Plans to expand aquatic wheelchair pilot program after four years

Success in program's first years means modest expansion at city splash parks

Children with a disability have the chance to enjoy Calgary aquatic parks thanks to these specialized waterproof wheelchairs. They allow people to enjoy the water without damaging their own equipment. PHOTO PROVIDED BY JANA HANDS

Summer fun is here for everyone as the city has started expanding a pilot program focused on accessibility and fun in the sun.

In 2017, a pilot project started by the city kicked off. The aquatic wheelchair program gave people a chance to enjoy aquatic parks around the city, which they normally might not be able to do.

Families can take a break from their normal wheelchairs and swap out to these specially-designed aquatic ones. Made to be waterproof, these new wheelchairs let people with a physical barrier be themselves without their normal equipment.

When looking for vendors, the city of Calgary and Variety Alberta, the charity that advocated for the wheelchairs, looked for designs that ensured the most comfortable experience. People using these chairs were able to move to and from the waterparks without damaging their own chairs. Often those chairs contain expensive electronics and fabric that would be uncomfortable at best if used in the water and then taken somewhere else.

The city said that it typically sees the chairs being used up to two times a day on average. The demand for the chairs hasn’t been excessive, so there has been no need to have more than one or two chairs at each park. The wheelchairs can be accessed by asking the attendant on duty at the waterparks if availability allows it.

Community feedback and communication

Community engagement has been positive over the past four years, said Mark Murias, zone superintendent from City of Calgary Parks. Murias said the city is looking to expand the program as they move into next summer and the wheelchairs are added to new parks. The city is not planning on changing the program too drastically.

Details aren’t yet finalized on where and how broad the expansion will be. Chairs will be added to new waterparks and additional sizes will be added to others.

“There is not a lot of requirements to sign the wheelchairs out. If there was a cost to them, that would raise the barrier for entry. Currently, we are looking for smaller wheelchairs, which have been requested by people who use the service,” Murias said.

As the program moves forward in its expansion, the design was deemed acceptable. Although, as the need grows, the need for more chairs and considerations beyond the splash parks will grow.

Jana Hands, CEO of Variety Alberta, said that the design is sound and has helped a lot of kids. However, it isn’t just about wheelchairs. It is also a communication issue that needs to be addressed.

“A big thing is awareness. Not necessarily anything with the design is wrong with the wheelchairs. The biggest problem the city faces is the outreach needed to let people know this is an option for them,” Hands said.

The Bowness splash park is one of four locations in the city where people can access the aquatic wheelchairs. ETHAN WARD/ FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Reasons to expand the project

The expansion of the project means there will be anticipated hikes in usage, which will require more chairs. Variety Alberta thinks this is a great opportunity as this increases the awareness of persons with disabilities.

“It allows people to engage with individuals in the disability community. They will see that those with a disability are just like us. It helps normalize disability when you see someone moving around having a great old time, just using a tool for mobility,” Hands said.

Next summer will mark the five-year anniversary of the project. Looking back to community feedback, both Hands and Murias are happy to see such a positive response from the community these wheelchairs serve.

“People feel validated when their needs are addressed. They know they matter. These chairs that they use at the waterpark might not be within their income bracket. Having these on-site makes it safer for them,” Hands said.

Wheelchairs are available at Bowness Park, Prairie Winds Park, Riley Park, and Variety Park, located within South Glenmore Park.

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