Wheelchair users know that one of the most effective substances for stopping their movements is soft sand. Venturing off a sidewalk or boardwalk to head for the water can turn a pleasant outing into a frustrating adventure that can even be life-threatening in some circumstances.
I witnessed this firsthand a few years ago on a beach in Hawaii when I learned a lesson about the value of wider tires when crossing sand. On many Hawaiian beaches, the sand is compacted, thanks to wave action and the weight of foot traffic. In other locations the sand is soft, creating a potential trap for unwary wheelchair users.
My power wheelchair has smaller diameter wheels with tires that are wider than some other models. During a break from attending an international independent living conference, I joined my daughter Leslie at the beach. The sand was fairly compact, so I was able to roll closer to the water where we could talk while she enjoyed the sun.
Max Starkloff, co-founder along with his wife, Colleen, of one of the first independent living centers, Paraquad, in St. Louis, was a conference presenter. Like me, Max was also quadriplegic, but he used an older power chair with narrower tires. Unbeknownst to Leslie or me, Max attempted to join us at the beach but was able to travel only a few yards off the paved sidewalk before his wheelchair became trapped in the sand.
He was by himself, and no passerby offered to help.
About 30 minutes later, Leslie happened to look back and saw Max sitting, immobile, with no one around him. She was able to pull his chair loose from the sand and get him back to the sidewalk, but by the time Starkloff returned to the hotel, he was severely overheated. Fortunately he survived that incident, but it serves as an illustration of the potential consequences of being stuck in sand in the blazing sun.
That all took place at a time before beach wheelchairs, with their wider tires, were as available as they are today. Fortunately, thanks to the urging of disability advocates around the world, hundreds of public and private beaches now offer beach wheelchairs to borrow. In some locations, private businesses that rent other items for use by the vacationing public — like bicycles, beach umbrellas and lounge chairs — also include beach wheelchairs in their inventory.
In California alone, more than 100 beaches now have beach wheelchairs available that can be borrowed for the day or checked out by the hour, usually at no cost. Thanks to the nonprofit Accessible San Diego, San Diego County’s beaches have several available. Longtime president Wes Johnson takes pride in pointing out that several of the beach wheelchairs available in the San Diego area were the result of a broader push for people with disabilities to enjoy and access the same features that make San Diego such a popular tourist destination.
Further up the coast, Bonnie Lewkowicz, founder and president of Access Northern California, has created a project called Wheeling Cal’s Coast, which lists locations in the state where beach wheelchairs are available to borrow. “The movement has grown relatively quickly, fueled by recognition of a need, rather than the threat of a lawsuit or ADA complaint,” she says. The Department of Justice has not taken a position on beach wheelchairs, so it’s unclear whether they are required by the ADA. “As more people continue to witness the chairs rolling up and down beaches, undoubtedly many other locations will make those devices available in the future.”
Lewkowicz recalls the first time she transferred into a beach wheelchair. “It was like when I was a child and first visiting the seashore. The feeling was absolutely exhilarating, and completely natural,” she says. “I could easily maneuver among the scattered beach towels and visit any part of the beach that I chose. No one paid any attention to me, as beach wheelchairs were a common sight on that beach and many others.”
The variety of products manufactured for beach use can meet the needs of most anyone with a physical disability. There are even walkers available equipped with large balloon-type tires for rolling across sand and other loose surfaces. Strollers for infants, fitted with similar tires, are also available. Some vendors, like Deming Designs and Hotshot Products, offer parts or kits that will convert everyday wheelchairs, strollers or walkers for use on the beach.
Designs By and For Wheelers
Many beach wheelchair companies are small businesses that do not have huge production facilities, but they share the common goal of helping people with physical disabilities enjoy time at the beach. In some cases, they started in the business simply because they had the skill and saw a need.
Deming Designs, of Pensacola, Fla., was formed by Karen and Mike Deming after Karen was injured in a 1990 car accident that resulted in quadriplegia. They finished the first prototype beach wheelchair for her use in 1994, and since then have branched out to sell a variety of other products. Their De-Bug chairs, designed to be pushed by individuals rather than powered by a motor, can be used both on the sand and in the water. Dozens of beaches around the world have Deming products available to borrow, and they have even been purchased by cruise lines for use by passengers.
Beach Powered Mobility is one of the companies that has Deming products and other beach wheelchairs available to rent. Owner Morris Padgett says the store in Panama City Beach, Fla., rents and sells beach wheelchairs, along with attachable umbrellas. His interest in making beach wheelchairs available started when a friend with ALS built a power chair for his own use, and he witnessed the impact it had on his friend.
