Visiting Rowntree Park for the first time made me realise that I could feel at home in York – at a time when I was beginning to wonder whether I could feel at home anywhere.
I became disabled halfway through my undergraduate degree, and started using a wheelchair towards the end of my studies. It’s safe to say that the challenges of chronic illness made me experience York as a city in an entirely new way. I no longer had the autonomy to book events on a whim (given the lengthy procedures for reserving access tickets). Nor could I experience the tourist attractions that had once been on my bucket list (due to no lifts or level access). Heck, I couldn’t even make my way from A to B without injuring myself (thanks to issues with pavement planning and the lack of dropped kerbs).
Now, I’m the first one to laugh at myself and poke fun at the situations I land myself in. When you’re navigating a debilitating health condition as a young adult, being able to find humour in even the bleakest of moments is a necessity if you want to survive.
However, the thing that hit me the hardest – and continues to hit the hardest – was the fact I could no longer access almost any of my favourite independent cafés, pubs, and bars. The lack of accessibility, and the lack of initiatives to tackle the issue of accessibility, made me feel like a burden – somebody who wasn’t wanted here, someone who wasn’t valued enough, someone who wasn’t seen as equal to everybody else.
At the time I was making some key decisions about my future, I visited Rowntree Park for the first time. Within seconds, it was clear that this was a place where accessibility wasn’t an afterthought. I’d found a place where I could enjoy the gorgeous surroundings, with level terrain and accessible facilities, without being all-consumed by the minute-by-minute challenges of getting around. And as silly as it might sound, I can remember the exact moment I spotted Rowntree Park’s Reading Café… and its gorgeous extended ramp, making the building completely accessible for wheelchair users. Never in my life did I think a person could feel so exhilarated by some sloping concrete.
Somehow, disabled people are too often seen as ‘less’, and accessibility is considered no more than a good deed rather than a necessity. And goodness me, that realisation can pack a serious punch to your feelings of self-worth.
York is my favourite place in the world, so thankfully I’m beginning to find more and more accessible adventures in the area.
We still need to do better for disabled and chronically ill residents and visitors, particularly in the city centre, but to me, Rowntree Park represents the realisation that accessibility is more than possible – and change will come.
In this spot right here, I feel welcome. I hope you do too. I hope that we can all feel welcome everywhere, one day.