Everyone loves a good holiday. But for many people in a wheelchair, going on vacation can often be a very stressful undertaking.
With much of the available accommodation and attractions lacking the resources to properly assist, a quick getaway can turn into a luxury that gets put in the too-hard basket.
But that could be set to change.
In what is being hailed a world-first, a new accessible resort designed specifically for people living with a spinal injury has opened it’s doors on Collaroy Beach in New South Wales.
Sargood on Collaroy, which welcomed its first paying guests on Wednesday, is part of rehabilitation organisation Royal Rehab’s ongoing efforts to address the challenges faced by people with disability when wanting to travel.
With 17 brand new apartments, a state-of-the-art therapy area, gymnasium and expert staff, it promises to “revolutionise holidays” for people with disability and has already seen bookings coming in from as far away as Norway.
Father-of-two Lee Ferrier, who is living with a spinal injury, told Pro Bono News the resort was a fantastic concept.
“People don’t realise how challenging something like going away on vacation can be for a person in a wheelchair and their family,” Ferrier says.
“It’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience but I know for some people often it can be just too hard.”
In April 2015 Ferrier was involved in a motorbike accident which severed his spinal cord. He spent more than three months in hospital before arriving at Royal Rehab where he spent a further two-and-a-half months in full-time rehabilitation adjusting to life in a wheelchair.
“I had a motorcycle accident, just half a kilometre from my house actually, as tends to be the case for these things. I am T2 which is a higher level… basically, I have absolutely no feeling from my chest level down,” he explains.
“It was like being reborn to be honest, that’s the best way I can describe it to someone.
“It’s like you’re an infant again, you’re a baby and you have to relearn to do everything, like you know the basic things; going to the bathroom, getting dressed, eating, just absolutely everything, getting in and out of the car, sleeping, you name it, nothing is the same, it is basically back to square one.”
Ferrier says a lot of people don’t understand the everyday challenges of being in a wheelchair.
“You can ring these places and ask them is it accessible and they’ll just say: ‘Yeah. Yeah it is,’ and then you’ll even go into detail, and go: ‘Alright, how wide is the entrance door?’ all of these little things and then they don’t know, they just assume,” he says.
“You wouldn’t realise if you weren’t in a wheelchair I don’t think. Why would you? Do you know what I mean, I never thought about it at all previously.
“I don’t think people realise that it is quite a difficult thing, it is not just a spontaneous, spur of the moment: ‘Yep, I want to go do this, let’s do it.’”
He says going on holiday is a “massive undertaking”.
“You have to do a lot of planning and checking and investigating obviously of places and where you are going to go and stay, and obviously the accessibility of the whole resort. Not just your own room and bathroom and things like that, but the general area, in itself, how accessible it is,” he says.
“There is no point going to a place that says it’s accessible but then you find there’s stairs everywhere within the resort or it’s on a massive hill… a lot of planning and research goes into it.
“Sargood on Collaroy is somewhere people with spinal injury can come to truly relax as well as participate in a range of educational sessions and recreational activities knowing their specific needs have been considered.”
The resort, operated by Royal Rehab, aims to bridge luxury and accessibility for the more than 15,000 people in Australia who are living with a spinal injury.
It brings to life the vision of the Sargood Foundation with support from iCare.
Sargood on Collaroy general manager Delia Gray told Pro Bono News the resort will be a showcase for innovation and connection.
“It is actually a world first, it is not often in your career that you get to say that,” Gray says.
“Basically it is an environment, purpose built and designed from the ground up, for people with spinal injuries. So the whole program model and the design of the building is for someone who has acquired a spinal injury either through a trauma or any other means.
“They are able to go anywhere in the building that they need to go, so that’s very rare for someone with a spinal injury to be fully accessible.
“They don’t need to come with their equipment or with their carers, they can come just as themselves, we have all the equipment that they need. The rooms are fully set up, we have hoists in the ceiling, bathrooms are huge, so from a pure resort point of view, there is nothing that they need to bring.”
She says the staff, or “guest-attendants” are completely unique.
“No hotel you go to has care staff that are able to do any of your intimate personal care. We have staff that are trained to look after them completely, and those same staff can also do recreation activities with them and support them in the community as well,” she says.
“Our staff had one month training prior to them starting, intensively at Royal Rehab, and with our expert clinicians and then the consumers that have been going through in February have been fine tuning that. But they have received excellent feedback, things like: ‘They are better than our carers at home,’ ‘I wish we could take them,’ and ‘They have a fantastic attitude.”
Gray says the philosophy behind the resort is important.
“I was meeting with focus groups right at the beginning about how we were going to deliver this, even Sargood Foundation from the very conception of the idea in the fundraising stage has been involved with the consumers themselves,” she says.
