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These Wheelchairs Are Helping Disabled Travelers Benefit from the Beach


For Linda Green James, getting onto the beach is often top of mind when she’s planning a summer getaway together with her daughter Suzi Osborne, 47, who uses a wheelchair due to a traumatic brain injury.

But when the 2 stay at a friend’s condo in Pompano Beach, Fla., they typically resign themselves to hanging out across the pool.

During their visit in January, Ms. James was thrilled to spy a beach wheelchair, a tool with chunky, oversize tires that may roll over sand and uneven terrain, that they may borrow from a beach equipment shack. “We had been going to this condo for years, but Suzi had never been capable of go to the beach, simply 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 considered one of your relations can’t join you,” she said. “With the chair, family time is just that.”

Beach wheelchairs have gotten more common at America’s shorelines, due 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 3-wheeled version with a reclined frame lets disabled beachgoers float within the surf.

A lot 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 hundreds of thousands of individuals 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, in response 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 so they travel in regards to the same amount as individuals who don’t have disabilities, MMGY Global, a tourism marketing company, said in a 2022 report.

“Not only is inclusivity the proper thing to do from an ethical standpoint, it’s also an enormous business opportunity,” said Chris Davidson, an executive vp of MMGY Travel Intelligence, the corporate’s travel-market research division.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires all state and native governments “to provide individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to learn from all of their programs, services and activities.” The A.D.A. doesn’t cover the availability of beach wheelchairs, but one other law — the Architectural Barriers Act — applies to national parks with beaches, which should 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 gives guidance on A.D.A. compliance. “They’ve a requirement to supply program access, but there isn’t a clear road map to what that’s.”

Rian Wilkinson, president of Marine Rescue Products, in Middletown, R.I., sells mats and wheelchairs to beaches across the country. “Most cities are making it some extent 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 automobile accident left her quadriplegic, DeBug Mobility Products makes stainless-steel beach wheelchairs, including a three-wheeled floating model for $2,275 and a typical model with a hard and fast leg rest for $2,475. The usual model might be modified with options to tilt the seat, recline the back and elevate the legs, in addition to so as to add holders for a fishing pole, a drink and an umbrella.

“It gives wheelchair users a way of normality and freedom,” said Ms. Deming, 61. “There’s nothing worse than attending to the tip of the ramp and never with the ability to go any farther when all your pals and family are sitting around on the beach.”

Some motorized beach wheelchair manufacturers rent their chairs on to guests at hotels. Sand Helper, one such company, offers battery-operated, four-wheel-drive wheelchairs to people for about $500 per week in Florida and a number of other other states, and $30 an hour in Ocean City, Md. The corporate sells its chairs for around $12,000 — a very hefty sum considering that beach wheelchairs aren’t covered by Medicaid or Medicare.

There is also not less than one manual model that might 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 many more economical options, Wheeleez offers kits to convert a street wheelchair right into a beach wheelchair. Options range from around $300 to $1,000, depending on the dimensions and variety of wheels.

Finding beach-accessibility information could be a challenge. The California Coastal Commission lists not less than 114 locations within the state with beach wheelchairs, several of which — including Imperial Beach in San Diego County and Laguna Beach in Orange County — offer motorized chairs for free of charge. But piecemeal listings by other local governments and beaches require people to envision destinations one after the other.

Some accessible-travel writers are working to fill the knowledge 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 without end,” 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 greater than 50 beaches that provide wheelchairs from Latest York to Florida on her website, Wonders Inside Reach. “After we received our son’s diagnosis, we had to search out recent ways to travel and get outdoors,” Ms. Allen said. “We weren’t capable of find a whole lot of resources to assist us do this, especially with children. I made a decision to share as we travel and learn, in order that other parents might be inspired and enabled to get out and explore with their kids with disabilities.”

On a visit to Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., Ms. Allen was pleased to search out a paved boardwalk and a surf wheelchair. “They’d all of the things we would have liked, but we didn’t know beforehand because they didn’t have it available online,” she said.

Despite all the brand new measures and the growing variety of beaches with wheelchairs — from Texas to Latest 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 visit to the Outer Banks in that state, where she said, “There may be 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 might be still a significant obstacle: “It appears like we’ll still have some work to do to get the chair up over the dunes.”

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