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When your disability is your Superpower

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SWD Volunteer Renee Smith writes about what it truly means to give optimism (pictured here with James Hunter).

When I came to my first volunteer training day and sail, I vividly remember sitting on the deck of Kayle and watching the other volunteers hurrying around the boat, doing the jobs they had been assigned. Being my first ever sailing experience and someone with a physical disability, I was looking out for tasks that I’d be able to do and tasks that I could make adaptable. Of course I found quite a few, but as I continued to watch, one of my old haunting thoughts popped into my mind - I won't be able to do those things as fast or efficient as an AB (able body), and there are a number of important jobs that are impossible for me, so will I actually make a capable and useful volunteer or will I just get in the way?

It may sound like I’m being overly harsh to myself, but after experiencing several years with my disability within my career and other volunteer work, I know what it’s like to be faced with a wall of tasks that are impossible, to be left on the side lines when things aren’t accessible, to be excluded because it’s easier and faster for the ABs to do it, to be disallowed because of safety concerns, and then to be given all the unimportant and mindless little tasks. I came to SWD looking for a place where I could use my skills and abilities to make a difference for others with a disability. So dealing with that old haunting thought right then and there was important for me.

When Alyson came over to see how I was doing, I told her what I was thinking. And it was what David then joined our conversation to tell me that has stood forefront in my mind ever since.

He said that yes there were parts of sailing a boat that would be physically impossible for me, other parts that would be very difficult and therefore suited to another crew member, but there were also parts I would be able to do, so of course I’d be helpful to sailing the boat for the SWD programs. “There is however something you can do that no one else you see here can,” he said as he pointed to the crew, “And this task is what SWD is all about, so it makes you very important to us.” He explained that because I have a disability, I’d be able to empathise with the clients, and then connect with them in a way that an AB wouldn’t be able to. I could share myself as someone living with a disability, I could share my strength and determination, and I could show them how I could be part of the crew sailing the boat – I could give optimism.

At my first sail with clients on board, low and behold, the first fellow volunteer crew member that I met was James Hunter and he also had a disability. I instantly liked James and have learnt a lot sailing with him every week. Funnily enough, although our disabilities are very different – he is blind, and I am an incomplete paraplegic – we both cause some surprise, or have to convince the clients, that we do in fact have disabilities. When we’re out sailing, it is very easy for signs of our disability to go unnoticed.

James is such a pro at memorising exactly where everything is on Kayle, and it’s only when I get back into my wheelchair on returning to the dock, that some clients realise that they didn’t see me walk on the boat, but instead crawl or slide around. But while it’s fun to initially be living examples unawares of “I can” for our guests, it’s really great to then be able to talk about our disabilities and experiences and have them take away something positive from it.

If you ask James and I, we both agree that every client sail is special and every sail has memorable moments for us. In fact, I have been keeping a SWD journal, and although my first sail with clients on board was only a few months ago at the start of the Summer Sailing Series, it is already full of so many wonderful stories, experiences and touching photos.

There have recently been two sails within two weeks though, that were amazing high points for the both of us. Firstly on November 30th our Winds of Joy sail catered to a number of vision impaired students from various schools. Amongst the students was Rosanna, a young teenager from Auburn Girls High School who is blind. When Rosanna came aboard Kayle, she was a little quiet and withdrawn, and at the time, I wasn’t sure if the sad expression on her face was nerves or something else. As the sailing outing progressed, some of the crew led Rosanna up to the bow to sit with some of the others. After a while, from where I was at the stern of the boat, I couldn’t help but notice that James and Rosanna looked to be deep in important conversation. Facial expressions and body language told it all, and I felt glad that this school had chosen a sailing trip that had a blind crew member on board.

Rosanna at the Wheel

Towards the end of the sail, the two of them felt their way back down the boat, and when Rosanna was asked if she wanted to have a turn on the helm to steer Kayle, she immediately took the wheel and listened to the directions a crew member gave her. Rosanna left Kayle that morning with a smile and lighter expression on her face.

Talking to James about his experience afterwards, he confirmed that yes Rosanna was having a hard time with her blindness, and only had negative things to tell him. He had shared with her moments from his own experience and journey with his blindness, and he felt that he had been able to help her. Without James having to say anything, myself and the rest of the crew could just see the impact that he had had.

Later, we were to hear from the office that Rosanna had phoned to thank everyone and share what the sailing experience that morning had meant for her. As I said earlier, all sails are special, but some are absolutely amazing.

