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Bob Roark was 29 years old when he slipped and fell on some ice. The tumble injured the Denverite’s spinal cord, and he now uses a wheelchair. When he discovered the joys of birding years later, he knew he’d found a hobby for life—despite a few challenges. “There were definitely times where I’d be unable to participate, just because groups I was with hadn’t fully considered accommodations I might need,” Roark says.
The problem wasn’t that birding groups weren’t welcoming, he says—they just didn’t know what a person with a disability would need during an outing. So in early 2020, he started working with Denver Audubon on a program called Birding Without Barriers, which leads free trips for those with mobility challenges and writes reports about the accessibility of parks in the metro area (find them at denveraudubon.org).
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Roark gives a lot of credit for Birding Without Barriers to Virginia Rose, who also uses a wheelchair and founded nationwide nonprofit Birdability in 2018. The organization has a number of resources on its website, including information about making birding sites more accessible and a crowd-sourced map describing the accommodations available at bird-watching hot spots across the United States. Non-disabled folks, for example, might not think about the need for parking lots that have room for ramps. People who are used to being able to stand up could unintentionally disregard the necessity of viewing windows in bird blinds that are low enough for a person in a wheelchair to see out of.
Birdability also works with organizations to make their avian-focused escapades more inclusive. Garrett Mumma, a certified orientation and mobility specialist with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (a Colorado state agency that provides guidance for people with disabilities who want to work), used expertise from Birdability, the Regional Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to plan a birding outing for his patients with visual impairments. “Much of birding is done by ear,” Mumma says, “so my patients could participate as much as anyone.”
Roark, too, consulted with the Birdability staff for Birding Without Barriers, and he plans to keep scouting new locations to see if they’re a good fit for his group. “It’s been really fun to show people that they can stay engaged with nature,” he says. “I think we’ve transformed some people into lifelong birders.”
Bob Roark recommends three accessible birding locations near Denver.
City Park | Denver
Much of the wide, 3.8-mile path around City Park, including the loop past waterfowl-friendly Duck Lake, is level and paved, making it a good option for folks using canes, manual or powered wheelchairs, and other mobility devices.
Belmar Park | Lakewood
Cormorants and hawks nest on the island at the center of Kountze Lake. “The water keeps predators like foxes away,” Roark says. The trail circling the body of water is level enough for wheelchairs to traverse.
Barr Lake State Park | Brighton
Parts of the park’s nine miles of trail are packed earth, which, while manageable, can get tiring, Roark says. However, wheelchairs can fit on the popular boardwalk and gazebo to view bald eagles in the winter.