Summer is here, and certain Australian beaches are making beach life a reality for seniors and people with disability.
Since 2016, national campaign Accessible Beaches has been working with councils and surf lifesaving clubs to make fifty beaches accessible to those who find it difficult to cross the sand. These beaches feature wheelchair-friendly mats to the water’s edge, beach walkers and wheelchairs designed to roll over sand and enter the surf.
Accessible Beaches Chairperson Shane Hryhorec said attitudes towards people with disability were a challenge at first. “There was a lot of fear from surf lifesaving in Queensland, and surf lifesaving in Australia in general. They were generally terrified that people with disabilities might drown.
There was a lot of unknown, and the unknown created a lot of fear.”
That changed in 2016, when Australia’s first Accessible Beach was trialled at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast. “We had hundreds of people with disability coming to the beach (that day),” said Mr Hryhorec. “It was very quickly realised that people with disability deserve to use the beach like everybody else, and that there’s not a huge risk of them swimming out to Tasmania or anything.
“Without having a pathway down to the water’s edge, people with disability like myself, we’re stuck in the car park or a car while our family and friends go and enjoy the beach.”
Accessible Beaches for seniors
Over 50% of Australians aged 65 and over have some form of disability, according to the 2015 ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. Mr Hryhorec said Accessible Beaches are not only for people with disabilities, but also seniors in general.
“I think a lot of people’s mindset is, “I’m getting too old to go to the beach”. Well, that’s not the case with accessible beaches. We’re trained to make the beach accessible for everybody, no matter your level of ability or age.”
Going to an Accessible Beach
Burleigh Heads Accessible Beaches co-ordinator Tony Martin said that the beach mat is “like walking on a hard sand footpath”. Beach users walk or wheel down the special mat to the water’s edge, where they can walk along hard sand. Beach wheelchairs and walkers are booked ahead, and allow users to roll along soft sand and enter the water.
“We as a club have had the feedback from the people saying it’s magic, it lifts their spirits, gives them hope, all these wonderful things that we as able-bodied people take for granted,” said Mr Martin, who has organised Burleigh’s Accessible Beach program since it opened in 2016.
“But currently the only time matting is down is on the Saturday morning, from nine to 12. Sunday is a very big Nippers event, where we get up to 400 families every Sunday morning.”
While three of Australia’s Accessible Beaches operate 24/7, most are open only on weekends.
Mr Hryhorec stressed that people with disability should call their surf lifesaving club or council if they need volunteer support while on an accessible beach. “If you rock up to any beach at any time, there won’t necessarily be a volunteer just waiting there.
“It’s usually recommended that they bring any support that they need along with them on the day.”