Padgett started with two beach wheelchairs. His fleet of rental chairs has now grown to 20, with future expansion planned. He touts the ability of the beach chairs to move across the fine “sugar sand” found along the Gulf Coast that causes even people who walk to sink in several inches. “I was initially amazed at how few people even knew beach wheelchairs existed and had never used one,” Padgett says. “The amount of joy that first ride creates is very gratifying for me, especially when I watch the reactions on the faces of kids.”
The owner of Beach ‘N Wheelchairs of Foley, Ala., Chance Blaker, is a skilled mechanic who began by building bicycles when he was young. He then progressed to constructing electric bicycles and was eventually contacted by a friend from his Marine Corps days who interested him in building a powered beach wheelchair. Since 2007, the Blaker household’s garage has been occupied by wheelchairs in various stages of construction.
Blaker has joined with Eric Wooten, a friend from boot camp, to form The Other Side Of The Dunes, a nonprofit with a mission of donating powered beach wheelchairs to disabled veterans or other deserving individuals with a military connection. This year the group will donate two beach wheelchairs and have established a GoFundMe account to cover future donations. Funds raised will pay for materials and Blaker will donate the labor to build the chairs.
Those donated wheelchairs can make a real difference in quality of life and can even inspire other individuals to “pay it forward.” When Alan Earl, a T6 para who works for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, moved from Northern Virginia to Carolina Beach, N.C., he looked forward to telecommuting and enjoying life by the ocean. Although he could watch the waves break on the shore from his condo unit, frustration soon set in when he realized he could not get across the sand to access the water.
Friends in the veterans’ community shared Earl’s story with The Other Side Of The Dunes, and the decision was made to provide him with a chair. “The sense of freedom from rolling across the sand is very exciting, and I realized that others needed to have access to the same mobility,” says Earl. “I’ve always been someone who believes you shouldn’t give up, but instead you should just do it.” He initiated a fundraising drive that resulted in the purchase of 12 manual beach wheelchairs that are now available for loan at surrounding beaches.
Sometimes They Float
Are there drawbacks to beach wheelchairs? Of course, but they are relatively minor complaints. Some people may find it difficult to perform independent transfers into the chairs, especially those models with seating in a low-slung position or wider protruding tires. A more common problem is there are just not enough of them available, especially when beaches are busy. Often they are available on a first come, first served basis, although in some locations they can be reserved a day in advance. Some of that demand may be fueled by the public finally recognizing that beach wheelchairs are a great way for people with all types of disabilities to enjoy a day at the beach with family and friends.
Some people are surprised to learn that many types of beach wheelchairs are solely for traveling over sand, and not for entering the water. It may be obvious that water would damage electronic components on the powered models, but even non-electric models are only designed to roll across the beach, not serve as boats. Those that are designed to float, such as the Mobi-chair, Sand Rider and Water Wheels, make that feature clear with photos and descriptions on their websites.
Most manual beach wheelchairs require someone to push, but Box Wheelchairs is selling the Beach Bomber, a manual wheelchair equipped with wider tires and push rims for those who prefer to power themselves across the sand.
How much have things changed, thanks to the push for equal access and the widespread availability of beach wheelchairs? Quite a bit, says Colleen Starkloff. “I am glad to see those chairs gaining some ‘traction,’ to use a pun,” she says. “At Innsbrook, Missouri, where we spend vacations, there is a new pool being built with a ramped entry. The management told me they will also install a pool lift and purchase a beach wheelchair to accommodate any people who want to get into the pool and enjoy it.”
If beach wheelchairs are not yet available on your local beach, the following resource list is a good place to begin making their availability a reality.
• Accessible San Diego, 619/325-7550; access-sandiego.org
• Aqua Creek Products, 888/687-3552; aquacreekproducts.com/floatingbeachwheelchair
• Beach ‘N Wheelchairs, 251/978-8051; www.beachnwheelchairs.com
• Beach Powered Mobility, 800/533-1168; beachpoweredmobility.com/sales-2
• Box Wheelchairs, 760/801-6399; www.boxwheelchairs.com/#!beach-bomber/c1thn
• Crosswind Concepts (Freedom Chair), 707/523-7535; www.crosswindconcepts.com
• De-Bug Beach Wheelchairs, 850/478-5765; www.beachwheelchair.com
• Freedom Trax; www.freedomtrax.com
• Global Extreme Mobility, 205/337-3911; www.facebook.com/global.extreme.mobility
• Hippocampe, www.vipamat.com
• Mobi-chair, 800/957-6287; mobi-chair.com
• Other Side of the Dunes, www.facebook.com/othersideofthedunes
• Sand Rider Custom Beach Wheelchairs, 757/847-9338; www.custombeachwheelchair.com
• Water Wheels, 973/955-0514; www.accessrec.com/waterwheels
• WheelEEZ Balloon Tires, 707/751-3999; www.wheeleez.com/beach-wheels-polyurethane.php
• Wheeling Cal’s Coast, www.wheelingcalscoast.org