After a horseback riding accident at age 14 left Virginia Rose in a wheelchair, the now retired educator recalls, “It was never expected that I would not continue living fully.”
Undaunted, Virginia continued to live her life not wanting others to feel sorry for her. After completing college, Rose began a career as an educator in several local public school systems.
In her spare time, she was involved in outdoorsy activities, finding solitude and comfort in nature. One day when out with her younger sister, Rose’s sister suggested that she consider bird watching as a hobby because it would blend her enthusiasm for the outdoors with the serenity and calm she enjoyed in nature.
The recommendation changed Rose’s life.
“I’d never experienced that kind of happiness before. Birding has provided me a way to be outside,” Rose said.
Empowered by her new hobby, Rose soon found herself maneuvering her wheelchair around parks to explore new migratory birds in the area. In addition to connecting with nature, Rose discovered bird watching was great exercise because it kept her on the go.
“I found my best self in nature,” Rose told CNN.
“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.”
Becoming involved with her local Audubon Society in Travis County, Texas, Rose took a series of birding classes to learn more about bird species so she could better identify them. While adjusting to her new hobby Rose began thinking about the mobility challenges some individuals have that might make nature and bird watching feel daunting.
She said, “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.”
So in 2015, she began to rate local trails of her local Audubon Society in Travis County, Texas.
“I was able to identify about 30 accessible trails and if not the entire trails, then portions that we could do.”
Presenting her findings at the National Audubon Society convention, Rose was approached by several audience members intrigued by her finding and interested in learning how to make trails more accessible.
Together they developed an interactive map that allows users to rate their local trails, parks or birding patches considering fields such as accessibility to parking and bathrooms, slopes, gates and ground cover.
Once a site is ranked, the location is pinned and its rating is made available to all users.
As a result of their work, Rose founded the nonprofit group “Birdability” with the mission “to help everybody who has access limitations be able to enjoy birding.”
Currently, Birdability has mapped out over 500 birding sites around the world helping to make bird watching as accessible and enjoyable for all people.
“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.”