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Disabled Activists Are Building a More Inclusive Food Justice Future

Four years since the garden assessment, GGWNY is now one of a handful of organizations modeling how community gardens can empower disabled people and work towards a more accessible and inclusive model of food justice.

In the spring of 2019, GGWNY launched the Gardening for All initiative, a community taskforce led by Wilson that spent a year evaluating the accessibility of the nonprofit’s garden network. Critically, disabled gardeners on the task-force were compensated for their time, expertise, and emotional labor. The group partnered with local disability organizations and conducted a community survey to better understand the needs of community members of all abilities. In early 2020, GGWNY began modifying seven select gardens; they installed wheelchair mats, lights, seating nearby and connected to raised beds, and signage with QR codes (for people who use screen readers), and purchased accessible hand tools and garden scoots. They also created a long-term plan for enabling universal access in all their plots and committed to offering American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at all public meetings.

Grass mats, like the one installed this summer at the Victory Community Garden, enable people using wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or baby strollers to navigate between plots. (Photo credit: Grassroots Gardens WNY)

“We didn’t just jump into the work,” says GGWNY director Koncikowski. “It was important for us to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, we’ve not done well in this area, let’s hear from the community about what better is.’”

But initiatives like GGWNY’s are still few and far between, advocates say, with most disabled and neurodivergent individuals, especially those of color, facing added barriers in accessing green spaces such as parks, gardens, and farms compared to nondisabled people.

Faced with the high cost of community garden plots and lack of public green spaces in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Latinx occupational therapist and disability justice advocate Kristie Cabrera says she quietly began gardening on her roof in 2019. “I realized [gardening] wasn’t accessible for me as a person with complications, but also for other New Yorkers who had disabilities,” says Cabrera, who is neurodivergent. In 2020, she began documenting how other disabled and neurodiverse people connect with nature in her blog series, Growing Food in This Body.

An accessibility and inclusivity consultant, Cabrera hosts workshops for farmers, gardeners, and others that delve into disability justice and empower attendees to consider accessibility in all aspects of their programming. This could entail thinking through alternative modes of completing farm tasks, purchasing ergonomic or adaptive gardening tools, building spaces and time for rest, learning and applying basic web accessibility principles when doing outreach, and asking CSA members about their accessibility needs upfront. Currently, Cabrera is working with Rock Steady Farm in New York to identify how they can leverage photos on their website to show—rather than tell—potential farm visitors, such as workshop attendees, about the accessibility of their space.

Cabrera is also a program manager for Culikid, a New York City-based nonprofit that offers cooking classes for disabled and neurodiverse children. In this role, she designs classes that are accessible for each student; she may develop different phrases and techniques to explain what sensory cues one can use to check if food is done cooking, or identify alternatives to knives to better serve students with limited bilateral hand coordination.

Her ultimate goal, however, is to work with other disabled and neurodiverse people to establish an “accessible, educational farm” a few hours outside of New York City. The farm would provide a safe space for disabled and neurodiverse BIPOC to “grow food, connect and learn from nature, share their ancestral land stewardship knowledge, and build community with one another,” as Cabrera writes on her website.

“The intersection of disability and food justice is still a very niche field, but it’s blossoming. You have to put two and two together and make the opportunity, even if there is no model.”

Growing spaces created by and for disabled people are critical to fostering a more inclusive food justice movement, says Michigan-based activist Ava HaberkornHalm, whose own mobility is limited. Many universally designed gardening spaces—i.e., created in such a way that any person, regardless of size, age, ability, or disability, can access, understand, and use it—can be discriminatory and segregated, she adds. They often paint disabled gardeners as “inspirations” or recipients of charity, rather than active participants in the food system.

In 2013, HaberkornHalm had the chance to establish a gardening program rooted in dignity at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living (CIL). With 12 wheelchair-accessible beds already built, HaberkornHalm created an inclusive program that taught not only “gardening and food justice skills, but also disability pride and solidarity.”

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