Image courtesy of Equal Adventure
As part of our celebration of this year’s medal and award recipients, we caught up with Dr Suresh Paul, recipient of the Geographical Award for his contributions to inclusive and ethical practices in expeditions and fieldwork, to discuss Equal Adventure – the organisation he founded – and the fieldwork of the future.
What is Equal Adventure?
We like to think of ourselves as a bit like the American action-adventure television series The A Team and seek to solve the ‘accessibility problem’ for people with disabilities by designing, manufacturing and providing the right equipment - from hoists and harnesses to clothing and all-terrain vehicles – that make inclusive adventure, active lifestyles and outdoor expeditions possible.
But we are an organisation of two halves. Firstly, as a charity, we inspire the uptake of outdoor adventure activities by disabled people in an inclusive setting, by improving the quality of resources available to support the wider inclusion of disabled people in outdoor adventure, sport and active lifestyles, and inspiring young professionals in their chosen career pathway.
Our other part is as a limited company that designs, develops, and sells sports equipment; provides support services and advice to enable the equipment to be used safely and effectively; and we also deliver disability-awareness training programmes for outdoor, sporting, corporate and not-for-profit organisations interested in inclusive sport and physical activity.
What are you most proud of in your work to date and what do you hope to achieve in the future?
The Society approved Coppermine River Expedition still has an impact on me for a few reasons. This was several years before Equal Adventure was founded and ran between 1995 – 1997, with the aim of learning the skills needed for supporting inclusive expeditions. There were six people with seven legs between them paddling 350 miles down a river in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It took place just as off site safety management was emerging and before the BS8848 British Standard for organising and managing expeditions outside the UK was established. Firstly, half of the expedition team wore knee-length carbon fibre prosthetics and tested their function, as well as working to a framework that became the British Standard for expeditions and fieldwork. Secondly, it inspired two PhDs that talked about a better design for heel strike and toe-off, both which made a significant difference to how prosthetics are conceptualised today. And finally, after this expedition was completed, we also went into about 300 schools and delivered talks, which was very rewarding.
As for the future, Equal Adventure seeks to build upon the experiences I have accumulated and mapped over the past 30 years. This includes the designing and making of kit, as well as running research expeditions that have led to new and improved pieces of equipment and to a methodology for training which supports the development of better professional judgement and better critical decision-making. Equal Adventure has built the necessary infrastructure, working from the grass roots level, and can now confidently say that expeditions with disabled people are just ‘expeditions’ and we can show organisations how they can run inclusive fieldwork.
In fact, Equal Adventure already undertakes each of the recommendations following the Royal Society’s 2020 report ‘Qualitative research on barriers to progression of disabled scientists’, so we are now seeking like-minded partners, such as the Society, to bid for the funding necessary to roll out our services to organisations and schools across the UK. We are also expanding our offer, writing bids to run inclusive expeditions with young people, particularly those who do not currently have a pathway to fieldwork. We are also planning an ‘inclusive equipment lending library’, so caches of equipment will be available to individuals and organisations who may otherwise struggle with the finances required to make their services inclusive.
Why is making fieldwork accessible so important?
There are numerous advantages to expeditions, to do with risk-taking, creating adventurous opportunities and supporting active, meaningful lifestyles - but they are not always easy to convey on paper.
Undertaking fieldwork expands the opportunities and choices available to disabled people, despite the perceived extra health and safety issues that come with planning accessible expeditions. We seek to challenge this through sensible education and careful preparation to enable an appropriate balance to be achieved between risk and safety, and achievement and opportunity.
We hear from lots of people who say: ‘this has changed my life’, or share pictures of successful expeditions, but our success is often when we are just the ‘wallpaper’ to something bigger; so we are not the main event, nor the ‘story to tell’ of the expedition, but we have provided that person or organisation with the space to find the tools from within their own ‘toolbox’ to make it happen.
When accessibility needs are met, and we are out on expedition, such as with some young explorers on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, sometimes the most unquantifiable benefit of being in the field is simply a series of jokes. Because all of a sudden, when all the work is being done and each individual has found how to meet their own needs, then people can bond together as a team - laughing in the field - and they are coping and learning and developing.
We have such a precious world with such a precious ecological and human cargo. Fieldwork and the communication of new knowledge is the only way we are going to preserve what we have and share it equally; this has the power to heal conflict and create memories and friendships that can last a lifetime.
How do you think fieldwork may evolve in the future?
I hope that we will have more citizen scientists, whether that is just an individual who observes the natural world closely, or a group of people participating in a collaborative project with professional scientists where they collect and analyse data to improve scientific research.
I also hope that as we understand the importance of the interconnections between urban, peri-urban and wilderness, that the concept of fieldwork will simply become a matter of closely observing wherever one is at any given moment. Fieldwork should be something that engages people in place, community and time, and helps them feel the connection to the world regardless of background, journey, or any official academic accolade or standing.
Really, fieldwork should be similar to litter picking; we need to pick up the clues we observe when in the field and collate our findings, as well as think about our collection and what it is showing us. Can we recycle this information in a way which reduces our impact and brings benefit to all?
You can find out more about Equal Adventure on their new website.
Find out more about this year’s medal and award recipients.
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