CQUni program helps the disabled experience the joy of the sea

The beach is an important part of life for many coastal residents; they swim, they surf, they play in the waves, they picnic, they fish, they sit, they relax. But Australians with a disability often find getting to the beach and navigating the sand and the water is almost impossible. Central Queensland University physiotherapist Sasha Job has devoted a lot of time and effort to fully understanding the problems of beach access for the disabled and to advocating for solutions – including improved pathways to the sand, beach wheelchairs with balloon tires, inclusive community beach days and a community hub on the internet.

Job first understood how challenging beaches could be in 2018 when one of her patients told her how much he wanted to go to his grand-daughter’s imminent beach wedding.

With compromised balance and mobility, he couldn’t walk on the beach and his wheelchair couldn’t get over soft sand. Despite Job’s best efforts, she couldn’t find a solution. In the end, her patient had to sit on the nearby dunes and watch the wedding from a distance. “I was pretty heartbroken, as was he, and I knew we had to find a way to do better,” she says.

The U-BEACH project, led by Job and her university colleagues, works on programs to improve beach accessibility for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, and offers cooperation on research, education and training. The project collaborators work on inclusive community beach events, and team up with local councils to improve beach accessibility as well as developing comprehensive beach safety protocols and training.

Now working on her doctorate at CQU, Job sent out a local community survey soon after her patient’s sand dune disappointment and she found high proportions of disabled Australians were prevented from ever enjoying that most ordinary of pleasures: a day at the beach.

“We found that nearly one in two people with disability actually couldn’t get to the beach at all,” she says, “and just over two-thirds of people with disability had significant barriers they had to overcome to get to the beach. We found more than 30 different barriers for people with a disability. I thought we had to use this information to make a difference and to advocate for change.”

Since then, she and her colleagues have sent the survey out nationally and presented their findings to different councils to encourage the purchase of specialist equipment such as beach wheelchairs and matting for them to roll over and promote the importance of improved pathways from parking areas to the beach.

U-BEACH has been launched at a community level, with a hub providing information on available equipment at beaches and a calendar for events including inclusive beach days.

A community beach day at Neilsen Park beach in Bargara, central Queensland, in 2023 was a great success, Job says. There were four hoists to support wheelchair transfers, adapted beach walkers, activities such as adapted beach cricket, and a crowd of volunteers to provide assistance. About 260 people with disability came to enjoy the beach. At least two-thirds got their feet wet, and a third got right into the sea.

“Many had never been to the beach,” she adds. “Some hadn’t been for 10 or 20 years.

I know it matters; there were smiles and real joy.”

The Australian