Avian Accessibility for All: Meet Freya McGregor

Avian Accessibility for All: Meet Freya McGregor

Photo by Patrick Oaks

Interest in birds, if you will please forgive the pun, has taken off in a big way, especially in the last few years with people discovering the joys of these amazing creatures across the world. Just like all the thousands of species of birds out there, we humans are a diverse lot, and ensuring as many people as possible get to experience birds to their fullest ability is the core mission of today’s interviewee: occupational therapist Freya McGregor is a one-woman powerhouse aiming to bring accessibility for all to the world of birds.

Birdwatching for all

In our global society, embracing diversity has become more than just a virtue; it's a necessity. One crucial aspect of acknowledging — and celebrating — diversity is recognizing and addressing the needs of everyone, across all situations. It’s not only a moral imperative but also a pathway to a more inclusive, innovative, and harmonious world.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four American adults — 61 million people — have a disability that impacts major life activities. As with everyone in the world, these people will have the same desires and yearnings to take part in hobbies, develop special interests and experience opportunities to further their own lives and careers, but because of the way the world around them is structured, they are denied these same experiences that so many of us don’t think twice about.

Aside from the sheer enjoyment factor, numerous studies now prove that engaging with birds has therapeutic benefits like reducing stress and anxiety, improving memory, cognitive development, and many more. Accessibility is therefore crucial: as this activity usually involves observing and studying birds in their natural habitats, when bird watching sites and activities are accessible, it means everyone gets the chance to connect with nature, experience wildlife, and benefit from the physical and mental well-being that these activities provide.

Furthermore, when individuals with disabilities are able to participate, they also become advocates for both accessibility and conservation, and their experiences can inspire others to appreciate the environment and the work needed towards protecting it.

“One in four is no small group of people” Freya McGregor points out. “If you think it's a good idea that more people should like birds so that more people will act for conservation, that's a whole chunk of the population you're missing out on.”

Australian-born and now resident in Alabama, McGregor launched her current business, Access Birding at the end of 2022. As a sole business owner, it’s a lot to take on, but just a few minutes in conversation with her shows you not only the passion she has for her career but the wealth of knowledge backing it up is staggering. She cut her teeth in a previous role in Birdability, a not-for-profit co-founded with Virginia Rose in 2021, with McGregor working full-time as the only paid member of staff.

“That was a really amazing opportunity to apply my occupational therapy skills; my clinical background is in blindness and low vision services. My personal experiences having these conversations, particularly through social media, showed me that suddenly there were all these other birders with different access challenges saying ‘Hey, yes, me too, thank you for talking about this, no one talks about this!’ and it really became such a community. This is all following in the shadow of the first Black Birders Week, also National Audubon has an initiative called Let's Go Birding Together, aiming to create inclusive, safe spaces for queer folks on birding outings. We all want to feel like we belong, that we’re being valued as humans, but when you're from a historically marginalized community, you just don't get that by default."

"A lot of different organizations were reaching out to me at Birdability because they realized that they needed to do better on their accessibility, but they didn't know how. As an occupational therapist, I understand that if the social, cultural, institutional, or the physical environment doesn't support your participation in an activity, you simply won't be able to participate in that activity; or at least to the extent that you want to. Birdability is set up to create programs for disabled birders and share the joys of birding with people who have disabilities and other health concerns. With Access Birding, the consulting and training services I now provide to organizations like nature centers, bird clubs, or state parks, helps them improve their inclusion for disabled birders. I felt perfectly comfortable doing it because occupational therapists do lots of those sort of home modification recommendations, and I had gathered all this information from other disabled birders, and now I carry that with me when I am thinking about what features of a birding location or programming considerations are valuable or not.

My business plan is to actually make myself redundant! I don't want to have repeat customers once they're set to go. As well as setting them up for success on the surface level, I want to make sure that the staff and volunteers and the people at that organization understand the recommendations that I make and why they are relevant so they can make informed decisions going forward and won't need to call on me. Because that's the success: if I've done a good job, it just becomes how we do things, it's not this extra thing that you have to call someone else in to do.”

