5 Ideas For Making Permaculture Design More Accessible

Photo by  Yomex Owo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

Permaculture challenges us to care not only for the planet but for people too. I know that as an individual actor in my ecosystem, permaculture offers an innovative way of relating to the planet which I believe will serve us well through weathering climate change. I also know that as a disabled person, the ways we teach and design permaculture projects can sometimes be unintentionally inaccessible to disabled folks.

One of my aspirations in permaculture is to open up the way we teach and design for future resiliency to make this work more accessible to disabled folks like me who are passionate about the planet. Whether permaculture can be a source for medical treatment of disabilities is another question entirely, but today I’m focusing just on how permaculture can challenge the disabling ways our world is often designed.

Several permaculture design principles intersect with what I’m writing about here. Most obviously, ‘use and value diversity’ when considered to include types of human life alongside plants and animals is relevant to making permaculture more accessible. ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ likewise can apply to the way we conceptualize our communities or our own bodies in relation to the work we do. Principles like ‘accepting feedback’ and ‘creatively respond to change’ are excellent guides for our own personal journeys in adapting to acquired disabilities. And lastly, ‘observe and interact,’ ‘small and slow solutions,’ and ‘use edges and value the marginal’ are all great waypoints particularly for able-bodied folks acclimating their mindsets and projects towards disabled folks’ inclusion.

My list here isn’t exhaustive, but is instead a collection of sprouts to get this idea rooted in your own work.

Familiarize Yourself With Allergies

First up I want to talk about allergies. I remember in an herbal medicine class many years ago, the instructor invited us to taste some of her home-brewed kombucha. Later that evening, one of my classmates was discovered unconscious by her husband in their apartment. She had a severe mushroom allergy, and like many of us in the class, did not realize that kombucha was created from a mushroom-like symbiotic growth. This type of reaction is in the extreme, but it also illustrates a point about how we think about ‘natural’ products and how we introduce them to new people.

When giving tours of a project or offering samples, be aware of potential allergies and help educate your students about them too. For example, cucumbers, hibiscus, chamomile, sunflower seeds, echinacea and other fruits and flowers can all trigger allergies in folks with a ‘ragweed’ allergy. Folks without a strong background in gardening may not even be aware that their allergies can be triggered these ways, and so it’s important for educators and designers alike to be familiar with the plants they cultivate. If you wouldn’t knowingly led your students through a patch of poison oak, why treat other potential allergies any differently? Also, consider stocking and offering optional masks or gardening gloves for tours into gardens to decrease likelihood of exposure to potential allergens.

When Possible, Use High Contrast Design Features

This is one of the areas I’ve immediately been able to apply to my own microstead. I realized over the summer that while my personal aesthetic preference is towards rolling hills and overgrown deer trails between garden beds, that aesthetic isn’t creating the same pleasurable experience for literally anyone else working with my garden right now. Using light-colored gravel and dark-colored stepping stones, I was able to create more visible pathways in our shared working environment. In color-coded documents and signage, you may also consider using textures or patterns to make differences more apparent to color-blind readers.

When Possible, Create Sturdy Pathways

Not every garden or food forest is going to be wheelchair or mobility tech accessible, but many can be! Wheelchair users and other folks who could benefit from sturdier, clear paths are part of the community, and if they have the desire to, these folks should definitely get involved with designing permaculture projects for our shared futures.

In the past I’ve encountered two arguments against designing permaculture gardens with wheelchair use in mind. First, some claim that there are no wheelchair users around who would use them. This is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation though because how would wheelchair users get involved with the project to begin with if it’s inaccessible to them? Second, there is an objection to the amount of space between rows wheelchair accessibility might require. This likewise is absurd given the number of times any gardener is likely to need a wheelbarrow of the equivalent size, or room to spread out and weed with a basket, tools, cup of tea, and friendly dog. And really, I think anyone who’s active in any of this work would prefer a surplus of laborers working a smaller garden than a shortage of laborers working an enormous garden that other would-be laborers cannot even get into.

