One in three birders experiences accessibility challenges to participation in birding, according to Virginia Tech researchers Emily Sinkular and Ashley Dayer.

“I like to think of our research as blending together two previously unconnected fields: disability studies and wildlife recreation,” said Sinkular, a Ph.D. student and lead author of the study published March 26 in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife. “There’s been quite a lot of research on disability and lots of research on birding, but very few researchers have combined these two topics together.”

The researchers used a nationwide survey of U.S. wildlife viewers to compare the challenges and needs for birders with and without disabilities. Along with co-authors Freya McGregor, research associate in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and Morgan Karns ’23, they analyzed open-ended responses using models of disabilities, or different frames of reference, to better understand how to talk about and think about disability so it resonates with disabled people.

“We suggest agencies and organizations reflect on how to make their programs more accessible and train staff or volunteers to do so as well,” said Dayer, associate professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Acknowledging that the responsibility to support participation of disabled birders rests on society and institutions, not on disabled people themselves, is essential.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Americans has a disability and that number is expected to rise with an aging population. Evidence further shows that people with disabilities are also historically underserved in wildlife-related recreation, including birding.

While the researchers found that birders with disabilities experienced more constraints than their peers, including lack of accessible features, safety concerns, and crowds at birding sites, commonalities in their needs for support of their recreational activity were also shown. Birders with and without disabilities expressed interest in access to more high-quality birding locations and information about where and when to view wildlife. This suggests strategies to improve wildlife viewing opportunities can benefit both groups.

“This shows us that agencies or organizations making changes to better include birders with disabilities can actually benefit everyone,” said Sinkular, who is also a student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

Ultimately, studying and planning for including people with disabilities in recreation will support broader social inclusion for this large population. The benefits of birding are multifaceted, including to mental well-being, social connections, and ultimately conservation actions. This research helps to bring these benefits to people with disabilities.

Emily Sinkular, shown on a wildlife excursion to the Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee, wants to use her Ph.D. research to help make natural spaces more accessible to all, knowing the benefits she receives from being in nature and connecting to wildlife. Photo courtesy of Emily Sinkular.
Ashley Dayer, a leader in conservation social science, is actively engaged in bird conservation, serving on Road to Recovery of North America’s Birds leadership team and elective member of the American Ornithological Society. Photo by Kris Timney for Virginia Tech.

Dayer’s Human Dimensions Lab has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Multistate Conservation Grant Program to increase research on wildlife viewers with disabilities and to support state fish and wildlife agencies in learning how to better support these populations. Her lab specializes in enhancing conservation success through applying social science to effectively engage people and works to ensure that all voices are represented in research and conservation.

Dayer, an affiliated faculty member of Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s Global Change Center, said she hopes the work broadcasts a message of both inclusion and hope.

“My message for neurodiverse or disabled people: you are not alone in experiencing a desire to access nature and also facing additional challenges to doing so,” Dayer said. “And your challenges are increasingly being seen and addressed.”