A week later, and it was my turn to have an absolutely amazing sail. Students from the Balmain Campus of the Sydney Secondary College joined us for a lovely afternoon Harbour sail on Kayle. Abbey has cerebral palsy, and came aboard in her wheelchair. After finishing my departure jobs, I slid along the deck to where she was sitting in her wheelchair at the stern. I introduced myself and we shared a bit about ourselves for a few minutes. Much to my surprise and delight, she then asked if she could get out of her chair and slide around on the deck like I do, and have a turn steering the boat.

Our skipper and one of her teachers assisted her with transferring out of her chair, and then she was free to follow my example of how to get around on Kayle. First stop was the job she wanted to do the most – the two of us were happily seated at the helm, steering, with the headsail up. After her turn steering, Abbey then wanted to follow me to the pit, where it’s my job to be the jib sheet trimmer. I showed her my trick for sitting in front of the helm and wedging your shoulder into the bar – so that you can stay put, all on your own, while the boat is heeling, and have your hands free to work the jib sheet and winches. I explained what would be happening, and how she could work the winch while I tailed the rope. Abbey was very keen and I knew she was enjoying herself, because it felt like she was asking, “Is it our turn to do our job yet?” every few minutes.

I get great enjoyment out of being able to work the jib sheets on Kayle. In that moment, as we’re flying along, feeling the breeze and the spray, it’s easy for me to forget that not all of me works the way that it should, because I’m doing my job to sail her regardless. Being able to share that moment with Abbey and see that she was feeling that excitement and empowerment was just wonderful. While working, Abbey took the opportunity to ask me many questions about how I live an independent life in my wheelchair. Occasionally there was much laughter as we swapped stories – especially the funniest places where we have accidentally fallen out of our chairs.

When we returned to the dock, Abbey slid back along the deck to where her wheelchair had sat, tied to Kayle and person-less, for pretty much the whole sail. We laughed as I commented, while hopping back into my chair too, that both of our chairs must have been lonely while we out of them to have fun on our sailing adventure. It felt absolutely amazing to be able to share my experience of being an adaptive sailor with Abbey, and work together with her to have a great afternoon on the water.

Catching up with James after the students left, he was so happy for me. For although he couldn’t see how Abbey and I were working together, he could hear me explaining how to do things, the laughter, and the number of questions that Abbey was asking me. He knew that I had also had a special moment, where my disability was my superpower that enabled something amazing to happen.

Abbey is third from right (in the front).


I couldn’t help but be straight away taken back to what David had told me on my first training sail. I’ve had many great moments of seeing clients achieve when they first thought they couldn’t, or find their confidence when they first came to me as a bundle of nerves. I love each of those moments, and I love that I can use my personality and influence to help make them happen. But now I’ve had my moment – the moment where because of the things that I can’t do, someone who’s in the same boat as me, was empowered to live despite their disability.

I hope to have more of these moments as I continue on my SWD journey, but I will never forget Abbey, and I’m sure that no matter how many of these moments I have, I will never stop feeling a warm, electric excitement each time. Because I got out of my chair, someone else chose to get out of their chair. The regular crew mates of James and I may playfully joke when they ask James if the channel is clear, or nominate me as the one who jumps on and off Kayle to the dock to do the mooring lines, and when James and I work on learning something new together, we’re known as “The blind leading the para” (and it should be noted that James and I have no problems with making jokes about ourselves amongst our crew friends). But there are moments when our weaknesses make us the strongest and most capable people on the crew for the big task at hand.


And so this is one of the reasons why I’m so happy that I’ve become part of SWD. I can most definitely see myself as being useful, and the hours I dedicate to volunteering are spent being engaged and efficient. Instead of spending all my energy trying to convince people to give me a chance and let me try, I use that energy at SWD to show others that I can, and that they can too. So I’m overjoyed to have finally found a frontier where I can be a mentor and positive example of adaptable ability, just as some people with disabilities were for me when I was first learning to live with a disability. I can’t wait for 2018 with SWD, and all the opportunities I know it will bring that will allow me to use my skills and abilities to help others.


If you’re reading this as someone who has a disability or disadvantage, and you’ve thought about volunteering with SWD but have been doubting your usefulness to the organisation, well I encourage you to come along for a sail as a guest, and see for yourself. I’ve found a wonderful group of volunteers who are more than happy to offer me a helping hand when I ask for it, but otherwise let me be to go about getting the job done in my own adaptable way. I’m just another member of the crew – and by the way, on any given sail, my skipper has up to a third of his crew with some form of disability – I’m just part of the normality of SWD! But then being able to use your disability as your superpower – I honestly can’t find the words to accurately describe what that’s like – so you’ll just have to come along and experience it for yourself.     

Renee Smith - Bringer of Optimism





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