There Are No Winners In This Beach War, And People Like Me Are The Casualties

It’s amazing the sheer joy a little bit of cement or several slabs of timber can create.

I remember my first trip to the beach after that initial year in hospital. The risk of sunburn and sand in all the wrong places did nothing to deter me. I felt so free and alive to finally be doing what I had dreamed about for so long.

Although my body didn’t resemble the typical bikini-clad beach goers, I really didn’t care. I could see the sand and the ocean with what was left of my eyesight and was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Just like my body, I’ve no doubt my wheelchair also failed to blend in with the beautiful beach surrounds.

Sculpture By The Sea 2018 - Bondi. IMAGE: Getty Images

Now, each time I return to the beach, I’m immensely appreciative of the local councils that have afforded me and my fellow mobility-challenged Australians this opportunity.

But this week I was particularly disturbed to hear that the group responsible for producing the well-known Sculptures By The Sea along the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk had got some sand in their abelist undies.

Sculptures By The Sea organisers were furious at Sydney’s Waverly Council because of a path they want to build which would allow thousands of Australian with disabilities access to our most iconic beach.

The art event organisers concluded that a local council plan to build accessibility ramps was going to disturb the aesthetics of their precious little sand sculpture exhibition.

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This is an attitude of both privilege, exclusion and ableism all wrapped up in one sandy sculpture.

Lisa acquired multiple disabilities in her early twenties following a sudden stroke. IMAGE: Lisa Cox

Those paths and boardwalks represent far more than simply a place to strut in your latest active wear or somewhere for a dog to relieve itself.

They represent independence, freedom, inclusion and even a little dignity. If you think I’m going overboard with the last one, you should see my husband and I try to manoeuvre my wheelchair over a sandy section of ground. There’s nothing smooth and dignified about it.

People gather around Horizon by artist Mu Boyan at Sculpture By The Sea at Bondi Beach on October 20, 2018 . IMAGE: Getty Images

Manly Beach were quick to put up their hand on Thursday and said they will adopt the popular Sculptures by the Sea. The walk from Manly to Shelley beach is well-known for its accessible boardwork.

Then Mosman and Wollongong too offered to host it too. There's a new turf war for the world-famous exhibition.

But I would hate to see Waverly Council being punished, and lose what is no doubt a revenue making exhibition that it has hosted for 22 years, because it wants to welcome all bodies to its postcard-perfect shores.

The paths also represent BEING SEEN. By that I mean, the Waverly Council (or any council who installs similar access paths), clearly sees disabled people as equal members of the community who deserve the same access to public places as everyone else.

A general view of Sculpture By The Sea at Tamarama Beach In 2018. IMAGE: Getty Images

About 20% of the Australian population, that’s 1 in 5 of us, identifies as having a disability. While not everyone is in a wheelchair, many are challenged with their mobility in other ways.

Since acquiring multiple disabilities in my early twenties following a sudden stroke, I’ve found that I’m not as disabled by my medical conditions as I am by a society that stops me from interacting with and being part of it.

This is called the social model of disability and many before me have discussed it at length.

Waverly Council must be recognised and applauded for attempting to level-out this inequity and make beloved, beautiful Bondi more accessible for everyone.

Perhaps the Sculptures By The Sea organisers should sculpt a wheelchair for their next exhibition. Because it’s the only way one will make it near the beach if they keep up that level of abelism.
IMAGE: Getty Images

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As an excellent example of universal design, the paths don’t just cater to those in wheelchairs or with mobility constraints. Think of parents with prams, cyclists and anyone using a scooter (just to name a few).

About 20% of the Australian population, that’s 1 in 5 of us. IMAGE: Getty Images

I think Ross McLoud, Waverly Council’s General Manager summed it up best when he said, “Council’s view that services for people with disabilities outweighs some inconvenience and potential aesthetic impact over a small portion of the SBTS event which will still be free to use the park.”

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So thank you, Waverly Council and to all of the other councils who have recognised that while disability may take away some things for different people, it doesn’t diminish our love for the Aussie beach and our desire to simply access it.