Newcastle is a city that prides itself on inclusivity for people with disabilities. We have definitely seen an improvement in this area over the past decade, especially with access to beaches. However, could we be doing more to create facilities to increase access?
Newcastle has one of the best coastlines in Australia with a long stretch of pristine beaches that people travel near and far to enjoy.
A number of surf clubs have been doing their part to design easier access to the beach for people with disabilities, such as constructing ramps down to the sand and producing beach mats that direct people in a wheelchair straight to the water. But there is more room for improvement.
Cooks Hill Surf Lifesaving Club has been at the forefront of disability beach access in Newcastle. Currently, the club is searching for funding to purchase a Freedom Trax, a motorised wheelchair track attachment developed to convert a manual wheelchair into an off-road vehicle that will allow easy travel along the sand.
With a hand-held control, people will be able to move around on the beach in any direction they please, with little or no assistance.
The Freedom Trax is a great opportunity for growth and innovation in the disability access sector in Newcastle, setting a new standard not only for the Hunter region, but becoming the first machine of its kind in operation in NSW.
With the start of the surf life saving season upon us and summer fast approaching, there is no better time to start implementing more equipment that will improve access to our beaches.
Research indicates that an increase in facilities that allow greater accessibility for people with disabilities directly correlates to an increase in emotional wellbeing, a sense of self, and an overall greater quality of life.
One of the main barriers to creating these advanced facilities is cost. The price of one Freedom Trax machine is $11,000, a figure beyond the reach of many clubs already struggling for funds.
In addition to the innovative equipment, the overall cost of keeping a surf club like Cooks Hill operating every year exceeds $200,000 when calculating all the activities that must be undertaken to keep people safe at the beach.
In conjunction with general tasks, the surf club also manages a very successful SameWaves program that allows children with special needs to participate in a modified Nippers program.
An active team of volunteers is employed to work alongside people with disabilities at the club, making sure they have the chance to receive the same opportunities as others. These volunteers are always delighted when they get to witness people experiencing the sheer joy of achieving a goal they would have never thought possible.
An essential aspect to sustaining the success of these initiatives is through consistent generous donations from businesses and the wider general public. Without this funding, people with disabilities miss out on the chance to empower themselves to have fun and increase their independence on the beach.
This can cause great financial pressure for the club, but when putting all of the elements of the situation into perspective, where should the real priority be?
Another considerable aspect to increasing access to the beach is that it holds a significant potential to grow Newcastle's tourism industry.
The implications surrounding COVID-19 with restrictions on overseas and interstate travel are forcing Australians to holiday regionally. Therefore, people who experience physical restrictions will be more inclined to holiday in a place that is more inclusive for their disabilities, allowing them the freedom to enjoy the superb beaches Newcastle has to offer on their own accord.
This would be an experience they could not receive anywhere else in NSW.
However, I believe once cruise ships are authorised to begin sailing and start to consistently dock in the Port of Newcastle, people who are confined to a wheelchair who previously may not have wanted to leave the boat will be informed of the new possibilities of joining in on experiences on the beach with their family and friends. It's a chance no-one would want to ignore.
More people travelling to Newcastle for this purpose will have a flow-on effect for our local businesses who are suffering the hardships associated with COVID-19 restrictions.
Purchasing machines like Freedom Trax for all our beaches should become the new normal for wheelchair access and what we should come to expect moving forward in the future of our city.
It is time to embrace diversity and empower people with a disability to share the experience on the beach.
Newcastle has the opportunity to be recognised as a truly inclusive community by taking steps towards building innovative and progressive facilities that will set a new benchmark for disability access on the beach.