Studying the past to challenge, change narratives about disability and the environment

By Keri Ferguson, Western News, December 15, 2023


Kenny Reilly, a PhD student in environment history, is studying how people with blindness interacted with the natural world in the 20th century to explore how disability and ableism influence how nature is defined and who can experience it. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications)

Kenny Reilly’s path to pursuing his PhD started with one photograph. 

The picture, captured by Nan Robertson for the New York Times in 1968, shows three teenagers around a large white oak tree at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The boy in the middle is hugging the tree, another is running his hand across its surface. A girl to the right is smiling, with one hand on the tree’s bark and the other on a braille sign. The teens share a common trait. They’ve all been blind since birth. 

Kenny Reilly

Kenny Reilly (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications)

“It kind of blew me away,” Reilly said of the image. “To me, it showed what it means to interact with nature, because here were three people without the ability of sight enjoying and learning about the environment.”  

Reilly, MA’20, shared his observations about the photo in a blog post for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment in 2019: 

Ironically, this photograph is of people without sight, but perhaps Robertson’s message is that while nature is seen, it is also heard, smelled, felt, and tasted. A camera cannot capture these latter senses, forcing viewers to imagine what they cannot see. They may also ask how “disabled” these teenagers are, whether their blindness hinders them, or do the designs of parks disable them? Having a disability affects not only how one interacts with their environment, but how others perceive their place in that space. By stressing sight, Robertson shows that these teenagers learn as much as any sighted individual.” 

Reilly’s encounter with the image came when he was a master’s student enrolled in professor Alan MacEachern’s graduate course on environmental history.

Nan Robertson, “Blind Youths ‘See’ New Nature Trail,” New York Times, July 16, 1968.

Nan Robertson, “Blind Youths ‘See’ New Nature Trail,” New York Times, July 16, 1968.

It’s also what inspired his doctoral studies in disability history, under the supervision of MacEachern and professor Robert MacDougall. 

“I’m looking at how people with blindness have interacted and shaped sites of recreation, like national parks and summer camps, and its relation to nature writing and art. I’m using this subject to explore how disability and ableism have had a deep influence on what and who nature is for.” 

MacEachern spoke to the importance of this emerging field of study, and Reilly’s work. 

“Disability history is much more than historical ‘inclusion,’ it’s about discovering what’s been taken for granted,” MacEachern said. “Kenny’s work, for example, on blind engagement with nature in 20th century America, calls to attention assumptions about the importance of the visual in describing nature and addresses how sightless encounters with nature opened up moral debates about the appropriate ways to experience it.” 

How disability history can inform the future

Part of Reilly’s dissertation focuses on the successes and failures of past efforts to include and integrate people with disabilities into sites of recreation and education. 

When braille trails – nature trails designed for people without sight – opened in the United States, they attracted criticism from some blind communities. 

“On the surface, it would seem creating a nature trail for people with disabilities and encouraging people to use senses beside sight would be a great idea,” Reilly said. “But some communities like the American Blind Association criticized the trails for reinforcing the idea that people without sight should be kept separate from ‘regular society.’ Instead of creating a different trail altogether, why not add a lot of the features planned for braille trails to existing trails and encourage everybody to think of the role of other senses?” 

While many people assume the ability of sight is a given for understanding and interacting with nature, Reilly hopes his work will remind people that “nature is a multi-sensory experience.”  

Clarence Hawkes: Sherlock Holmes of the forest

Reilly’s research introduced him to Clarence Hawkes, a 20th century nature writer, who was physically disabled at an early age. Part of one of Hawkes’ legs was amputated when he was nine. Four years later, he became blind after a gun discharged in his face during a hunting accident. Yet, this “Sherlock Holmes of the forest” was known for his studies of plant and animal life, with his annotations well above “the average close observer.”  

illustration of Clarence Hawkes

A feature article on Clarence Hawkes, a sightless naturalist, ran in the Washington Times, July 17, 1908. (Submitted)

Hawkes’ understanding and experience with nature stands in contrast to the stereotypes projected by past and, in many ways, present society, challenging assumptions that able-bodied interactions with nature are the only way to engage with the environment. 

“It’s always been empowering for me to see people with disabilities shaping history,” Reilly said.

“I find environmental history to be the most exciting when it deconstructs what we assume is natural or “just the way it is.” It tells us change has happened and that change is possible.” – PhD student Kenny Reilly 

An important voice on climate change

Reilly says the perspective of people with disabilities has been important throughout human history and that they need to have a key role in current and future discussions about climate change. 

“We’re going to see the environment become increasingly important and I imagine that disability itself will also become a more pressing issue because events like wildfires and flooding can have huge consequences for people’s health. Individuals with disabilities are among the most vulnerable, and the inequities they face can be exacerbated when they intersect with race, gender and class.” 

At one time, Reilly believed climate change and environmental issues fell solely within scientists’ domain. But once he started studying environmental history, “I soon realized it was a social story, a political story and like most history, a human story,” he said. 

He’s hoping his work will show people with disabilities can and should contribute to discussions about how to use and live within the environment. “I’m hoping it can help us develop a deeper understanding of how human societies have shaped the environment and how the environment shaped human societies.”