Last year I had a disastrous swim event experience, I desperately wanted to share it with people at the time to highlight how NOT to treat those with disabilities but at the time I was so angry that I knew the blog wouldn’t be constructive or helpful to anyone, so I waited. Since then, I have been to the same location again and had a much more pleasant experience and I wanted to explain the very simple differences between the 2 experiences and why they are so vastly different.
In October 2022 I went on holiday to Dawlish Warren in Devon for the first time. Not long before I went, I discovered there was a triathlon and open water swimming event happening the week before and as a result I moved my holiday backwards a week so that I could have one final 3km race before the end of the summer season.
I had emailed the organiser in advance of the event about the accessibility in terms of entry and exits. My friend that I was going on holiday with said the entry would be perfect for me, a nice long slipway that I could use my chair to get down and then it was straight into the sea!
The night before the event I went and registered and got my chip and hat for the event. I double checked everything was all ok and I got a different colour swimming hat so that volunteers knew to get my crutches ready for when I was coming into the finish of the swim, I was also told where the entry and exit was and went and had a look – it was perfect for me. I was reassured that everything was as planned and went back to where we were staying to get a good night sleep.
All triathlons and events are at silly o’clock in the morning, so it was an early start. We headed down, I got changed and left my bag in the bag drop before going and waiting by the start, where the safety briefing was being held. I had been sitting there for 5 minutes and noticed other people that were clearly going to be racing walking along the top of the prom, away from the entry/start point. I decided to speak to a marshal, to be informed that the start of the swim had been changed and I was directed to where it was going to start.
I looked at it, laughed sarcastically and asked if she was serious because I was sitting there in a wheelchair, and she was directing me to a steep set of concrete stairs and a 100m walk down a beach to get to the water. I asked to talk to the event organiser.
He came over and I asked what I should do, I was told I could still enter via the slope and what I should do was walk down the slope, into the shallows (the tide was out) and then doggy paddle or crawl along the edge of the water to get to the start and he would wait for me before doing the safety briefing and starting the race. I wasn’t convinced it would work and wasn’t happy that I had effectively just been told to crawl across a beach. Nevertheless, I wanted to swim so I headed down the ramp as far as I dare in my wheelchair, got my crutches out and slowly walked down the slipway to the beach.
The ramp was incredibly slippery and since my balance isn’t great, I almost fell over a couple of times but, somehow, I made it to the bottom without falling. I started walking into the sea but as well as it being a boat slipway, the slipway was part of the sea wall.
There were strong cross currents and it felt unsafe, as a result, I got out, changed, and sat back in my chair waiting to see if the organiser even noticed I wasn’t there. Watching him start the race and the swimmers setting off when I was supposed to be in there with them was upsetting and infuriating too. It wasn’t for another 15 minutes that the organiser realised I was still sitting on the ramp, and he came over to me to ask me why I wasn’t in the water. My answer was “because it was unsafe, and you started the race before I got to the start”.
This began an argument, and I am ashamed to say that I shouted at the organiser and got very angry with him too. Even more so when I asked why the entry point had changed last minute and he informed me that the lifeguards had told him not to use the slipway I was sent down due to it being too slippy and unsafe; yet the organiser sent the person that has bad balance and walks with crutches down it. He had put me in danger. If the tide had been in then the entry would have been incredibly easy for me, that was when he confessed that he hadn’t checked where the tide would be during the event.
I was devastated, humiliated, and absolutely fuming. What was meant to be a nice 3km sea swim to finish off my season had turned into one of the most stressful and upsetting non-swims of my life!
Fast Forward One Year –
I was back in Dawlish Warren on holiday in September 2023 and obviously wanted to get some sea swims in. I contacted some local sea swimmers, and we checked tides to work out when would be best for us to swim and decided that the easiest entry point for me would, in fact be the slipway that was meant to be the start of the swim event the previous year. I was a little nervous but also excited, I met up with the other ladies and we headed to the beach. I got to the top of the slipway and had a huge grin on my face because it was going to be so easy for me to get in and out of the water!
We got changed and left our stuff about halfway up the ramp, I used the wall to hold onto to help me down to the water and easily and quickly got into the water. We had a lovely 30min swim across the beach in Dawlish Warren and back, all got out smiling and refreshed and of course finished off the swim with cake!
It was a lovely swim spot, 100% accessible to me and probably the easiest entry I have ever had into the sea. No extra pain caused by crawling, trying to walk, bum-shuffling or anything else unflattering, a couple of steps and the water was there.
It made me think back to my previous experience at that entry point, the fact I had been put in danger, that I was treated as inferior, discriminated against, and made to feel like I shouldn’t have been taking part because of my disabilities and of course that I hadn’t even managed to get into the water! All the stress and upset caused by this individual if he had done one simple thing – checked the tides.
“We live in a moment when the dream of equal opportunity is within reach”Barack Obama
I’ve written this blog as a reminder to everyone that sometimes it is the small things that make the biggest differences to those with disabilities.
The only differences between my ‘swim’ in 2022 and the swim in 2023 were that the people I was with this year had a good attitude, they treated me as an equal and like any other swimmer and most importantly, the tide was in.
So, next time you have someone with a disability approach you for a swim remember the importance of the little things!