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Creating inclusive outdoor experiences

Creating inclusive outdoor experiences

A partnership between Whenua Iti Outdoors, the Halberg Foundation and Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa is helping to remove barriers for disabled tamariki and rangatahi to experience outdoor recreation. 

About The Disability Inclusion Project 

In 2022, Whenua Iti Outdoors (WIO) initiated a disability inclusion project to upskill their leaders and improve their facilities, equipment, and communication to better cater to the needs of disabled tamariki and rangatahi.  

Situated in Te Tau Ihu o te Waka a Māui (Top of the South Island) Whenua Iti Outdoors are an experiential learning provider, focusing on personal and social development, with a mission to achieve positive change for individuals and their communities. 

One of our key goals is to remove barriers to access, whether that’s cost, transport or cultural inclusion. But we saw that there were still barriers, both physical and perceived, for the disability community. That was what sparked this project.

- Nettie Stow, Partnership and Funding Manager at Whenua Iti Outdoors 

An early step in the project was to connect with the Halberg Foundation, who were able to provide training, expertise, and connections to the disability community. Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa (Sport NZ) provided support and journeyed alongside this project to share the story. 

The disability inclusion project had three main objectives: 

  1. Upskill staff and adapt WIOs’ current offerings to provide more opportunities for disabled young people and their whānau to engage in WIO programmes. 
  2. Strengthen connections between the disability community, and local organisations and providers in the Nelson/Tasman region 
  3. Share what we have learnt to support other organisations in the outdoor recreation sector to undertake a similar learning journey 

This partnership approach allowed different focuses for each of the organisations involved, but each objective was united under a common goal: To provide more quality opportunities for disabled tamariki and rangatahi to be active in the outdoors. 

A group of girls smiling and waving at the camera

Process – what they did 

It was apparent early on that all improvements and adaptations to existing programmes/initiatives/ways of working had to be incremental, and that it was important to take a holistic approach when aiming to create a truly inclusive experience.  

Improvements and adaptations were made across 4 mains areas: 

  • Office Processes – Including website accessibility, communication of programmes, reviewing language and terminology, and participant enrolment forms. 
  • Tutor capabilityInclusion Training was provided by Halberg Foundation, and on-site consultation and training was provided by Jezza Williams at Making Trax Foundation.  

‘Becoming aware is crucial. Once you shift your mindset and start paying attention to accessibility features, they become impossible to overlook. Our aim is to empower organizations to recognize these elements themselves and make those quick and easy changes that will make a big difference’ - Mitchell Rhodes, Advisor at Halberg Foundation 

  • The Physical Site –The Halberg Foundation supported WIO to undertake an access audit, resulting in additions including a new ramp, new signage, and handrails. 
  • The Equipment - New equipment was bought, including body harnesses with extra padding that could provide more support, and other equipment was accessed through building connections with other providers and local council, including an adapted paddle board and a beach wheelchair.  

Alongside these adaptations, WIO engaged with their local disability community to host multiple day programmes, and one overnight camp, for disabled children, young people and their whānau. Involving the disability community within the design of the programmes from  the beginning ensured that their wants and needs were an integral part of the process. 

‘We were very honest about our learning journey, and those who participated in our inclusive programmes where very forth coming in offering their thoughts and feedback on the experiences, which we were able to learn from and build on.’

– Nettie Stow, Partnership and Funding Manager at Whenua Iti Outdoors 

Engaging directly with children and young people themselves is also a key aspect of the Inclusion Training delivered by Halberg Foundation. This approach acknowledges that the participants themselves are the experts when it comes to understanding what inclusive practices work best for them. 

Participants – the young people who took part 

The tamariki and rangatahi who took part in these programmes represented a wide range of ages and abilities and came from different schools across the Nelson/Tasman and West Coast regions. Many of them live close to the WIO site but had not previously engaged with WIO. 

For many of the children and young people who attended, the day programmes and overnight camp offered the chance to try activities for the first time, visit new places in the Nelson/Tasman region, and for some, have their first ever experience on an overnight camp. 

‘Having these experiences for our kids is huge. Our kids miss out on so much, they want to be involved, they want to be in the outdoors. They want to be doing what every other child their age is doing. Any support, big or little, makes such a difference in the lives of our children!’

– Parent on the inclusive camp 

Following the project, some of the young people have gone on to attend mainstream camps and activities at WIO with their schools as they are now equipped with the knowledge of what to expect on a WIO experience. 

‘If you ever come to Whenua Iti, you’re going to have a super fun time!’

– Young person on the inclusive camp 

Participant’s Story – Having an invisible disability  

Invisible disabilities are conditions that cannot be easily seen or perceived by people. This can include things such as chronic fatigue or pain, and in some cases, this can make it challenging for people with invisible disabilities to access adequate support, as their needs may be less obvious. It’s important to note that providing inclusive environments (with a variety of options and plenty of time to proceed at your own pace) will benefit a wide range of people, regardless of their ability. 

