Accessible surfing has been lifechanging

For young disabled people like Ollie, having opportunities to get out and active without parental supervision can be hard. His mum, Fiona, knows that most twenty-somethings don’t want to do everything with their family, but opportunities for fostering separate hobbies are few and far between.

The North Devon Down Syndrome Group, who find inclusive activities in the local area, collaborated with Sense to help a group of young people experience surfing!

A young man in a wetsuit surfs on a calm sea, he's smiling and his thumbs are up.
Ollie surfing in style with his thumbs up.

I’m Fiona, Ollie’s mum. My son has Down’s syndrome, and he swims for the special Olympics. We’re always looking out for new things to do, new sports to try, but there’s not that much out there – or not near us in rural Devon.

Surfing stood out because it was something that I didn’t need to be part of. It must be a bit boring for him having his mum follow him everywhere, but most of the time he doesn’t have an option, really. It’s only us at home so if I don’t do it, he won’t go anywhere.

As much as I want him to have a full life, I also want him to have a sense of freedom. It’s hard to get the balance.

On the water, they aren’t treated differently

With surfing, the idea that there were other people out there who could enable him and let him explore and be himself… that was the biggest benefit, it’s so much more independent. And that’s as well as all it offers him in terms of fitness and stamina. He loves it. And I know that he’s safe.

The Wave Project, who run the sessions, are just fantastic. Their volunteers, who are out on the water, are brilliant; you couldn’t fault them. Ollie and the others aren’t treated as though they’re different or disabled, they’re just allowed to get on with it and enjoy themselves.

A young man in a wetsuit reached out to high five a member of The Wave Project team as he surfs past.
Ollie high fives a member of The Wave Project crew as he surfs by.

Ollie isn’t very verbal, but he does express himself and communicate. He uses a few Makaton signs, and he’ll show you things to get you to understand. When he’s out of the waves though, there’s so many sounds and such distance between people that verbal communication goes out the window anyway. It’s all just clapping and cheering, there’s so much excitement. Just look at the photographs and you’ll see the joy on their faces.

It’s the first thing that’s completely his

Since the surfing, he is so much more confident in himself. It’s the first thing he’s really enjoyed that’s completely his, that doesn’t involve me. It’s increased his confidence in his abilities; he’s more comfortable talking to new people, he’s become more proactive, and he’s embracing a lifestyle more appropriate for his age.

It’s small things that I notice, but they point to a big internal change. Like taking the dogs for a walk on his own, that never would have happened before. It’s a walk that I can see from the house, so I know he is safe, but for him that’s a big step into an independent routine.

It’s life changing – which sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But it is. It’s given Ollie a completely different outlook on life.

Two young men in wetsuits and blue t-shirts surf along a calm sea filled with people.
Two surfers glide in on the smooth sea in North Devon.

I wish there was more out there

If Ollie had his way, he’d surf all year round. When the sessions end, we don’t go to that beach so that he doesn’t think we’re going surfing. He grumbles when the sessions are over, but he knows that he can’t go all the time because there are other people who need those opportunities too.

And to be honest, if it weren’t for Sense, the cost would be prohibitive. Anything accessible is expensive. The moment you say disability things double in price.

Taking part would usually cost over one hundred pounds, but as Sense funded our sessions, we only needed to make a small contribution. Sense and the North Devon Down Syndrome Group have made the experience accessible to us.

It’s so important that Ollie and the others in the group get to experience the freedom to be themselves, and to be part of a team where they feel equal. I wish there was more out there.

A group of young men and women stand on a beach behind a surf board. They smile at the camera and make the 'hang loose' hand sign.
All the North Devon Down Syndrome Group surfers 2023!

Our Active team, currently funded by Sport England, support anyone who is deafblind or has complex disabilities to lead active lives – however they want to!

If you’ve been inspired by Ollie, visit our activity finder to discover local opportunities from sensory walks to sensory tennis.

Alternatively contact [email protected] for more support.