An experimental voyage

McGregor’s passion for occupational therapy as a career wasn’t her initial driver, however; little Freya wanted to be a marine biologist and save the whales, or failing that, help her fellow species.

“My ever-practical parents talked me out of the whales because there's not very many jobs working with them professionally, sadly. But as a teenager, I knew I really was really interested in helping people and learning how people tick. In Australia, we call it physiotherapy, and it seemed like a good way of doing that. I didn't really want to poke around with blood and guts, so medicine and nursing wasn’t appealing, but physio meant I could work with people and help them regain movement and strength so they could just do stuff. In Australia, your entire schooling career gets summarized into one number, and that number determines whether you can get into different university programs or not. It's brutal, but it's simple; not very accessible, mind. But I knew, if I worked really hard in year 12, I could get 96 out of a 100, so I could do physio."

"All the physio kids are told to put down OT as your second choice, because if you don't get into physio, you can do a year of OT and transfer credit. So I put down OT and got in, then I decided I didn't want to give up all the extracurricular activities like the school production, the swim team, also I was heavily involved in setting up a tutoring group for Sudanese refugees in the local community, and I didn't want to not do that in my final year. I finally got into a pretty decent OT school — but first I had a gap year and went traveling when I was 19.”

It was during that break that McGregor had the fantastic opportunity to volunteer on-board one of only two ships in the world designed and built to enable people of all physical disabilities to sail side-by-side on equal terms. The now sadly-decommissioned Lord Nelson has been intrinsic to training thousands of disabled and non-disabled people throughout the world in how to sail.

Diverse teams bring together individuals with different life experiences, problem-solving approaches, and cultural insights.

“It was really, really cool. There’s berthing spaces for folks who use manual wheelchairs [they can't take power wheelchairs because of safety issues with water and electrics], an accessible toilet and shower. There's an audio compass, so that someone who's blind can be at the helm. There's Braille on a bunch of stuff, there's a lift to take you up and down between decks, anchors in some places on deck that you can bolt down a wheelchair to so that you don't have to rely on brakes and not roll off the ship. Then there’s the social environment: all the permanent crew know how to think about inclusion and how to modify tasks. They make a point that you can go up the masts, where there are two platforms. On one of the voyages we had three wheelchair users and there was this special set-up where they got hauled up to the top of the mast and the grins on their faces, my goodness."

"There were also people who had balance issues, cerebral palsy or some other kind of disability, and I was on the foremast one day with a young bloke with cerebral palsy who had a shake in his leg, so I would hold his foot down for him, just to anchor it in place, then he could do the other movements. We got to the first platform, and he said I'd like to go for the second platform, so we went. We sat there for ages and just talked about how cool this was, how he never thought he could climb a mast let alone under his own steam. He had spasticity in his face muscles and a speech impediment, but his intellect was fine, he had no cognitive disability, just his speech sounded different. He was telling me how wonderful this whole week had been because everyone just was like how you should be, just friendly, nice, and kind — and no one was talking down to him. When I came back to go to OT school, I realized I didn't want to spend my career massaging hamstrings, I wanted to be creating environments like that ship, this thing that brings meaning, all client-centered.”

The unifying power of birds

The birding aspect of the career choice came through an amalgamation of her love for birds since childhood and a particular personal experience that gave her a first-hand look at disability. After marrying her US-Army husband, the move to America presented her with new birding challenges; solution-focused McGregor hit her stride.

Acorn Woodpecker, Pinnacles National Park, California. Photo by Freya McGregor

“In Australia, there isn't really a birding community infrastructure. In the US, there's 450 Audubon chapters, stacks of bird clubs and state ornithological societies, all these nature centers organizing bird walks and so on; that doesn't exist in Australia at all. There's plenty of people who go birding, they just do it on their own. So I didn't have any notion of what a birder was or wasn't in Australia, it was just something that my parents did, so it wasn't cool. I knew all the names of the birds around me because my parents would tell me, but that also meant I didn't have any motivation to go look in the field guide and use my powers of observation. So when I got to the US, suddenly there were all these birds that I didn't know and if I wanted to, I was going to have to figure it out for myself.”

