Wheel freedom this summer

Surfer Janette Barclay on the new chair. Photo: Tracy Hardy.

If you have a friend or family member with a disability, give them one of the greatest gifts this holiday season – the taste of salt water on their lips while they swish around in the surf.

Last summer The Halberg Disability Sport Foundation and the Flight Centre Foundation donated a beach wheelchair to the Bay of Plenty.

This summer Halberg disability sport adviser Cherryl Thompson wants to see it hit the sand daily – it’s based at Hibiscus Surf School at Mount Main Beach for free use.

“Last year we received a lot of enquiries but not many people used the resource. I think because it was new and people didn’t know about it or how to use it,” says Cherryl.

“That’s why we need people to know it is free to use – they just pay a bond which is returned to them when they return the chair, as long as it’s not damaged.”

Cherryl says the beach wheelchair has different use options – not all are complicated or require lots of helpers.

“People can take someone for a walk along the beach – that’s simple and people don’t need to know how to use it or have multiple people involved.

“They could easily take their family or friend for walk along the shore, with their toes brushing the water.”

But Cherryl has also trained the Hibiscus staff to take people out for a surf – “the chair is free to use but you have to pay the cost of a casual surf lesson”.

Plus, she’s organised on the first Saturday in February, March and April 2016, where Hibiscus will offer a Surf’s Up day specific for disable people.

“These events will be free – where we ask surfers to assist disabled people to get out in the surf.

Cherryl says the chair allows families to plan a special day for their family member or friend – and give them something they may not have experienced for years.

“It’s down there for any locals – or if you’re coming to town with your family – so say: “Hey what about on Saturday we all go to the beach for a picnic and we go and get the chair for a few hours in the morning, go walk on the beach, go for swim and take Uncle out?’

“You can go into the water with floating chair, with help from family members – and how many people you need to facilitate this would depend on the person’s disability level.”

“You can get into the water with the disabled person strapped to the chair to waist-height.

“We want it to be used by the community, because that’s what it’s been donated for.”

Cherryl says last year’s Surf Up day saw participant Janette return to the water after 30 years.

“She was triathlete but now has multiple sclerosis. So for her being able to taste the sea and feel the water and taste the salt in her mouth was amazing.”

Janette has since written a poem about her experience.

“I enjoyed the new seaworthy chair, The Flight Centre Foundation gave, Looking forward to this summer, The mental situations it will save!

“The chair took me right in the sea, It floated when water got deep, Transferring to surfboard was easy, This knowledge we need to keep!”

And this is what it’s all about, says Cherryl. “We’re trying to empower the community to assist disabled people to get out and do what everybody else does.

“Anybody with a disability can go to the beach and use it – it doesn’t matter how young or old you are or what disability you have.”