Every spring, hanging baskets dripping with colour, would appear outside one of the self-contained units of a residential centre for disabled adults that I used to work in. I got to know Ann* the lady whose room looked out onto the flowers, and discovered, that while it was often said of her by staff that she ‘loved gardening’, I had never seen any sign that she carried out any herself. Once while we were looking through old photos, she pointed to a black and white picture; there she was as a child sitting on the ground, hands immersed in the soil, weeding. And so began the conversation.
We established that she would like to do some gardening and set about experimenting with ways that she could sow seeds. With immeasurable determination and focus on her part, and the requisite amount of support from me, she filled up pots with soil. A degree of control over thumb and forefinger of her right hand meant that she was able to hold certain seeds. After much experimentation we found that nasturtium and bean seeds were the easiest to hold, and to drop into the pots. After that came watering. In the end it was a plastic water bottle that won out over any adapted tools, and once the pots were placed in her sink, she was able to grip the bottle and squeeze. Later, we would wash her hands in a basin of warm water; in what was to become an essential part of the gardening sessions.
Paying attention to a person’s abilities as opposed to the disability that is invariably used to define them, is a core component of the role of the horticultural therapist. Through a process of observation, listening and dialogue, the therapist selects an activity which has been carefully thought through in terms of any adaptations that will enable the person to carry it out effectively, and with ease. By focusing on what Ann wanted to do, what she could do and what was needed to enable her do it, she was afforded a degree of choice and autonomy, through the simple act of sowing seeds.
The dominant medical model of disability locates the ‘problem’ within the individual and sees them as being disabled by the abnormalities and deficits of their own body and/or brain. The disabled person thus becomes the object of charity, on the receiving end of help. In contrast, the social model of disability views the person as being disabled by the environment and its physical, social and attitudinal barriers. Autonomy, choice and informed consent about their lives thus becomes key.
If you would like to learn more about how to adapt gardening activities to suit a range of different needs and abilities a one day Thrive-accredited course Introduction to Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Practice.
*This is not her real name.