Gary Blaschke had been a surfer all his life when he suffered a serious motorcycle accident, losing a kneecap and suffering severe damage to one foot. After 18 months of rehabilitation, the lure of his beloved ocean remained, but physical challenges, and life as a lone surfer, hampered his enjoyment.
“The brain knew what had to happen, but the body couldn't do it," he says. "So I decided we needed to get a group of people together to help disabled people get out in the ocean.”
Gary founded the Disabled Surfers Association, a voluntary organisation that fosters friendship on the waves for people returning to the surf or discovering it for the first time.
“‘Smiles on dials’ is what we're about,” he says. “If we don't have fun, we don't enjoy what we're doing. We pay out on each other. There's no political correctness amongst us because it doesn't work.”
From its fledgling beginnings in 1986, the DSA has become a supporter of all classes of disability, from asthma to joint injuries, visual impairment and quadriplegia.
“We’re there for a child who just gets asthma every now and again to people with spina bifida, cerebral palsy and so on,” says Gary. "We even take ventilated quadriplegics out into the ocean and resuscitate them through their tracheotomies in their throat and give them an experience.
“We are truly an inclusive organisation. We haven't failed to get anybody into the water. If they want to go into the water, we will get them out in the ocean.”
Having changed his own life by returning to the surf, Gary has seen countless people with physical and mental disabilities feel uplifted and transformed by the waves. “The ocean is a therapeutic body,” he says. “It’s very much underestimated. People don't understand just how good it is from a mental perspective as well as a physical perspective.
“Disabled people don't have the opportunity to look at the ocean and say, ‘Yes, I'm going for a surf’. I knew as a surfer what I got out of it and that it would be so beneficial for others, especially those with severe disabilities.”
Helping break down barriers
After developing a series of training programs, the Disabled Surfers Association has opened branches in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and New Zealand. Volunteers, who range from local surfers to wave-loving doctors and lawyers, receive coaching that focuses on participants overcoming any anxiety or concerns they might have about tackling the surf.
“If you're taking physically and mentally handicapped people into the ocean, you've got to give them security first,” says Gary. “They’ve got to be feeling safe before they even go in. Safety is our No.1 priority.
“I've seen people go in terrified, having spasms, absolutely out of control. And after the first wave, they've settled down – they're laughing, they've stopped having their spasms. That's what I talk about with the therapeutic value. The ocean makes you feel calm.”
Gary’s passion to help others has also changed prejudices about disabled people. He has seen sceptical bystanders stand to applaud DSA participants as they leave the water after surfing the waves.
“We're breaking the barriers down,” he says. “If you're ever going to break a barrier down in Australia, surfing is the thing to do. We're all about the average person putting into their community and helping their community out. This is the best way I know to do that.”