Whether we use a wheelchair or not, we can all pitch in to create more accessible learning spaces. In our gardens, this may look like creating sturdy pathways or permanent ramps that make step-free learning easier (ex. cobblestones can be brutally damaging to even the best chairs). Also consider creating some taller raised beds so that a wheelchair user can still get some roots in the ground without needing to get in and out of their chair as frequently. Where these design decisions cannot physically be made, the digital landscape can provide a sturdy bridge to reach these folks. But when we are working on the design of a new community garden, we should all absolutely insist on designing with wheelchair use in mind.

Inspiration: This South African supermarket developed a handmade wheelchair trolley in less than 24 hours.

Photo by  Simon Schmitt  on  Unsplash

Value Cool Down Areas

For some of us, the vibrancy of the garden or forest is where we go to escape. It’s exhilarating. The colors, the textures, the fragrance, and the busyness of bees and other pollinators—these are all joys that connect us to a wild we otherwise feel apart from. For others though, the contrast between this world and the routine can be as disruptive as entering a busy city or office building. Likewise and very importantly, not everyone just beginning their education in permaculture is in the same physical or psychological condition as folks living and working in wilder spaces every day. I like to think that all of us experience this sort of sensory overload in the beginning, just perhaps not to the same degree. It’s important to allow for the periods of adjustment we each need so we can all bring our best selves to collaborative work.

In terms of space design, we can integrate cool down areas into our projects where people can sit, rest, or lay down and just acclimate or catch their breath for a while. Additionally, to help with managing triggers in workshops or tours, we can use color communication badges (or just color-coded name tags). Green badges symbolize an openness to be talked to or directly called on. Yellow badges mean the participant wants to be the one who initiates communication. And red badges mean the participant is primarily focused on just observing right now without being verbally active too.

Read More: Color Communication Badges at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Recognize That Disability is A Common Experience of Life

In the past, I’ve used ‘natural’ there in place of ‘common,’ but I’m changing it because I want to emphasize that while disability can be natural, it can also be contextually tied to our experience of human civilization. This last part is more frequently encountered in permie and other environmentalist spaces, but it’s critically only one perspective towards disability. For instance, I would argue that my diabetes and asthma might both be consequences of industrial design, namely, the contemporary Western food system and acceptable amounts of industrial pollution. On the other hand, diabetes and my hearing issues both also repeat in my family genetically, suggesting some sort of ‘natural’ rather than purely environmental cause. The root cause of our disabilities is not really important in terms of design though, but the commonality of disability is.

When we accept that disability is a common experience of life, we can challenge ourselves not just to consider disability as a phenomenon that is unnecessarily and sometimes cruelly othered, but as a phenomenon that we may already be experiencing or will likely experience at some point in our lives. I think it’s important for disability discourse to reach this personal level, rather than getting caught up in ressentiment and an impasse between static categories of disabled vs. abled people. If we aren’t disabled now but could become disabled in the future, it seems only logical to incorporate an awareness of this into the permaculture design plans we make today, even if we are 100% certain that there are no other disabled folks engaging with our projects ever.

True to other forms of contemporary identity discourse, today’s disabled people can at times provide guidance for folks not presently disabled. We should also look realistically to our family medical histories and personal health journeys, labor journeys, and relationships to the land and to civilization’s development for ideas about what our body’s future may look like. If the idea of permaculture is to create something more than a season-long garden, these histories seem to me like important features to map into our designs.

As a last remark here, I think it’s important to get over thinking of accessibility as a static goal or a binary concept where projects or people either are or are not accessible. Making projects accessible is a dynamic goal that will evolve over time as new challenges are communicated and resolved. We’re all works-in-progress. We all make mistakes, and we also all make excellent recoveries at least some of the time. Keep an open mind to your ecosystem’s needs, and be willing to adapt.


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Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com