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,” said Seedorf-Harmuth over the phone from her home in Victoria.
But this August, during a Tofino getaway to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary and Phil’s 70th birthday, she was surprised with 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,” said Phil.
Seedorf-Harmuth was one of the first to test ride Tourism Tofino’s new beach wheelchairs; there are two available for guests and residents to rent out. Visitor and member services manager Jody Kirk says they loan them out for free with a $250 deposit, which can be waived if that’s a barrier.
“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, the two beach wheelchairs are easy to put together, waterproof and feature big, fat tires that don’t sink into the sand. They were acquired through the federal Youth Innovation Component of the Enabling Accessibility Fund (EAF) program by past Tourism Tofino intern Raiya Bernard.
“This accomplishment means a lot to me but more importantly, I am proud of the way it is going to benefit my community. I am passionate about identifying accessibility issues such as these and being a part of the solution. I am looking forward to applying these skills in my future role as a registered nurse,” Bernard wrote in an email while en route to her first year of nursing school in Northern B.C.
“The West Coast should be accessible to everyone, and I am dedicated to being part of the change. As a community member, I saw this opportunity as a way to give back to the town I love and am so thankful for. I would like to extend a special thank you to Tourism Tofino for making this process possible.”
Kirk says the grant process was fairly easy for youth to navigate. She went on to encourage more West Coast business owners to task a youth to go after their own accessibility project.
“You can apply for things like ramps, doors, sit skis, a para-hockey sled or a raised garden bed,” Kirk said, noting that the application deadline for the Youth Innovation Component is mid-October 2022.
Seedorf-Harmuth and husband Phil aren’t letting the MSA diagnosis tie them down. They took off to Santa Fe, New Mexico last week.
“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,” said Phil. “We just decided we are 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 and learning the dos and don’ts.
“We still have our curiosity and sense of adventure, but it’s just more cumbersome,” said Seedorf-Harmuth, noting that when they take a flight anywhere, they are required to hand over her wheelchair as checked luggage.
“It’s like checking in your legs,” she said.
Anyone interested in borrowing Tourism Tofino’s beach wheelchairs can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-888-720-3414.