At the water’s edge: exploring access to ‘blue space’ for people with disabilities

As part of the Institute for Social Justice’s Community Research Grant initiative, Open Country has been working with Dr Catherine Heinemeyer to expand their understanding and engagement with accessibility and adventure in ‘blue spaces’.

Open Country are a Yorkshire-based charity that actively work alongside people with disabilities to access and enjoy the countryside.

The Open Country team includes countryside professionals, athletes and adventure enthusiasts, as well as the charity’s Chief Office David Shaftoe. Open Country Trustee Jonty Warneken, who has represented GB in the sport of Ice Swimming and is a blue space enthusiast, was the driving force behind Open Country’s decision to apply for the grant.

The collaborative project with York St John University, which started in September 2022 and runs to July 2023, asks questions about the barriers people with disabilities face in relation to blue spaces, and offers a research-grounded starting point for Open Country to better open these spaces up through their work.

“People need access to ‘Bluespace’ just as much as they need access to ‘Greenspace’!”, Open Country 2023

Expanding the ‘edges’ of research

Dr Catherine Heinemeyer is a Senior Research Associate in Ecological Justice, Institute for Social Justice and Lecturer in Performance, School of the Arts. She was inspired to work collaboratively with Open Country as their desire to explore new ‘blue space’ offered a glimpse into a new, and growing edge of research.

Cath said: “This was a genuine chance to work on an equal level with a third sector partner, and to create a research project around their current challenges and needs.”

Working alongside Cath is research assistant Sophie Phillips who, through her involvement, is receiving career-focused training.

The project is broken down into three phases.

  1. Addressing barriers to access through online information platforms. Engagement with focus groups, including eight disability water sports organisations, revealed a desire for an online platform which clearly shared the ways in which people with disabilities could discover ‘reliably accessible blue space experiences. This was aimed at less-confident blue space explorers, including those with complex needs.
  2. Arts based practice to better understand those who do not even consider blue space as an accessible option. This includes the planning and facilitating of creative writing workshops to explore these perceptions and perspectives.
  3. Artistic collaboration with poet Kate Fox, who is a wild swimmer and a neurodiversity advocate, will create a multivocal poem based on the creative outputs of workshop participants. This will then made into a film.Open Country water activity

In their recent newsletter, Open Country said: “Thanks to Sophie and Catherine who are working with us on this new research project looking at disabled people’s access to ‘Bluespace’. It’s just one of the many ways that Open Country is a beacon of good practice. In 2023, expect us to bang the drum for inclusive countryside access much more loudly and vociferously!”

Cath said: “This process has opened me and the charity to new networks. It is great to be part of research that has stakeholders and the people who use their services at the core. As academics and activists, we are challenging each other to pragmatically address barriers and solutions in new ways.”

Applications for the 2023 ISJ Community Research Grants will be launched 1 March, with a deadline of the 28 April. Visit our website for further information on how to submit a proposal.