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  • Writer's pictureSaar van Ommen

How Sailing Can Help People with Disabilities Navigate Employment

Updated: Feb 2

Sailing is an undeniable part of the Dutch cultural and physical landscape and now, a new initiative is using the sport to help people with disabilities in their search for employment, but you may wonder: how can billowing sails and serene waters, help you find a job?

SailWise and Randstad Participatie have announced that after last year’s trial they will continue their initiative; ‘Van boot naar baan’ (‘From boat to job’). During last year’s pilot, fourteen participants stayed in Friesland where they spent their days sailing and attending career coaching sessions.

Exercise can help disabled people to develop useful skills for their working life. "You shouldn’t believe that there is a direct correlation," Marian ter Haar, an expert at the Knowledge Centre for Sports, explains, "but I do believe in the mechanism underneath, it just completely depends on the guidance," she says.

Ter Haar’s own research has focused on strength and martial arts. “These sports help build resilience, a belief in one's own abilities, and can provide direction. It can make you think about what you can do and what you enjoy,” she says.

Ter Haar says that activities need to be properly targeted toward specific groups; "Everything boils down to enjoyment; sailing is quite far from my bed, I think you must have a darn good reason to do it on a boat."

“You can decide for yourself whether or not to turn and at what moment”

“People want to sit on the deck and feel water droplets in the air,” Caroline Waalwijk from SailWise says. For 50 years, SailWise has organised watersports activities for people with disabilities.

Sailing is very popular in the Netherlands. SailWise wants disabled people to participate in water sports. Waalwijk says. "We notice that participants leave their disability behind when they are on the water. With sailing, you're just one of the water sports enthusiasts. You can do pretty much anything."

In order to make this possible the boats are fitted with adaptations. People in wheelchairs can board using lifts and rudders can be replaced by joysticks. "A joystick that you normally use to control your chair you are now using to control your boat, is a really cool experience for people. They then think, 'Well, I can do that too!'" Waalwijk says.

You have to be interested in a developmental process

On board, people develop a sense of what they are capable of. "You get the feeling that you have control over your life and the things you do. You can decide for yourself whether or not to turn and at what moment," Waalwijk says.

Ter Haar corroborates this. Through sports, people are able to develop a belief in their own abilities and learn about what they enjoy.  "For myself, I feel resilient because I move a lot, and I feel like I can handle life better that way," she says.  

Ter Haar emphasises that results and achievements should not be the most important thing. "You have to be interested in a developmental process."

‘From boat to job’ can provide a safe space for people to push their limits. They are encouraged in their own abilities and allowed to take their time to practice. Waalwijk says: "We always tell our volunteers to say, 'Hey, can I help you?' so that people decide for themselves whether they want help. This takes time, but we make space for that."

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