“When I met with the consumer focus groups, they said: ‘We just want to be able to go somewhere where we can forget we have a spinal injury.’ That is a big ask. But already on the weekend I had a lady say to me: ‘When I wheeled in, my wheelchair disappeared.’ And I just thought wow.
“It didn’t actually disappear obviously, but the impairment created by a wheelchair, experienced in the community every day, are all addressed.”
Gray says it is also about bringing people together.
“So the other thing I noticed when I had my focus groups was that I watched people with spinal injury and when you put them together they all try to solve each other’s problems,” she says.
“So at that point in time it was looking to be a rehab centre but they said: ‘We’re not coming to anything that looks or feels or smells like a rehab centre, we’ve done that stage and while that’s an important stage, we don’t want to go back to that.’
“There was a very high importance to appeal to different stages in the journey.
“I realised that it had to not just be resort like it had to be a resort, as you are not going to get someone at the end of their journey that is thriving and earning money, coming back into a rehab centre. But you would get them coming to a resort environment and there they can inspire and challenge other people that are maybe at different stages in the journey, and need to have that encouragement.
“And I have noticed that already. So I’m calling it ‘the Sargood Effect’.”
Gray says she is thrilled to see the project come to life after years of meticulous planning.
“It is absolutely amazing,” she says.
“All the little pieces that you thought about and worked through [are here]… You have to see it to believe it. It is all so beautifully thought out.
“We had planned even the lights turning on as you wheel through the building so you don’t have to turn on the light and I was there at night the other day and the lights all turned on as I walked through and I was like: ‘It’s all here,’ all the ideas that were on paper.”
The facility also aims to provide opportunities for the development of vocational skills, education for self-management in health, psychological support, carer education and opportunities for community engagement.
Royal Rehab will offer a number of innovative activities as their Beach Access program which will allow guests in wheelchairs to safely access the beautiful beach and water under the supervision of trained clinicians.
“There are two aspects of it,” Gray says.
“There is a holiday for those that need a break. And many of our clients haven’t been away from their homes for five years.
“So lower-level paraplegics and very brave and talented high-level paraplegics do travel but even for them they are saying this is the easiest they have had it.
“The other thing is we are going to be running a whole lot of programs around like-minded things all through the year, so parenting with a spinal injury or the latest information on how to manage your diet or how to age or best ways to keep fit, or what are the latest developments in spinal injury etc.
“Our tagline is to refresh, learn and connect. And I think that’s really important.
“So for people to be able to refresh their lives and to have a break like all of us would have, and for that to be as relaxing as that, because often it is a stressful thing for them. To be able to learn more about their situation or about their opportunity and to connect to other people with spinal injuries.”
Ferrier says it makes going on holiday “too easy”.
“There is just no thought in it, you can just go straight there, they have all the equipment available, going around the facility. You don’t have to look down,” he says.
“Like the whole time when I’m in a wheelchair basically I’m looking down at the ground because you don’t want to hit a rock or a crack or a gap or something like that, but you just don’t have to do that here.
“Within your own room it is so spacious, everything is a good height. It’s a crazy thing.
“Even speaking to other clients there, there was this young bloke that was saying it’s too easy. It’s not too easy but you know what I mean, it was just unbelievable.
“Things that might take you twice as long at home and stuff, I could do so much quicker and easier in this place. I can’t speak highly enough about it. It’s amazing.”
He says the design of the resort “makes for a good time”.
“You don’t have that stress of those minor things in the back of your head of accessibility or anything like that,” he says.
“And not just me, I have two kids, only one of them came with me on the holiday but he really enjoyed himself, he loved it, it had things for him to do and there were other kids there and he was playing with them as well. And also Rozina [Ferrier’s wife], she really enjoyed it, because it is a wonderful location for one but it is no stress for her either, having to worry about.
“Obviously she now understands what it takes for us to go on holidays and there’s no drama for her, so everyone is in a real relaxed mood and it makes for a good time then doesn’t it.”
But he says his favourite thing is not having to touch a door.
“It seems trivial but just the way the doors are all automatic, I just went up, I didn’t have to touch a door handle,” he says.
“That’s a little thing, but I come into my place and it’s a pain in the bum, you are always turning a door handle, I have to push it and then wheel in one hand or reverse in, or try all these different techniques to get through things. But again it’s something no one really thinks of.
“But not having to touch a door. I loved that. Or a light switch. I can just wheel around the whole place and everything is automatic.”
He describes the experience as uplifting.
“Having the place, the equipment and facilities and the staff, to be able to do it, it’s a complete joy to me,” he says.
“I went surfing when I was there. I have done it a few times, I have just learnt how I can paddle a surfboard by myself and just the pure joy that that gives me to be able to do that, the independence and the ability.
“I want to be able to go surfing with my kids, I initially thought not in my wildest dreams I would ever be able to do that again, so it is fully uplifting.
“It really lifts your spirits, having the confidence to be able to think well if I can overcome this or do this then maybe I can do something else.”