Phoebe was one of the participants on the WIO inclusive overnight camp, thanks to a connection made through the Halberg Foundation. She and her mum Lou have shared their experience on how having an invisible disability affects Phoebe’s participation in sport and physical activity. 

‘Phoebe has Polyarticular Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, which means many joints are affected. It’s a condition that constantly changes, and as she develops her body may change and respond differently to her treatment. Phoebe is naturally shy and doesn’t want to be different to her peers. She is often pulled out of class for hospital appointments, usually once a week/fortnight and gets very embarrassed walking back into class and being asked questions. It’s difficult for her to express her condition to others, and aside from her closest peers, most kids have no idea.  

When Phoebe competes in sports at school, she never says she is tired or sore because she feels kids and teachers won’t understand. So many times, she will hold it all in till the afternoon and then get in the car and cry about how sore her body is or how she might have tried to say something, but it was dismissed. 

I hope that Phoebe taking part in more inclusive programmes will give her the space to be herself, within her limits. She may see that you don’t have to finish if it hurts, or you can’t mentally cope. She may see other kids just like her and have the confidence to ask what their disability is and discuss war stories. I hope she sees that she has a place in sport and physical activity.’ 

Three people walking in the park with clipboards

Outcomes - what they learnt 

The power of partnerships 

WIO partnered with people and organisations, both in their region and in the wider recreation sector, who were able to provide the knowledge, skills and funding needed to bring their aspirations around inclusivity to life. They also partnered with individuals and organisations who were able to connect them to the disability community through authentic and trusted relationships.  

The disability community themselves were acknowledged as the experts for this project, and in many cases, they already had the answers to some of the changes and adaptations that were needed. By ensuring that the disability community and their whānau were involved from the very beginning of this project, WIO were able to understand the barriers that existed and collaborate on designing the solutions needed. 

‘There were so many people involved to make this project happen! Sport New Zealand, Halberg Foundation, Jezza at Making Trax, Kaiteriteri Recreation Reserve, Moana SUP, the parents, support staff, advisors, teachers, CCS Disability Action, Nayland College, West Coast Trades Academy, Tasman District Council and Greymouth High who supported the mahi on the West Coast.’ – Nettie Stow, Partnership and Funding Manager at Whenua Iti Outdoors 

Take a holistic approach to adapting your programmes 

Physical accessibility is important, but it’s just one aspect of inclusivity. It was equally important for WIO to think about other aspects of how people engage with their organisation, such as through their website, how they advertise their programmes, their bookings forms, and the welcome that participants received from all staff.  

‘What does the journey look like for the family or the group that we're trying to support? How do they hear about the it? Do they know you exist? How do they get in contact? How do they get there? And then we can think about the actual camping!’ - Mitchell Rhodes, Advisor at Halberg Foundation 

Provide detailed information about what you can offer 

Ensuring that participants had detailed information about the events and activities on offer was an extremely important aspect of making their programmes more inclusive. Providing access to good information empowered the participants to make informed decisions about their involvement, and how they would like to manage their experience.  

‘The participants needed to know exactly how long we’d be in the water for, where was the nearest accessible toilet and exactly how we would be travelling, and when. We didn’t appreciate at the beginning of this project how much we would need our office staff to be involved and informed in order to communicate with families, but they did an awesome job in supporting this project.’ - Nettie Stow, Partnership and Funding Manager at Whenua Iti Outdoors 

Commit to continuous learning 

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for inclusive practice, and it is important to always be open to new ways of adapting, and provide opportunities for feedback. WIO made a deliberate decision to frame the inclusive day programmes and camps as a learning journey for the organisation, and explicitly invited feedback from the disability community at all stages of the process.  

One of the biggest takeaways of this project is the need to continually learn from those who engage in the programmes, and provide multiple opportunities and options for feedback.  

‘Be open to asking questions and accept that you can’t know about everyone’s individual experiences. If you are straight up and just ask young people, ‘hey – how could this work better for you?’ 9 times out of 10 you’ll get a successful outcome.’ – Mitchell Rhodes, Advisor at Halberg Foundation 

What’s next 

Following the overwhelmingly positive feedback WIO have received from the participants, they plan to continue to build on this project by offering more programmes and opportunities for disabled people to experience outdoor recreation. 

Many of the participants spoke about the need for consistent opportunities for the disability community, rather than just one off ‘taster’ sessions. One of the aims of the programme is to offer regular inclusive camps for the disability community and their peers. 

WIO will continue to work with Halberg Foundation to monitor and evaluate the impact of this programme as well as advertise what they can now offer so that they can grow these opportunities. 

Ngā mihi to the tamariki, rangatahi and whānau within the disability community who have contributed to this project.  

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