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Free beach wheelchairs create opportunity Victoria couple thought gone forever

Accessibility grant making lives better, organizations encouraged to chase theirs

The last time Donna Seedorf-Harmuth strolled a beach with her husband Phil was seven years ago in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

On Nov. 19, 2019, the retired speech language pathologist was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy (MSA), a rare condition that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson disease. For people with MSA, the disease often progresses faster than it does with Parkinson’s.

“I thought my days of walking on the beach were done,” Donna says.

But this August, during a Tofino, B.C., getaway to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary and Phil’s 70th birthday, she was surprised with a beach wheelchair on lend for free from Tourism Tofino. Her husband took her along the waters edge of Cox Bay, Long Beach and MacKenzie Beach.

“To be able to walk not only with me, but with friends along the beach was an amazing experience for her and really very uplifting. When you think that something is done and it’s the last time that you are ever going to do that, and then to be able to do it again… It’s a very powerful experience. It was a game-changer,” Phil says.

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Donna was one of the first to test ride Tourism Tofino’s two new beach wheelchairs, available for guests and residents to rent out. Visitor and member services manager Jody Kirk says the chairs are loaned out for free with a $250 deposit, which can be waived if that’s a barrier.

Jody Kirk, Tourism Tofino’s visitor and member services manager, says the beach wheelchairs are easy to assemble and easy to manoeuvre. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Jody Kirk, Tourism Tofino’s visitor and member services manager, says the beach wheelchairs are easy to assemble and easy to manoeuvre. (Nora O’Malley photo)

“Now families can spend more time together on the beach. Ideally, folks would take it out for three days at a time, based on availability, but we’re happy to be flexible with that,” said Kirk.

Costing about $5,000 a piece and acquired through the federal Youth Innovation Component of the Enabling Accessibility Fund, the two beach wheelchairs are easy to put together, waterproof and feature big, fat tires that don’t sink into the sand.

Donna and husband Phil aren’t letting the MSA diagnosis tie them down. They took off to Santa Fe, New Mexico last week.

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“We’ve always travelled, all of our lives. We packed our kids around all over Europe, all over South East Asia, Central America and the United States,” Phil says. “We just decided we’re not going to be bound by this condition and just sitting at home waiting for it to progress.”

The retirees say travelling with a disability is a lot of trial and error.

“We still have our curiosity and sense of adventure, but it’s just more cumbersome,” Donna says, noting that when they take a flight anywhere, they’re required to hand over her wheelchair as checked luggage. “It’s like checking in your legs.”

Anyone interested in borrowing Tourism Tofino’s beach wheelchairs can contact or call 1-888-720-3414.

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