Merle in one of the off-road wheelchairs being tested
The Department of Conservation is looking at ways to improve access to its longer tracks and trails for people with mobility issues.
It has just completed a three-day wheelchair access trial on the Abel Tasman Coast Track with the assistance of the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation and Merle Bradley, a wheelchair user who enjoys outdoor adventures with the support of her friends and family.
DOC Partnership Manager Jonathan Thomas says that as part the Department’s involvement in the Healthy Nature Healthy People programme, we want to see more people participating in outdoor activities on public conservation land.
“That means considering the needs of people with mobility issues,” he says.
About a quarter of New Zealand’s population, 1.1 million people, lives with a disability. 14% of the population lives with some sort of physical impairment and for people over the age of 65, that number climbs to 49%”.
DOC currently provides many accessible short tracks, but for many people with limited mobility, seeing special places such as our Great Walks is not currently within their reach.
Mr Thomas said that using “off-road” wheeled mobility equipment has meant that people with disabilities, with support, have reached Mt Everest Base Camp and the summit of Mt Kilamanjaro.
“We’re interested in finding out what sort of information and support people with mobility issues need when they are planning to challenge themselves on a longer trails. Another outcome of the trial will be information about how DOC facilities cope with the needs of people with mobility issues.”
During the trial three “off-road” wheelchairs have been tested, two nights were spent in DOC huts, and a total of 24 km was covered.
The feedback from the trial will help inform DOC’s investment programme for tracks and facilities.
Merle Bradley was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December 2014 and quit her job as a primary school teacher to pursue her dreams immediately. While travelling extensively in Africa, Europe, the UK, America and Canada during 2015, the limitations of a wheelchair became apparent and she was determined to find one that would enable her to travel with ease on rough ground. On return to NZ, she found a manufacturer who made a suitable wheelchair and has since then explored many places around the West Coast.
Before the trial, Merle and her husband Neil worked on their fitness, completing a new section of the West Coast Wilderness Trail every weekend.
Merle has been spreading the word about the difference that off-road wheelchairs can make to people with disabilities and has inspired the Hokitika Lions group to buy an off-road wheelchair.
Healthy Nature Healthy People
Research shows that exposure to our natural environment provides positive effects on human health and wellbeing. DOC is promoting this connection between the health of our environment and our people through Healthy Nature Healthy People (HNHP).
Encouraging people to participate in outdoor activities is an effective way of building the value people attribute to nature. The more that people value nature, the more likely they are to support and get involved in conservation.
HNHP aims to encourage us to use New Zealand's natural spaces to maintain and improve our health and wellbeing. These spaces include land and water from our urban parks and beaches to our national parks, lakes and wild rivers.
In this trial we’ve worked with the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation. As Healthy Nature Healthy People grows we’ll be working with other government agencies, NGOs, health services and providers, local government and parks organisations, as well as the private sector.