An unexpected and disabling knee injury that persists to this day helped further focus her aim.

“One day, four years ago, I woke up and I couldn't straighten my right knee — just out of the blue. We lived in Boston at the time, and I'd been planning to hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire all summer. Then suddenly, I couldn't even walk half a mile. No one could tell me what the deal was, they ran tests, but nothing was showing anything. They looked at Lupus, there were MRIs, rheumatologists; no one had a clue. The way I had always gone birding was hiking down a trail with binoculars. That wasn’t available to me anymore because walking far became practically impossible, I needed lots of rest and there weren't always benches. Rugged trails weren’t friendly to my knee, they needed to be smooth and flat. I didn't know where I was supposed to go birding now. I spent a lot of time sitting on rocks that summer next to streams on the top of mountains, waiting for birds to come to me. It's not the way I wanted to be birding, but it worked. Because of my OT training I know how to modify a task to suit someone's functional capacity — and this is the joy of birding too, it's so modifiable, there's so many ways to go birding. And that’s how I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Snail Kite, photo courtesy of Freya McGregor

McGregor intuitively knows through her work and life experiences that innovation thrives in environments which encourage varied perspectives, because when diverse needs are taken into account, solutions are more often than not enriched by a wider range of viewpoints. Diverse teams bring together individuals with different life experiences, problem-solving approaches, and cultural insights. Managing to score herself a job as a research associate at Virginia Tech means she can contribute in ways that others yet haven’t.

Dr. Ashley Dayer is a social scientist who works a lot around birds. Occupational therapy is an evidence-based practice, and there's very little formal published research around access and inclusion in birding, so I’m interested in contributing to that body of evidence, because when you have hard legitimate data, it makes your case a lot more appealing if you're looking for funding for access improvements at a nature preserve or something like that. It also means that the recommendations I make to my clients are even more valid because there is evidence that supports them. I'd been talking to Ashley about how there must be a way that someone can contribute towards that without being a full-time academic, or PhD or postdoc, and she offered me the job. Because they're all social scientists and I’m ‘the odd one out,’ it means I get to learn how they look at something which is different to how I look at it, which means I can offer some value too from a different direction."

"I'm working on a paper right now which will hopefully be published by the end of the year about using a strength-based approach for birders with disabilities: rather than trying to remediate a deficit, what strengths does this person have? Can we utilize some of those to make up for whatever is not happening? I did a survey a few years ago with a bunch of disabled birders, and I had asked if they noticed any positives to birding with disability. These results are so cool, for example, someone with multiple sclerosis explained they need to take lots of rest because they get really tired. When they sat on a bench and were quiet, all these birds showed up that they would have missed if they’d just kept walking. An autistic birder explained their sound sensitivity with loud noises or particular frequencies can be really disabling in some contexts, but when birding, they pick up sounds like bird calls that no one else is hearing and they can point exactly where it's coming from, and their brain is wired to learning by ear because of that sound sensitivity. And so it becomes a strength, not a disabling situation.”

I realized I didn't want to spend my career massaging hamstrings, I wanted to be creating environments like that ship, this thing that brings meaning, all client-centered.”

All of this excellent knowledge is now being funneled into a new challenge: Princeton University Press recently approached her asking her to write a book that will detail as many accessible birding sites as possible across the US. Her deadline is September 2025; she has been spending her advance on travel for months since the request came in, going to each and every state to find suitable sites to include.

