To the television viewer, it’s just a shiny new boat in an ad seen on the telly nearly once a day every week that just happens to feature a few people in wheelchairs heading out onto a local lake in this part of the country. But the story of the Lough Ree Access for All Boat is one that has a much deeper significance and a far greater tale to tell – one that I thought I might throw some light upon in the column this week as we prepare for one of the most significant developments in the short history of this extraordinary social enterprise project.
At this stage, most readers will know two of the main people in the ad – Dorothy Coyle and John Tobin. Well known already for many years in Roscommon, they have become more famous as the faces that now propel the message behind the Access for all boat into hundreds of thousands of family sitting rooms all over the country every month. Since the project won the national Good Causes award (organised by the lottery people) this time last year, Dorothy and John have told the story day after day of how the revolutionary design of this new vessel has made the impossible become the possible in a very short period of time – offering people who are wheelchair-bound the opportunity to go out onto the waterways for their sightseeing or their fishing for the very first time. They do so on a boat that sees its bow lowered a bit like a small car ferry and allows the passengers to ‘roll on’ and ‘roll off’ the vessel with no hassle or delay.
It’s common knowledge now that this writer has been central to the creation of the project along with three or four hugely devoted community volunteers out Ballyleague way since it was first mooted away back in 2015. It was backed at that point by the Roscommon LEADER Partnership company with a grant for an EU LEADER-supported feasibility study that set it on its way as an acclaimed social impact project – and ensured it has never looked back ever since.
Barriers in society
There is, of course, a very sobering explanation for the very reason the boat concept was born in the first place. People with disabilities face many barriers to full participation in society. The degree to which people are hampered by disability in their daily lives is hugely significant, and the more they are hampered, the greater the disadvantage they are found to experience. In many ways this reflects the disabling nature of our own society and its institutions. You might say it’s nothing new. Problems with the physical environment, the design of service provision, and public attitudes, have all posed barriers to people with disabilities for decades, and even though equality legislation allows positive action in relation to people with disabilities, nobody has really gone further in the last four or five decades and broken down these barriers.
This is a tale that is about far more than just designing a smart boat. It has a much deeper social impact. Social inclusion means being in a position to participate fully in the life of the society one lives in. Conversely, social exclusion entails being prevented from doing so – and it’s well known that people with disabilities face many barriers to full participation and are thus likely to face a heightened risk of social exclusion across various dimensions in society. We can see it every day. Those with a disability are continuously hampered in their daily activities. They are much less likely than others to be a member of a club or association, but the unique ability of sports and recreational activities to transcend cultural and social barriers makes it an excellent platform for strategies of inclusion and adaptation –
and that’s really the acorn from which the Access for All boat first grew.
The universal popularity of sport and its physical, social and economic development benefits make it an ideal tool for fostering the inclusion and well-being of persons with disabilities. Through activity and sport, persons with disabilities often acquire vital social skills, develop independence, and become empowered to act as agents of their own change. We see this now on our access boat in Ballyleague every week. Sport can teach individuals how to communicate effectively as well as dealing with the significance of teamwork and cooperation and respect for others, while sporting activity is also well suited to reducing dependence and developing greater independence by helping persons with disabilities to become physically and mentally stronger.
These were the real reasons we first developed the Lough Ree Access for All boat as our community development project out in Ballyleague. We had seen the people in the wheelchairs left on the banks of the river too many times when the big fishing events or sightseeing cruises were on, and we decided as a small group that we would try and change that.
It wasn’t rocket science either. We always knew that people with disabilities have the same needs for recreation and leisure as people without disabilities, however they generally accessed more structured leisure activities within disability organisations and service providers like the Irish Wheelchair Association, thereby reinforcing their segregation from the rest of the community and their friends.
We are proud of the fact that by taking part in mainstream recreation and leisure pursuits on our new boat, people with disabilities are socially included for the first time on the water, and have an equal opportunity to integrate with their peers and improve their sense of worth. The provision of the Lough Ree Lake Access for All water-based experience provides an adapted integrated water-based experience for all people with disabilities to serve the needs of all disability organisations, and all sporting clubs generally, and is a major step in the direction of inclusivity.
A new centre – which you will hear more about next month – will provide a unique facility in Ballyleague that will attract people from the local community, from all over Ireland, and potentially from well beyond. It is envisaged as a ‘home’ for a range of users, including Special Olympics athletes, disability organisations, national, regional and local sports clubs, primary, secondary and special needs schools, colleges, universities, and the general public. The list is endless. The new centre will cater for all levels of ability, from the novice through to the dedicated leisure enthusiast, so this story is only beginning. The best part, as Dorothy says on the TV ad every week, remains the fact that it’s not just for people with disability – it’s for everybody.
The integration continues on every boat trip and you too can enjoy the experience by going online to www.loughreeboattrips.com and booking your place on board, or by telephoning 089 2625505 any day of the week. The Access boat sails from the north pier in Ballyleague seven days a week at 10 am, 12 noon and 2.30 pm. The adventure is only beginning!