These Wheelchairs Are Helping Disabled Travelers Enjoy the Beach
Wheelchairs with balloon-like tires are available at a growing number of U.S. beaches, giving disabled people and their families more options for fun in the sun.
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By Karen Angel
For Linda Green James, getting onto the beach is usually top of mind when she's planning a summer getaway with her daughter Suzi Osborne, 47, who uses a wheelchair because of a traumatic brain injury.
But when the two stay at a friend's condo in Pompano Beach, Fla., they usually resign themselves to hanging out around the pool.
During their visit in January, Ms. James was thrilled to spy a beach wheelchair, a device with chunky, oversize tires that can roll over sand and uneven terrain, that they could borrow from a beach equipment shack. "We had been going to this condo for years, but Suzi had never been able to go to the beach, just to the pool," said Ms. James, 75, a retired college professor from Brownsville, Tenn.
"It's not much fun to go to the beach when one of your family members can't join you," she said. "With the chair, family time is just that."
Beach wheelchairs are becoming more common at America's shorelines, thanks to laws, government initiatives and growing demand by disabled travelers.
The wheelchairs available at many public beaches either for rent or at no charge have PVC or steel frames and balloon-like tires. A three-wheeled version with a reclined frame lets disabled beachgoers float in the surf.
Most of the chairs need someone to push, but some models are motorized, offering more independence. Typically, visitors may borrow the chairs on a first-come, first-served basis, at beaches or rental shops. Some beaches also accept reservations.
For millions of people like Ms. James and Ms. Osborne, accessibility is central to vacation planning. About 2 percent of the U.S. population uses a manual wheelchair or a motorized mobility aid, according to the 2019 American Housing Survey by the U.S. Census. Disabled travelers account for $58.2 billion of the $1.2 trillion U.S. travel market — nearly 5 percent — and they travel about the same amount as people who don't have disabilities, MMGY Global, a tourism marketing company, said in a 2022 report.
"Not only is inclusivity the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, it's also a huge business opportunity," said Chris Davidson, an executive vice president of MMGY Travel Intelligence, the company's travel-market research division.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires all state and local governments "to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services and activities." The A.D.A. doesn't cover the provision of beach wheelchairs, but another law — the Architectural Barriers Act — applies to national parks with beaches, which must have an access route like a boardwalk or a mat.
"The A.D.A. applies to all public beaches," said Jennifer Perry, an access specialist with the Northeast ADA Center, a government-funded organization that provides guidance on A.D.A. compliance. "They have a requirement to provide program access, but there is no clear road map to what that is."
Rian Wilkinson, president of Marine Rescue Products, in Middletown, R.I., sells mats and wheelchairs to beaches around the country. "Most cities are making it a point to say, ‘We’re A.D.A.-compatible,’" he said. "Even the local beach here has six wheelchairs."
Founded in 1996 by Mike Deming and his wife, Karen Deming, after a car accident left her quadriplegic, DeBug Mobility Products makes stainless-steel beach wheelchairs, including a three-wheeled floating model for $2,275 and a standard model with a fixed leg rest for $2,475. The standard model can be modified with options to tilt the seat, recline the back and elevate the legs, as well as to add holders for a fishing pole, a drink and an umbrella.
"It gives wheelchair users a sense of normality and freedom," said Ms. Deming, 61. "There's nothing worse than getting to the end of the ramp and not being able to go any farther when all your friends and family are sitting around on the beach."
Some motorized beach wheelchair manufacturers rent their chairs directly to guests at hotels. Sand Helper, one such company, offers battery-operated, four-wheel-drive wheelchairs to people for about $500 a week in Florida and several other states, and $30 an hour in Ocean City, Md. The company sells its chairs for around $12,000 — a particularly hefty sum considering that beach wheelchairs aren't covered by Medicaid or Medicare.
There also is at least one manual model that can be propelled by the user: the Hippocampe All-Terrain Beach Wheelchair, which retails for around $4,000 and is manufactured by Vipamat, based in France. Among the more economical options, Wheeleez offers kits to convert a street wheelchair into a beach wheelchair. Options range from around $300 to $1,000, depending on the size and number of wheels.
Finding beach-accessibility information can be a challenge. The California Coastal Commission lists at least 114 locations in the state with beach wheelchairs, several of which — including Imperial Beach in San Diego County and Laguna Beach in Orange County — offer motorized chairs at no cost. But piecemeal listings by other local governments and beaches require people to check destinations one by one.
Some accessible-travel writers are working to fill the information gap. Sylvia Longmire, 48, of Sanford, Fla., who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, has compiled listings of dozens of Florida beaches that provide beach wheelchairs and mats on her accessible-travel blog, Spin the Globe. "I went eight years without going to the beach, and thought it was unattainable for me forever," Ms. Longmire wrote on the blog. "This was until I discovered two revolutionary inventions — the beach mat and beach wheelchair — that reopened the magic of my native Florida beaches to me again."
Jennifer Allen, 39, an Elizabethtown, Pa., mother whose son Jaden, 7, was diagnosed with spina bifida in 2017 and uses a wheelchair, lists more than 50 beaches that provide wheelchairs from New York to Florida on her website, Wonders Within Reach. "When we received our son's diagnosis, we had to find new ways to travel and get outdoors," Ms. Allen said. "We weren't able to find a lot of resources to help us do that, especially with children. I decided to share as we travel and learn, so that other parents can be inspired and enabled to get out and explore with their kids with disabilities."
On a trip to Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., Ms. Allen was pleased to find a paved boardwalk and a surf wheelchair. "They had all the things we needed, but we didn't know beforehand because they didn't have it available online," she said.
Despite all the new measures and the growing number of beaches with wheelchairs — from Texas to New York to the U.S. Virgin Islands — some places remain an "accessibility nightmare," Ms. Allen said, citing North Carolina. This summer, her family is planning a trip to the Outer Banks in that state, where she said, "There is less parking, fewer accessible access points and fewer beach wheelchairs available on loan."
The family will rent a beach wheelchair to be delivered to an oceanfront rental home, but, she said, there will be still a major obstacle: "It sounds like we’ll still have some work to do to get the chair up over the dunes."
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