Looking skyward and into the treetops, she began identifying birds and their intricate songs from guidebooks and online apps.
“I was so satisfied spending three and four hours birding every time I went out. It really forces you to be in the present,” Rose said. “I feel like for years prior I was always looking elsewhere for that happiness in other people but not nature.”
She got involved in her local Audubon Society in Travis County, Texas. She took birding classes, joined them on outings, discovering she was the only one in a wheelchair. She’d call the team leaders the night before outings to anticipate any terrain challenges. Rose thrived, becoming a master birder by completing a rigorous course in bird identification, ecology and conservation– and leading outings herself.
Rose began thinking about mobility-challenged people who weren’t getting outside and into nature. About 30 million adults in the US — that’s one in seven — have mobility challenges serious enough to impact major life activities.
“I wanted them to have the same joy and the same empowerment that I had.”
But negotiating the outdoors can be challenging. Rose has 48 years of experience in a manual wheelchair and even she’s had obstacles birding. “Sand is impossible. Gravel is impossible. We’re talking about slopes and grades that a walking person may have no understanding of at all.”
In 2015, she began to rate local trails for Travis Audubon. “I was able to identify about 30 accessible trails and if not the entire trails, then portions that we could do.”
Rose presented her findings during a National Audubon Society convention. Some map designers in the audience approached her after her presentation.
Together they developed an interactive map where anyone can use a survey to rate their local trails, parks or birding patches. The survey gives multiple access considerations, including parking and bathrooms, slopes, gates and ground cover.
Once a site is submitted, that site location is pinned to the map for all to see. The considerations have expanded to include those who are blind or have low vision or those who are deaf or hard of hearing– even those Rose described as having “grumpy knees” who are looking for a “gentler birding experience.”
She founded the nonprofit group “Birdability” with the mission, Rose said, “to help everybody who has access limitations be able to enjoy birding.”
So far, the group has mapped out over 500 birding sites along with their accessibility scores, across the country and a few internationally.
Anyone can participate in Birdability and even become Birdability captains. They hold meetings to stay on mission and have fun.
“We have almost 40 and the captains just go crazy talking to each other. These are people they’ve never otherwise seen. I feel like I’ve just become part of a new important community.”
On a recent outing near Austin, Rose pointed at a flock of gulls that had filled the sky with their bleating. She cried out as she counted them “10, 20, 30, 40! Look they’re swinging back around.” Her joy was palpable.
“Every single time you go birding there is something you would never have thought you would see,” said Rose. “I think it’s really important to have a mystery to look forward to every day.”