Dr Easkey Britton is a surfer and blue health researcher with the INCLUSEA project. Her work explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. She currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
The sea is a place free from judgement, where, once immersed, you get to be all of who you are. Held in its salty embrace, our bodies weightless, untethered from earthly limits, free. For David, the sea is his solace. An avid swimmer, he has been wheelchair bound ever since a freak skiing accident over 12 years ago. The sea, he says, “is where I’m not defined by my disability… it’s total freedom.” A sentiment echoed by many with diverse abilities and differently abled bodies. Johannes, a keen surfer before a tragic accident broke his 5th and 6th vertebrae and left him in a wheelchair, has become an accomplished adapted surfer and coordinator of adapted surf programmes with the German Surfing Association. “Once in the water,” he says, “I’m not thinking about my disability at all. It’s where I’m most free. My only limit is myself, not my environment.”
Yet, there is a significant gap concerning the ways in which we engage with seas and oceans, and the potential health-promoting and restorative benefits of these positive interactions. Our beaches, seas and coasts are some of the last freely accessible public spaces. But huge inequalities persist around their access. For many, coastal spaces are experienced as exclusionary, risky or dangerous, unwelcoming or inaccessible.
Even where adapted surf programmes are offered, accessible facilities and infrastructure are often woefully inadequate without consideration for functional diversity. It’s little wonder that people with disabilities are less likely to participate in sports activities organised by sports clubs than non-disabled people. In Ireland, there are an estimated 640,000 people with disabilities, equivalent to about 13.5% of its population.
It’s why the work of Johannes and other community-based organisations and initiatives that build awareness and education of the needs and benefits of getting in the sea for people with diverse functional abilities are so important.
Dr. Sarah Bell, a health geographer, shares some insights from her recent project, ‘Sensing Nature’, which creatively explored how people living with sight impairment experience nature during their lives. Loss of sight and sight impairment is increasing as populations age conditions such as diabetes become more common. Some of the participants she spoke to also swam and surfed. One woman, who lost her sight in an accident five years ago and who also uses a wheelchair, described how being in the sea takes weight off her damaged feet and legs, creating a nourishing feeling of total weightlessness. For another woman in Dr. Bell’s study, the sea was somewhere she felt held, “just being able to touch the sea and sort of have this feeling like it’s sort of embracing you, it was fabulous.”
At the beginning of this year I joined a new research consortium of seven organisations from five countries across Europe called INCLUSEA. The Erasmus+ funded research project seeks to improve the way we understand and enable more positive and inclusive ocean experiences in the surf for people living with physical disability or sensory impairment. We collaborate with researchers, surf practitioners, adapted surfers and grass-roots organisations to evaluate, develop and co-create best practice guidance for a shared teaching methodology. This will help establish a common international standard for those who lead adapted surfing or surf therapy programs.
Through community-based surf initiatives, combined with the support of evidence-based research from projects like INCLUSEA, the way we understand and enable more positive and inclusive ocean experiences is improving. Hopefully, society will shift to understanding people as individuals with diverse ocean interests and knowledge, who may or may not also have disabilities of some kind. To get there, Johannes encourages a ‘beginners mindset’ as a way to challenge biases and assumptions and spark new insights and awakening — something he’s rediscovered through adapted surfing; “That’s one of the great things about adaptive surfing: it brings you back to your roots. You can’t surf the way it used to be “normal” or how you thought it should be. You start all over again and can reinvent your surfing. In doing so, you have to free yourself from everything you think you know about it.”
For information or to get involved visit: www.inclusea.eu
This column appears in ISSUE 20: Antarctica: Cousteau's call of Oceanographic Magazine
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