When you hear the word climber what do you think of? A white, shirtless, able-bodied man with a sixpack and a bobble hat? Well, I’m here to breakdown that stereotype and prove that anyone can climb!
I have always enjoyed adventures activities, growing up in the Scouts meant I spent a large amount of my childhood outdoors. When I was 15, I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disease which is slowly causing my muscles to deteriorate impacting my ability to walk, balance, coordination, and muscle power. I was born with the condition but did not know I had it until it became obvious that there was something impacting my mobility when I was a teenager. Since my diagnosis I have spent a large amount of time in and out of hospital and am extremely thankful for our amazing NHS. My health got particularly bad a few years ago resulting in me spending 3 months in hospital. A few months after coming out of hospital, before heading to intensive rehabilitation to improve my mobility, I went backpacking around Australia with some friends who happened to be climbing instructors. They took me to a climbing centre in New South Wales and I instantly fell in love with the sport. I still remember the rush of adrenalin I got when getting to the top of the wall. It took me 20 minutes to climb, and I was extremely pumped by the end of it, but I proved to myself that it was possible. When I returned from Australia, I started climbing regularly and now compete in Paraclimbing competitions where I recently placed 4th for my category at the Dutch Open.
Through climbing I’ve learnt how my body moves and have been able to use this to my advantage when it comes to walking. Still a bit wobbly on my feet and with very weak muscles, I have more awareness of my balance, centre of gravity and how far I can push myself physically and mentally before I need to rest. I love climbing; however, I would never see myself represented in the community whenever I visited a new climbing centre. People associate climbing with elite fitness, power and strength, therefore coding climbers as able bodied. This assumption needs tackling to allow the climbing world to raise awareness and become more inclusive. I founded Leeds Paraclimbing Club to allow more people with disabilities to access the sport and to help tackle some of the issues disabled climbers face. Climbing isn’t a sport you might immediately think of doing if you have a disability. But there is no reason you can’t climb with the right support or adjustments whether this be physical, emotional, or social. If all climbing centres where accessible, then more people with disabilities could climb.
If you are an abled bodied climber and are wondering how you can make climbing an inclusive space, then there a few things you can do.
- Choice of language – it’s okay to ask questions but it’s how you ask them that matters.
It is exceedingly rude to stare, mutter, or make gestures towards someone who is different. If you have any questions, it is preferable to ask them in a courteous manner rather than making someone feel judged. The person with a disability has complete autonomy in deciding whether to respond to your question. Some people will. Some will not. Consider how you’d react if someone approached you and asked you questions about your life, health, diagnosis, and struggles, even if you’d never met them before. I have had times when people have approached me when in a climbing centre and spoken very slowly at me and then congratulated me on being able to climb! This instantly makes me uncomfortable and impacts my ability to climb. It’s embarrassing but also intimidating especially when I am just trying to climb like anyone else.
Disabled climbers are not interested in your pity. They don’t usually feel sorry for themselves, and they’ll be upset if you make overtures about how difficult their life must be, how amazing they are, and how you could never live as they do. Messages like this imply that you think their lives are dreadful and that you don’t think they should be living at all. People are not affected by their diagnosis, but they are affected by outmoded misconceptions, prejudices, and continual ableism.
- Speak out and make some noise
Disabled people frequently feel unnoticed, overlooked, or ostracised. They campaign for and battle for the same fundamental rights that others take for granted every day. Outsiders to the disability community standing up, speaking out, and making noise is one of the most impactful methods to effect change.
Become a member of committees, boards, or organisations that include the people they claim to serve. Participate in lobbying activities, sign petitions, visit your politicians, VOTE, and ensure that injustices are exposed. You are equally liable for oppression if you do not speak up in the face of prejudice. If you suspect that anything is preventing someone from climbing, challenge it.
- Always assume disabled climbers are capable
Imagine having to prove yourself capable every minute of every day.
It may seem absurd, yet this is frequently the case for people with disabilities. If someone uses a wheelchair on a regular basis, they are likely capable of negotiating doorways and lifts without your help.
Wait for a person with a disability to express an interest in your assistance, and then wait for them to tell you how they want to be assisted. Most well-intentioned individuals leap ahead of this and give aid without asking, or they provide help in a condescending manner without meaning to.
You’ll never go wrong assuming someone is capable and then waiting for them to ask for assistance.
- Remember every disability is different.
Not all disabled people are wheelchair users. There are so many different types of disability; some are invisible, and some aren’t even physical. Stop presuming you know how a disabled person appears because you don’t.
Above all, being an ally to disabled people does not imply that you are in control or in charge of them. It’s all about taking notes and paying attention. Everything you do must be based on what disabled people have to say.
There are lots of adaptations that can be used in climbing to make It accessible to everyone such as being allowed to belay sat down, assistive devices, quite spaces/times for people with sensory processing issues and headsets and communication devices for blind climbers. If you are interested in how, you can be supportive of disabled climbers or perhaps you have a disability and want to get into climbing/improve your climbing, you can always find me walking wobbly around Parthian Climbing Harrogate so feel free to come and ask questions and I will be happy to share my knowledge or advice.
Blog written by Lucy Keyworth Parthian Climbing Harrogate Instructor