The Garden: Seats for All at the Garden Table
“There must be a seating area, somewhere to relax after a hard day.” I had a similar thought when re-designing a section of my garden. Being a garden designer I hear this phrase a lot, but being in a wheelchair means that I have to think about seating in a completely different way.
According to the English Federation of Disability Sport there are 9.4 million disabled people in England, 18% of the population, of which less than 8% are in wheelchairs; that’s 752,00 people. And the majority of impairments are not visible. Yet, why are RHS and other public gardens, horticultural events, National Trust properties, parks and communal spaces so bad at catering for people with disabilities when it comes to seating. There are, of course, other things such as: disabled toilets doubling up as nappy-changing quarters – please stop this; poor signage; inaccessible sections of gardens or buildings because of steps. The list is very long, but the more articles I right the more I come across as a moaning pest – this is far from the truth; I always try to smile, enjoy what I can and be thankful for my caring partner and my absolute passion for gardening and creating gardens for other people to enjoy.
But, getting back to bums on seats. More often than not dining tables are too low for wheelchairs to get under, or seats are so badly designed they do not support those people who can either transfer to another chair or just want to relax. Arms on chairs are good for some people, but a real problem for others. When it comes to benches garden designers love finding something different – and I must confess I have done this on occasion – but the benches are either hidden for that secret kiss behind the hedge, or face something worth looking at. Where am I supposed to sit? I end up in my wheelchair facing the people on the bench who are admiring the wonderful view. Please can the horticultural world take note, make space next to a bench for a wheelchair, walking aid, or even better have a gap between benches so that I can sit shoulder to shoulder with my partner and friends and comment on how wonderful the view is. Also, if in doubt add more benches. It’s easy to do, but it is so easily forgotten.
We’ve all read in the newspapers how sitting for too long is bad for the health. We need to be more active. That’s all well and good, but when your legs and feet are tired, having walked around a large public garden, for example, you really do just want to sit down for a few minutes. There is plenty to see and you arrived nice and early so that you can spend the whole day at your destination, so sitting down and breathing in and smelling the air, absorbing the atmosphere of the place is just as important as seeing a floriferous border for the first time. I would argue that every place has its own ambiance, from a busy city garden with the honking of horns in the background to a secluded garden surrounded by countryside, with the sound of the wind through the trees and the knock-knock-knock of a distant woodpecker. Yet there seems to be inadequate seating or benches. There must be some research somewhere that can tell us when we need to sit down, after a certain amount of activity, dependent on age, but is there such research for people with disabilities?
So, with my great intentions to create an accessible garden with seating areas scattered around the garden I shall think hard about what is needed, how it will work for me in my wheelchair and for my partner. The areas need to be part of the garden with requisite seats and spaces for my wheelchair, but they need to be thoughtfully designed so that they blend with the landscape. Just because I am disabled doesn’t mean that design needs to be compromised. When finished I too will have somewhere to relax after a hard day.