When Sydney woman Nina O’Toole jumps into a pool, rides a jet ski, goes bushwalking or paints mugs to take home, she is having the same experience as thousands of other young people on a recreational camp.
The big difference is the 19-year-old has a severe intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder.
For her and many other people living with a disability, this rite of passage has been made possible by a national program that offers recreational camp experiences with the help of support workers and sport stars.
“We don’t say, ‘No’ to any disability. We have participants with all types of abilities,” What Ability national camps manager Ashleigh Dresler said.
“As long as they can have fun, laugh, smile and go out in the community, it doesn’t matter what the restrictions are.
“We have people as young as six and as old as 63.”
Public ‘the most challenging part’
The camps have been running since 2019 and were started by Ashleigh’s brother, retired semi-professional rugby league player Steve Dresler, who noticed a lack of services available for people living with disability to enjoy a recreational camp.
Ashleigh said with the right support staff, people with a disability can be given the same opportunities as anyone else their age.
“The challenges I’ve found is that anything can happen [on camp] from screaming, dropping to the floor, biting — it’s part of the nature and your focus is on the participant, but a lot of the time it’s the public you stress about,” she said.
“A lot of participants don’t look like they have a disability, so the public is the most challenging part.”
Sports stars tackling stigma
Professional motorsport driver Joey Mawson started his career on the track with go-karting, before working his way up to the European Formula 3 Championship.
He is one of several sports stars now working on camps, not only to lend his expertise behind the wheel, but to bring much-needed publicity to disability work.
“More and more, we’re become more accepting and giving more support to disability services, compared to 20 years ago, which is very positive,” Joey said.
“It brings a lot more attention to disability and the people who follow me have noticed I’ve been doing disability work and it captures a lot of eyes, which is good.”
Ashleigh said involving sports stars in the program helped to remove stigma from the disability sector.
“If kids look up to them [sports stars] and see them working with people with a disability, it opens up the floodgates and shows it’s okay to be involved,” she said.
A chance to be social
Nina’s mother, Sandra O’Toole, said the camps were an opportunity for her to spend more time with friends, like any teenager.
“What 19-year-old wants to hang at home with their mum?” Sandra asked.
They also gave Sandra — part of a team of medical researchers awarded the 2022 Australian Museum Eureka Prize — a chance to focus on self care.
“The camps give me a chance to recharge, because as much as I love her, parenting Nina is a challenge and it’s getting more challenging as she gets older,” Sandra said.
“Every time I see the videos of her having fun that the workers send me, I get a smile on my face and happy tears.”