Birdability Birders: Fostering a More Inclusive Birding Community

In 2021, American Bird Conservancy teamed up with Birdability, a nonprofit dedicated to improving birding accessibility, to produce a six-part webinar series, “Birdability Birders: Conversations about Birding with Access Challenges.”

Intended to promote accessibility, inclusion, and representation within the birding community, the series featured six birders with a variety of backgrounds, health concerns, and access challenges. The webinars also provide links to valuable learning resources for people with health concerns or access challenges.

Throughout the series, our webinar guests shared the ways in which birds bring them joy and help them to cope with difficulties, how they have found ways to connect with birds that are compatible with their health or access challenges, and how we can all make birding spaces more inclusive.

Guests also offered important insight into human-nature connections, reminding us to slow down and be present, to listen more carefully to birds, and to seek solace and renewal in wild places.

Below, you'll find all of the interviews relating to this series, along with selected highlights from each episode. For additional resources, visit the Birdability website, which features a range of stories, as well as advice to increase awareness and access within birding, including detailed access considerations and a crowdsourced map of accessibility in birding locations worldwide.

Part One: Virginia Rose, Birding in a Manual Wheelchair

“I was listening to bird songs and I was just struck with the wonder of being able to be in the woods by myself, safely listening. I just thought, ‘This is my best self, and I gotta make sure everyone can get here, [especially those who may] not know that they can do it.'” – Virginia Rose

Virginia began birding 17 years ago, finding joy, empowerment, and community in a natural setting. As the founder of Birdability, she is now working to bring that experience to others who have accessibility challenges.

Virginia shared her experiences of birding in a wheelchair and encouraged people with mobility challenges to get out into nature. She also skillfully highlighted the value of asking people to describe themselves and their own abilities, concerns, and limitations.

In response to a question about her opinion on the term “disabled,” she said that she preferred the older term “handicapped,” declaring: “I am the most able person I know.”

Part Two: Jerry Berrier, Birding Totally Blind

“I need something that I can latch on to, where I can feel its beauty, that's available to me, and sound is the greatest way to get it.” – Jerry Berrier

Jerry has been totally blind from birth and has been birding by ear since 1972. His birding journey began when a biology professor gave him a series of birdsong albums, as a way to adapt an assignment. “He gave me one of the greatest gifts I've had in my life,” Jerry noted.

During his presentation, Jerry explained how he identifies and memorizes birdsongs, including comparing recordings and using mnemonics. He also described his experiences in various birding locations, challenges he has encountered, and how people can be most helpful when birding with him.

Jerry has been working with various organizations to make birding more accessible to blind people and others with access challenges. He has served as an accessibility consultant with Mass Audubon on several All Persons Trails projects, which feature guide ropes, audio directions, and other supportive means.

Part Three: Letícia Soares, Birding and Long Covid

“When I was spending a lot of time in bed, I really missed contact with the outside….I repositioned my bed so I could face the window. I had this really big and beautiful oak tree outside of my window, and that just became my world.” – Letícia Soares

Letícia is a birder and ornithologist who has battled fibromyalgia for eight years and is learning to live with long covid. She discussed some of the challenges associated with having chronic illnesses and the ways in which she copes. Her strategies included birding from her window or within a block of her home, watching birdcams, and simply slowing down when she goes out. For her, there are no rules for birding: She just does it.

Letícia highlighted the importance of fairness and equal opportunity in conservation, “taking into account all of the systemic failures that keep people disconnected from nature.”

She continues tackling those challenges and recently co-published an article exploring how systemic exclusion of professionals from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania represents an obstacle to advancing the field of ornithology.

Part Four: Kari Sasportas, Birding with Autism

“The biggest thing that birds have brought me is patience, grounding, and mindfulness. When I'm out birding, I'm fully present.” – Kari Sasportas

Kari is an autistic birder with a lifelong passion for animals and nature. Their interest in birds began with noticing birds that were both familiar and different; for instance, seeing a Steller's Jay for the first time after a lifetime with Blue Jays. For them, checking in with birds provides grounding and just the right amount of multi-sensory engagement.

Kari stressed that autism is a lifelong developmental disability, although services are often not available for adults. This tied into their preference for identity-first language — “autistic” versus “person with autism” — and how having identity highlighted helps them with recognizing challenges and accommodations they might need.

Part Five: Day Scott, Birding with a Traumatic Brain Injury

“I remember looking out the window and watching bird behavior, and laughing and crying at the same time.…To see a bird take its wing and smack another bird, it just made me laugh.” – Day Scott

Day became a passionate birder after an automobile collision that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. She described how, during the first stage of her recovery, she could not speak or walk at the same pace as before. But she found joy in backyard birds, looking out her window every day to watch their behavior. She spoke about some of the adaptive equipment that helps her while birding outside, including pink-tinted glasses that help her nervous system relax. 

Day also spoke about instances when she felt excluded while birding due to her race, gender, or perceived age. One particularly painful experience occurred when a family made negative assumptions about her, which led her to avoid birding for several months.

She urges everyone to call out disrespectful behavior: “Feeling safe is so important. We all want to feel safe in whatever space we occupy.” 

Part Six: Paul Miller, Birding with FSHD Muscular Dystrophy

“The more I did it, the more I realized that I didn't need to move my body up into pristine areas.…I have a piece of nature that is flying into my backyard.” – Paul Miller

Paul has had facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) since birth, and uses a walker and a power wheelchair to get around. FSHD is a progressive condition that results in the weakening of muscles in the face, shoulders, and arms. His declining muscle strength has increased the value he places on birding as a primary means of connecting with the natural world. For him, connecting with nature is a necessity, and he does it by birdwatching.

When Paul started birding, his difficulty using his hands and arms meant that special adaptive birding equipment was needed to support, move, and focus his binoculars and scope. A self-described "tinkerer," he shared the adaptive birding equipment he has created, as well as supporting resources for those wishing to build similar tools. His tools include an all-terrain wheelchair, a scope with electric focus, and a camera swivel arm. 

Erica J. Sánchez Vázquez is ABC's Digital Content Manager. She holds a Bachelors in Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico and a Masters in International Media from American University.
Naamal de Silva is ABC's Chief Diversity Officer. She holds a certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University, a doctorate in Education from George Washington University, a Master's in Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment, and a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies from Swarthmore College.