“All the locations that I write up in this book, I'm trying to visit myself so that the reviews are consistent and reliable for people who are reading it. I’m trying to include three to five locations in every state, but there are 50 states so that’s a lot of ground to cover, so it takes a remarkable amount of time to plan. Part of that is because the level of detail of accessibility information that I need in order to determine if the site is worth visiting is almost never available; which is part of the problem, that's why I need to write this book. I don't have the luxury of time to go everywhere, so I need to be really choosy. So far, my success rate is still only about 50%. But if locations included this kind of detailed information, and if it was available in all the regular ‘go to this place to find birds’ books, of which there are many, then this book wouldn't be needed. It will include places that are really excellent examples of accessible birding, like phenomenal car-birding locations, or really awesome accessible trails, or a bird blind that was just designed so well for all these different reasons and then the birding is really good. I hope it will be really valuable for birders with disabilities or someone who has a disability who is interested in going birding. Also there should be a lot of ideas in this book about things that nature preserves, and other land managers could do at their locations to increase the accessibility, and then all those bird-finding book authors will hopefully pick up on that key access information that I'm collecting, and they will start incorporating it in their own books. It sounds strange to say it but — again — ideally this book becomes redundant in ten years because everything in it will just be part of the fabric of how we do things; that it's not a special thing, it's just a thing… that would be great.”

Car birding in Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area, California. Photo by Christa LeGrande Rolls

"I grew up with a physically disabled brother, so my formative years were spent watching how my brother was treated in a time when how to communicate with and about disabled people was very poor."

Thankfully, huge advances have been made, often simply by being respectful as you would to anyone, and McGregor is a leading advocate in disability etiquette, a cornerstone from which all relationships can prosper. On her website, she offers a frank and disarming bio about her disability; or specifically, about being asked about it, something that in basic etiquette terms is pretty much a no-no unless invited. I asked her if she has met any kind of resistance to being mindful of language, pronouns, figures of speech and so on.

“I'm pretty lucky that most people who engage with me in the work that I do are already on board, or at least curious and open to it. But I have stories from many disabled folks in their own local birding community, that they hit these human barriers, with people saying, ‘Oh it doesn't really matter, no one comes who's disabled.’ Firstly – you don’t know that; are you asking every person who walks in the door? Because I sure hope you're not. Secondly, within those one in four Americans with a disability, there's a lot of invisible ones that they're not going to tell you, especially if you have that attitude. If it really happens that there is legitimately no one coming to you with any access challenges, then that's because you've created an environment where they can't access it and don't feel safe showing up."

"This is the cool thing about disability etiquette. I can teach it in the context of birding, but it applies when you meet someone at the supermarket as well. If you are hosting an outing that you're hoping will be accessible and inclusive and you've asked about it on the registration form, and someone says, ‘I need to be near the leader at all times, please,’ that's an accommodation request; why they need to be near the leader at all times is not your business. Your business is doing what you can to make sure that accommodation request is being met so that person can participate as much as possible. It might be that they are hard of hearing; It might be that they're really nervous because they have social anxiety, or PTSD, and they're not sure about this new group. It's nothing to do with you. What is to do with you is what are you going to do about that request, can you meet it? And if you can't, communicate with respect and kindness."

Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash

"Another big one is don't do things to people; for example, if someone is using a manual wheelchair and they're approaching a hill and you just run up behind and push them. No, absolutely do not do that, that's so inappropriate. You wouldn't go up behind a standing person and start pushing them up a hill, which would be weird as heck. But you can say to someone, ‘Hey would you like a hand with that?’ and if they say, ‘Yes please,’ your next question is ‘How would you like me to help?’ Because everyone will have different preferences, needs and ways of doing things. If they say no, you also don't then say, ‘I was just trying to be nice,’ because guess what? Now you sound like a jerk."

"I heard this said recently: it's not necessarily a question of treating others how you want to be treated; it's actually, treating others how they want to be treated. Just because you wouldn't mind someone pushing you up a hill in a wheelchair, does that mean another person wouldn't find that incredibly belittling? The best takeaway from the etiquette conversation is, if you lead with love and kindness and a willingness to learn from the people you are trying to serve, you'll be 80% of the way there.”

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