It has been eight years since Gus McConnell has been able to wander along the beach. In March, 2013, the Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club patrol captain was riding down Memorial Drive on his pushbike when a car unexpectedly turned in front of him. The resulting crash was so intense that it wrote off the other vehicle and Mr McConnell was left a quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair.
"Forty years of walking around like everyone else," he said, "and suddenly I had to learn this new world." Mr McConnell's injuries meant that if he wanted to visit the beach, it would only be possible in a cumbersome water-going chair that was difficult to steer and exhausting to move. His work as a patrol captain, which involves helping his team of life savers manage the beach and keep people safe in and around the water, would have to be largely handled from off the sand.
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"Beach chairs have come a long way in the last few years," he said, "But you could be 100kg of person and that's a lot to push around on the sand." Part of the problem was that wheelchairs had not made many great technological or design leaps over the years. At their core, they are a relatively simple piece of manual machinery that was never intended to navigate rough terrain.
Making spaces like the beach accessible, then, has often meant investment in infrastructure like ramps and lifts to make navigation easier, but even that has meant some spaces remained out of reach. Those restrictions are now changing, though, as Cooks Hill SLSC has invested in a new device, never before seen on the city's beaches, that augments Mr McConnell's chair to handle the sand safely and effortlessly.
"We can get on these big beach chairs and be pushed around, but you need someone to move you as soon as you want to move," Mr McConnell said. "And when you're on the beach, the wind will change or the sun will change and you want to move all the time.
"With this thing, you just turn it on and move. You're completely autonomous on the sand. That's new. That's fantastic. It's a massive technological leap for people in wheelchairs to get immersed in nature."
The Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club has purchased three of the Freedom Trax devices - with funding support from Orica, Port Waratah and Hunter Care Group - which it plans to make available for wheelchair users to access the beach safely. The devices, which use track wheels powered by a lithium battery, were built in the United States and retail between $12,000 and $15,000.
Aidacare Cardiff helped the club source the machines, and that organisation's manager, David Main, described it as a coup for the club.
"Most SLSC have taken the first steps in getting access in terms of ramps and lifts and things like that, but this is just the next step toward getting people actually on the sand," he said.
"There's a lot of moving parts, but it gets community access for those people who don't have it, which is great."
Hunter Care Group CEO Jarrod Burns said he hoped his organisation's investment in the machinery would set the standard for other Hunter businesses to get involved.
"It's sort of a Newcastle first," he said, "We haven't really seen these before. We thought, Hunter Care Group is a local business, so we'll pay for one and set a bit of a standard so that other clubs and companies can get involved and get more of these out there."
Mr McConnell is rapt with the new tech, which he has been trialling for the club since Saturday.
"I can wander down the beach with people," he said. "This is fantastic."
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The story The technological leap that's helping make the Hunter's beaches more accessible first appeared on Newcastle Herald.