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Susan, the Spirit Orcas, and the Battle for Beacon

Susan Simmons, second to right, with the Spirit Orcas (Photo: Susan Simmons)

BC Disability

May 25th, 2022

Victoria accessibility and multiple sclerosis advocate Susan Simmons updates us on the battle for accessibility in Beacon Hill Park, her inclusive swim club the Spirit Orcas, and her next big swim.

Learn more and stay updated by visiting her website and Twitter.


Some of the areas that are no longer fully accessible in Beacon Hill Park (photos: Susan Simmons)

For over a year, Beacon Hill Park has been at the center of a debate between Victoria accessibility advocates and the city.

Near the start of the pandemic, the city closed the road leading to the parking lot which, for many people with disabilities, provided the only access to key amenities in the park.

Susan's among those involved in a class action human rights complaint against the city, which in the meantime decided to reopen the parking lot - not for people with disabilities, but as pickleball courts.

For Susan, it doesn't sit right.

"What they're doing's getting pickleballers invested in space, so that our human rights case will have people against it. It's typical of the city to pit the community against people with disabilities."

The city's also argued that closing the parking lot reduces driving and the resulting pollution, but while Susan applauds the council for addressing the climate, she thinks how they've gone about it's worrying - for accessibility and the environment.

"Shutting off access just forces us to drive further to get to things in other areas, and many seniors or people with mobility limitations will always need a vehicle to get around anyway."

While Victoria mayor Lisa Help had stated that finding a new way to reopen access to the park would be on the city agenda, so far it hasn't come to fruition.

As the city gears up for a municipal election in October, Susan sees an opportunity for a new chapter in Victoria - one that's less divisive.

"Many people are very upset with the city for pitting citizens against each other. Clover Point was another example."

"All we want is access to the park. We're hopeful that will happen with a new council which thinks from another perspective."


Spirit Orcas swimmers Meliah Motchman and Dixon McGowan (Photos: Susan Simmons)

The swim group which Susan coaches - the Spirit Orcas - will take their next step as athletes and community leaders.

The Spirit Orcas are a team of swimmers with intellectual disabilities. Not being challenged enough by regular programs, they have taken their swimming to another level, completing an 80-kilometer open water swim to support COVID relief, as well as swimming Great Bear Lake.

As they've grown as swimmers, they've developed an impressive set of skills and knowledge. It only made sense that they'd help others learn the same skills, and that's the focus of a CLBC-funded project which will see the Spirit Orcas take the lead as coaches.

"Often we feel people with disabilities need something from us, but to be inclusive we need to want something from them."

Often we feel people with disabilities need something from us, but to be inclusive we need to want something from them

Flipping the status quo on its head, the Spirit Orcas are now coaching people from all walks of life on open water swimming.

And they're already excelling.

"I was away the other week, and they were coaching dives and butterflies without me. Everyone said it went great. They're natural teachers."

The Spirit Orcas are preparing for another swim in July, and are the subject of a documentary currently in filming about their experiences.

Stay tuned for more news on these awesome athletes!


It's a big summer of swimming not only for the Spirit Orcas, but also for Susan.

In August she'll be swimming from one end of Powell River to the other for a total length of 50 kilometers, to raise awareness and money for multiple sclerosis (MS).

She's especially eager to help small communities fund exercise programs, like those which have played an important role in her MS journey.

"You never know how MS will manifest itself, but the way I manage is by staying fit and healthy. Exercise has worked really well for me, particularly swimming."

May's also National MS Awareness Month, and as the month draws to a close she has some words of advice for anyone affected by the condition, or any changes to their mobility and energy for that matter.

"Don't be angry. Stay active and be out there doing things. Life's just so much better like that."

"And if you know someone with MS, reach out, go for a walk, go for coffee, and be patient. For people with disabilities things can take a bit longer, but they're still every bit as important."

To stay updated on the Spirit Orcas, Susan, and Beacon Hill Park, follow her website and Twitter.


Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to!


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