Northern Ireland's first all-year-round holiday getaway for disabled people, their friends and family is about to throw open its doors.
The purpose-built Strangford Bay Lodge on the shores of the Ards Peninsula is the brainchild of a former fork-lift driver from near Kircubbin.
Paul Toner, 46, cared for his wheelchair bound mother for more than 25 years.
"I suppose I saw it first hand how it can be a stigma to have an illness, never mind the desire to go and be normal like everybody else," he said.
"And just how difficult is it for people with disabilities to find somewhere to go on holiday in Northern Ireland so they can stay and feel that there's a comfortable environment for them."
That is something wheelchair user Alison Evans understands.
She said it would be "great to go somewhere for the weekend and not have to worry about anything".
She has tested Strangford Bay Lodge and said it was "totally accessible".
"On a nice sunny day you can go out and have a barbecue, you come inside and it is all totally flat," she said.
"The bathroom is great, there are walk-in showers and toilet and rails and everything.
"It is not like a hospital or somewhere like that, it is like a nice guest house."
Paul started work on the site after his mother died five years ago and every room has been catered to a disabled person's needs.
"The idea is set that we would combine space with an atmosphere that was non-clinical," he said.
"Each of the rooms is spacious.
"We have got a wheel-in wardrobe where you can come in if you have got a wheelchair and everything is at low level."
Paul has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds of his own money to build the retreat.
Nigel Hampton, from the disabled charity Enable, said Paul had to be commended for taking forward the initiative.
"It is often a lot more expensive to put in these adaptations to the building than any other private operator would want to do," he added.
Paul's neighbours are Pat and Russell Bell.
Pat said there was nowhere similar to Strangford Bay Lodge, when Paul was looking after his parents.
She said: "He would have loved to have had somewhere like this where he could have taken them.
"His mother would be so proud.
"He often says she is looking down and nods if things go wrong or gives him the thumbs up if things go right and I just think he is a great credit to his parents."
Russell said Paul had a hand in "every brick and every feature in the house" which had been driven by "his desire to have somewhere for disabled people".
"He has had that goal and that vision and it has kept him going through every single obstacle," he added.
The downstairs of the one-storey property is accessible to wheelchair users, but Paul had to forgo a lift in order to put in a specialised public toilet which is one of only five in Northern Ireland.
"I had hoped that I would be able to put in a lift to make the building 100% accessible, unfortunately I was left with the choice because of no government funding or no help from any other bodies," Paul said.
"Once we get running and we get the money together and we get the lift in, then we will be 100% accessible."
Friday, April 22, 2011
Posted by BA Haller at 3:47 AM