MY FEET, SIX INCHES FROM THE GROUND: Disability, Kids and Our Connection with Nature

About the Author

Disabled by polio at age 10, William G. Stothers has been fighting barriers to access in education and in the workplace for 60 years. In 1968, Stothers joined the staff of the Toronto Star, where in 1972 he orchestrated the writing and editing of one of the first examinations of independent living and disability rights issues in the mainstream press. He also worked at The San Diego Union and was editor of MAINSTREAM, a national magazine for people with disabilities. He serves on the board of directors of Post-Polio Health International.

When I was 8 years old, my family moved from a big city to a tiny town (pop. 600).  We lived in a rented house, complete with an outhouse. I loved it. There were farms nearby, and I got up-close to a different world, helping to herd and milk cows, “assisting” in the fields, and “riding” farm horses.

Photo by Elizabeth Wampler, courtesy of the Stephen Wampler Foundation
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There was a small creek down the hill from our house. My buddies and I fished from the bridge over the creek. I wandered along the mostly ankle-deep creek, looking for fish or turtles. About a half-mile from home, a little railway bridge went over the creek; at times, a couple of us would try to catch fish there, and while we did, we would build a little fire to heat up a can of pork and beans. Riding my bike around country roads, exploring the woods, climbing trees, getting caught in the rain, jumping into puddles and off a bridge and swimming in a deep pool said to be filled with old tires and other discarded trash, consumed summers. I loved it all.

There was something about getting dirty, touching and feeling the real natural world that thrilled and energized me. Two years later, when I was 10, polio came calling and for the next three years I worked my way through rehab institutions away from home.

Then I returned to our newly built house in town. No more outhouse – thank heaven, since that old one was not accessible! And there were many other “no mores”  No more wandering along the little creek, no more fishing from the bridge, no more exploring the woods, no more riding my bike.

Now when I went out, someone pushed me in my wheelchair. My feet stayed put, about six inches off the grass, the sidewalk, the gravel roads. The natural world seemed to slip away, vibrancy fading out of touch. After a while I didn’t notice, caught up with just getting used to doing as much as I could on wheels.

Fast forward several years, and I was back in a big city, working at a newspaper and living on my own (praise be to power chairs!) in a downtown high-rise apartment building. It was there in that ninth-floor apartment that I began to feel a certain anxiety. I finally realized that I was going back and forth to work and leading a busy life, but that I was going for long periods of time without seeing anything green and growing. No grass. No trees. I tried growing corn on my balcony. No corn either.

After three years, I was able to buy a house, with a backyard and elm trees. It was wonderful. I took up photography and found myself pending lots of time in local parks, getting close to and making pictures of flowers, plants and outdoor life. That anxious feeling ebbed.

Nature, like the rest of society, is becoming more accessible to many people with disabilities of all ages. Due to the efforts of people with disabilities, national, state and local parks are providing accessible trails and features that make it possible to get closer to flowers, trees and even animals – without paving paradise. And people with disabilities are more active than ever in outdoor sports, recreation and games. Or just hanging out in neighborhood yards and little parks.

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 But the truth is that people with disabilities, especially kids, still tend to be more isolated, and participate less in social and community activities or playing outside or exploring the world with their peers.

Organizations such as Easter Seals (and many local and regional groups) offer more organized activities, from summer camp and sports. But I fear too few kids get much unregulated, unorganized time encountering the natural world.

Kids with disabilities love to touch the wonders of the earth, getting dirty in the grass, trying to grab a lizard or a worm or a bug. I still do, too.

As time has passed, I have kept up my picture making and it helps me connect with the real world around me. My feet continue to skim six inches above the grass. Still, I can stick my nose closer to the roses in my front yard and take in the perfume. I can rub my hands over the bark on the big tree in my back yard. And even though the techs tell me not to, I can’t stop powering through puddles. Splashing and grinning.

Life is good.


NOTE: This piece is a version of an essay written for PHI Communique, a publication of Post-Polio Health International. I’m biased toward this important organization, which also operates the wonderful Polio Place, but then I am on the PHI board of directors.

Top Photo by Elizabeth Wampler, courtesy of the Stephen Wampler Foundation

More reading and resources

A list of useful resources from Environmental Travel Companions

Bottom photo ©  Bill Stothers, All Rights Reserved

NOTE: The Children & Nature Network has begun to compile a list of resources that promote and enhance the enjoyment of nature for children with disabilities. Please let us know if you have any to add.

ACCESSIBLE OUTDOORS: Kids with Social, Emotional and Physical Disabilities Go Outside

Access Nature at U.S. National Parks

Creating Inclusive Outdoor Play Environments: Designing for Ability Rather Than Disability

Designing for All Children

Fact Sheet: Summer Camps for Children with Physical Disabilities

Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism and Special Needs

Outdoors for All

Special Needs Camps

The Stephen Wampler Foundation


  1. Inspiring story. Kids do need to play whatever thier ability. We have a created a new low cost play tray that fits on any childs therapy chair, stroller or wheelchair. Called trabasack, it is unque in that you can use velcro to attach toys, switches, iPads and communiations aids. It is a very low cost alternative to clamps and mounts.

    Designed by a mum for her child with severe epilepsy. Thanks for letting me post here.

  2. Thank you for this important essay. Speaking from experience with my autistic granddaughter, and having been director of a respite care center for children with disabilities and their siblings, ages 1 month-16 yrs old, being outdoors is natural and important and doable for all. We pushed wheelchairs in the snow, sloshed in light rain, and every child had outdoor time every day, over 30 years ago. Happily I was just following suit from the previous director! I still remember the laughter and very happy faces on those children.

    I was just talking with a coworker about his rehab after a severe car accident and he recalled what it meant to get out of the hospital and feel a breeze. I remember the first time I got to walk a few feet outside after some surgery. I was in a cold sweat for 20 minutes afterward but it was worth every second.

    ‘No excuses,’ folks. We all need it. It’s doable.

  3. Wonderful inspirational essay! We’ll be looking for ways to make our programs more accessible to all kids. Thank you for the encouragement.

  4. Thank you Bill, for your wonderfully positive account of the great memories and everyday comfort that time out in nature provides; there’s nothing like it. God bless.

  5. Very glad to see Nancy Herron’s story. My own surgery is probably coming soon – don’t know the scope yet. I know how sad is it in the hospital even for a few days not to see the sky. I’m waving a flag all the time for at least a garden view and why not garden access for patients including chemo outpatients and those awaiting scary tests.
    Interior designers erected a vary tall banquette in our local hospital that treats people awaiting GI tests to a view of the elevator bay! I think of no reasong why a patient can’t await scary tests while standing or walking in a garden. I have seen no stories of miracle cures in marble reception halls.


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