Chronicle

An accessible allotment

A few years ago I became part of the trend of urban cultivation, a phenomena that fills the media with inspiring stories. One of my colleagues at Funka asked me if I was interested in an allotment. It sounded great, as I have always been interested in animals, nature and sustainability, but another thought also entered my mind. How will this work, is it possible when you are in a wheelchair?

Stefan Pelc

Title: Web Editor, Writer, Picture Editor and Training Instructor

It was great starting to grow my own organic vegetables, berries and fruits. Being able to exercise some consumer power and not just buying all vegetables from the supermarket. To be able to sow a seed and then be fascinated when it grows. I had the benefit of hanging out with my grandfather who worked for the Park Administration in Solna, north of Stockholm, in the early seventies. Taking care of the plants and watering in the greenhouses at the Royal Palace of Ulriksdal are nice memories that I still carry with me.

An allotment is obviously not accessible in itself. As a disabled and wheelchair-bound person, and as a user of personal assistants, I had a number of physical issues to solve in order for the cultivation to feel fun and meaningful.

How accessible should the allotment be?

One of my first concerns was if the whole area had to be accessible by wheelchair. Or was it enough for me to see some things from a distance to maximise the limited area that I lease? Personally I had no need to be able to reach everything myself, as my disability prevents med from tending to the plants and fighting the eternal weeds myself.

Therefore, it was an easy choice. Some plant beds can I get close to and even touch the plants. At other places seeing is sufficient, and looking forward to good harvests of vegetables because it is a larger plot of land but no space for the wheelchair.

After some consideration, I also skimped on the accessibility in the greenhouse for budgetary reasons. Most greenhouses are sold only with narrow doors. Then it does not possible to enter the greenhouse, neither with a wheelchair or a wheelbarrow. I chose to accept the situation, save some money and content myself to stand in the doorway and watch from a distance. Had I been able to enter the greenhouse with the power chair I would probably have tipped everything over anyway.

Planning the cultivation

Since I am dependent on personal assistants I also have to think how to organise the allotment for it to function practically. The truth is I need assistance to a very large extent and that means thinking of the assistant’s “work environment”.

In terms of plant beds I have built and tested many different alternatives. Everything from high plant beds built from 3 to 4 pallet collars to sturdy homemade plant beds. The higher the bed, the easier it is to reach the plants, either when standing or sitting, for instance in a wheelchair or a rollator. The advantage with pallet collars is that they are easy to assemble or dismantle and move if the cultivation does not work of if accessibility needs to be improved. With time we have done lots of reconstruction on the allotment because it takes a while to get things right.

Getting around the allotment with a wheelchair or jeep

The ground installation was one of my most important issues to deal with at the start. How would I access the allotment with my heavy power chair that gladly gets stuck into the muddy ground?

My allotment is gently sloping and was completely overgrown from the beginning, which meant an exciting challenge to conquer for the wheelchair. Metre by metre of flagstone enabled me to see more and more of the allotment. The problem was that it was hard work for my assistants and other people from the allotment that helped laying the stones. The rest of the ground installation I solved with regular decking and that works very well. I got wide paths for the power chair and some clever turning spaces here and there. Because the allotment has some differences in elevation I also had to build some ramps here and there. Their incline does not comply with the requirements of the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning, but still works with the power chair.

Urban farming is catching on in many Swedish municipalities and my tip for the municipalities that let ground for allotments is to reserve some larger areas for wheelchair-bound growers. That way there is space to lay a functioning ground installation, with associated ramps if the ground is sloping.

Cultivation, assistants and teamwork

Today, three of my personal assistants have obtained their own allotments in the same compound. It helps a lot because we can help each other in different ways. The other assistants are not as keen as I am to dig on allotment but all appreciate to be involved and take part of the harvest that we are all working for, that joy we.

Besides, the cultivation gives me many occasions to be outdoors instead of just sitting at home and watching TV. It does not matter how bad the weather is, I am on the allotment even if my assistants think I am crazy. That is how I am, I go "all in" in everything I do. 

After a couple of seasons of growing I find it is a greater challenge to cultivate than to construct an accessible allotment. I am possessed of a large portion of will and joy in working with accessibility. Besides I am lucky to have creative assistants who are willing to reach the goal – accessible cultivation. The uncertainty of the weather and Spanish slugs are my greatest challenges as a wheelchair-bound grower.

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    10 April 2018

    Sweden has been a forerunner when it comes to user-controlled personal assistance for persons with disabilities. But this human right ensuring individual freedom may deteriorate. Funka's web editor Stefan Pelc, who is in need of personal assistance, is concerned about the uncertain situation right now.

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