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Hit The Beach!

Let’s face it, wheelchairs and sand just don’t mix. Sand isn’t exactly compatible with canes or other assistive devices either; and it can be downright dangerous for people who are unsteady on their feet. But that doesn’t mean you have to rule out beachcombing on your next vacation, because there are accessible choices out there. You just have to know how to find them.

Take Rehab Point in Oxnard, California for example. Located next door to the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort in Oxnard Beach Park, it’s the brainchild of Ed Hunt. Ed loved the beach but after his stroke he couldn’t find any wheelchair-accessible beaches nearby, so he created his own. Today a 900-foot paved path curves around the dunes to a picnic area which includes wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and a boardwalk down to the ocean. It’s a great place to play on the beach or just sit back and enjoy the view.

You’ll also find accessible beaches in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where the city has installed hard rubber beach mats at Coligny Beach Park, Alder Lane, Dreissen Beach Park, Folly Field Beach and Islander’s Beach Club. These beach mats cross the sand and extend down to the high-tide water line and allow wheelchair-users and slow walkers independent and safe access to the beach. In short, the beach mats prevent you from sinking into the sand.

Beach mats are really catching on in popularity, as they are easy to install and relatively inexpensive. They can also be found on South Padre Island (at beach access points 6 and 16), and in Ala Moana Regional Park in Honolulu, Hawaii. And beach mats aren’t just for ocean access — several of Chicago’s Lake Michigan beaches also have them.

Beach wheelchairs are also a popular way to access the beach. These specially made wheelchairs have wide plastic tires which are designed to navigate sandy beaches. Plus, if you want to cool off, you can just roll right into the ocean. The major drawback is that most manual beach wheelchairs are not self-propelling, so you need somebody to push you. The good news is, more and more public beaches have free loaner beach wheelchairs.

But how do you find them? Truth be told, there’s no one universal directory for beach wheelchairs, however it never hurts to inquire with beach wheelchair dealers. Since many state beaches, national parks and recreational areas purchase beach wheelchairs from these companies, once you know who their customers are, you’ll know where to find the beach wheelchairs. Some companies, like De Bug Beach Wheelchairs, even list their corporate customers on-line.

Independent access to the beach is also possible in the new Beach Cruzr power beach wheelchair. This self propelled beach wheelchair is powered by two 24-volt electric motors and is outfitted with balloon tires and a high-torque gearbox. It’s easy to operate from the joystick control and because of the extra power it’s a snap to navigate over the sand. Of course, because of the power source, you can’t take this chair into the water, but it’s lots of fun to cruise along the beach in it.

Unfortunately because of the high cost of this model, it’s hard to find on beaches; however you can try one out at San Diego’s Mission Beach. Advance reservations are recommended, however you can just take your chances and show up at the lifeguard station near the roller coaster and see if it’s available. Still it’s best to call in advance as availability varies depending on the season. There’s no charge to use the Beach Cruzr and it’s lots of fun.

Of course there’s nothing better than a beach that’s built to be accessible, like Luquillo Beach, located 31 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Known locally as Mar sin Barreras (Sea Without Barriers) this hard-packed sand beach features accessible changing rooms and showers plus ramp access to the ocean. It’s not only one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, but it’s also the most accessible.

And finally, if you’d like to get a little more active and try out some water sports on the beach, then check out Shared Adventures annual Day on the Beach on July 22, 2006. Every year Day on the Beach volunteers get up early and lay down 160 plywood sheets at Santa Cruz’s Cowell’s Beach to create their own beach city; where participants can enjoy live music, free food and try out adapted water sports such as kayaking, scuba, surfing and canoeing. There’s no cost to participate, but advance registration is required. Space fills up quickly for this popular event, so sign up early. Even if you’ve never tried a water sport before, you’re welcome to participate at Day on the Beach. It’s a great place to really get your feet wet.

If You Go

Oxnard CVB (Rehab Point)
(800) 269-6273

Hilton Head Beach Access Information

South Padre Island
(800) 767-2373

Accessible Honolulu Beaches
(808) 692-5750

De Bug Beach Wheelchair Locations

Beach Wheelchairs in California

Emerging Horizons Resources

San Diego Beach Cruzr Wheelchairs
(619) 525-8247 (reservations)
(619) 221-8852 (Mission Beach — only available when staffed)

Day on the Beach
(831) 459-7210

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide For Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Visit her blog at for access news, resources and industry updates.