lead the work of improving accessibility wherever they live. Some of the captains have mobility challenges, and others don’t. One woman joined after the death of her best friend and birding companion of 43 years died, who had multiple sclerosis. After her friend’s death, the woman said she wanted to “do whatever I can do to help you,” she told Rose.

When we spoke in September, Rose had 18 captains in 13 states, and she is interested in finding more. (If you’re interested, email her at [email protected].)

The group recently held its first Zoom meeting. None of the captains knew each other before the meeting, so Rose asked them to introduce themselves. As they were chatting, one participant became emotional because, she told Rose later, “I realized that I was part of a new community that I didn’t have before.”

This article was published in the November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.  Originally Published

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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