Ausnew Home Care | Bundaberg launches its first accessible beach for people living with disability

Bundaberg launches its first accessible beach for people living with disability

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Kathryn Tolstoff lives with multiple sclerosis and has just had her first ocean swim in two years.   

"I had some fear, but I knew I had support," she said.

"So I got on my knees and I got wet up to my neck on waves and it was refreshing, cool, freeing — liberating," she said. 

Close up photo of an elderly woman with brown eyes, wearing a sun hat.
Kathryn Tolstoff says not being able to access the beach for two years made her feel "trapped".(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

Meanwhile, Dean Eckart crossed the warm sandy stretch of beach on his own for the first time in 16 years.

"It was a moment of satisfaction," he said.

"To be able to come down [to the beach] by myself and come back — it's exciting."

The pair were among eager beachgoers who tried out new accessible beach matting and floating wheelchairs at Bargara's Nielsen Park in Queensland's Wide Bay region.

A white man smiling, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a sunhat, in front of a sunny beach.
Dean Eckart says he can't wait to enjoy the beach with his family.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

Angelique Elliot, who lives with a functional neurological disorder, was there too and welled up with tears as she dipped her toes in the ocean.

"It brings back a lot of happy memories," she said.

"I'm a bit of a water baby — I used to be a bit of a swimmer. And it reminds me of my two eldest children who swam for Queensland."

A woman in her 50s in a pink tank top, wearing a sunhat, sitting in a floating wheelchair beside her female carer at the beach.
Fran Hawes (left) says she felt privileged to have shared the special moment with Angelique Elliot. (ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

CQUniversity's physiotherapists and occupational therapists led a four-year research project to turn the beach, 380 kilometres north of Brisbane, into a more inclusive space.

According to Accessible Beaches Australia, Nielsen Park is one of 10 beaches in Queensland with accessibility matting.

The Bargara Surf Life Saving Club is now equipped with specialist resources, such as floating wheelchairs, to give every member of the community the opportunity to engage in beach-based activities.

A wide-shot photo of a man being pushed along the beach in a floating wheelchair by a man, while another one flies a kite.
Specialist equipment, such as floating wheelchairs, help make beaches more accessible.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

University lecturer Sasha Job said she was in talks with other regional cities, including Gladstone and Hervey Bay, to make the Queensland coast more accessible to people of all abilities.

"We've got our eyes on the prize so that people cannot only enjoy our beautiful beaches, but they can travel and enjoy a beach wherever they choose to," she said.

She said the next step would be to develop training videos that show people how to use the mobility beach equipment.

"One of the biggest challenges is the equipment is sitting there and people are not confident in how to use it," she said.

A white woman in her 30s with blonde hair,  smiling, wearing a navy cap and shirt.
Sasha Job has been researching ways of making beaches more accessible for the past four years.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

'Flags out, mats out'

Ms Job was exploring opportunities that surf lifesavers can have in building a more inclusive culture at the beach.

"A lot of our equipment is dependent on people asking for help and we don't want to put them out," she said.

"So a 'flags out, mats out' initiative would mean when the flags are out, [people with a disability] would also get to enjoy the beach with all the equipment rolled out."

Bargara lifeguard Scott Hamlet, who watched over Nielsen Park's newest beachgoers, said it's a "fantastic idea".

"It's been a marvellous day," he said.

"To see people having access to the beach — some of whom haven't been in the water for 10 years — is amazing. It would be great [for surf lifesavers] to be involved in that."

A white man in his 40s, grey goatee, wearing a lifeguard cap and long sleeve shirt, sunglasses
Scott Hamlet wants to be part of making beaches more inclusive.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

CQUniversity's head of course in occupational therapy, Maria O'Reilly, said while it was challenging to improve accessibility in a natural setting, supplying mobility equipment made an "enormous difference".

"We take it for granted that we can just go down to the beach, walk on the sand, dip our toes in the water," Dr O'Reilly said.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair being pushed along blue beach matting by her carer.
Nielsen Park Beach is one of 10 beaches in Queensland with accessibility matting.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

'Magic' at the beach

Living with a spinal injury, Mr Eckart said beach access was an important part of healthy living and hoped to see more initiatives like this one.

"People are always in a good mood when they're at the beach," he said.

"I can't wait to come back here and enjoy it with my family."

Ms Tolstoff also welcomed more mobility support for beachgoers across the state.

"About five years ago, I went to Archie's beach and fell and had to crawl up to a post to get myself off [the beach] … so it's been a long time."

An elderly woman in a beach wheelchair and black sunhat on a beach.
Beachgoers were eager to try out Nielsen Park's new matting to access the ocean.(ABC Wide Bay: Audrey Courty)

Spinal Life Australia carer Fran Hawes said it was "magic" to see Ms Elliot enter the water for the first time in two years.

"It's giving people back their independence and their power of will," she said.

"I feel privileged to have shared this moment — I'm almost in tears with her."


Source: ABC

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