Why beach days are so complex for me as a wheelchair user

Finding accessible beaches shouldn't be so hard in the Ocean State

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by Alyssa Silva |

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My love for the beach has always been passionate yet complicated. Sure, it’s my happy place. The sound of ocean waves crashing into the shore, the peacefulness that envelops me when I reach the sand and feel that salty breeze, the way the sunshine hits during those early mornings or late afternoons — I can feel myself falling into a meditative state just typing this. The beach will always have a piece of my heart. However, there’s one snag in this love affair: The beach isn’t wheelchair accessible.

Residents of the Ocean State pride ourselves on our beautiful coastline. Though it may be the smallest state, Rhode Island’s beaches are still worth visiting. Just ask Taylor Swift, who bought a summer home here, and the many other celebrities who vacation in our beach towns. (You can often catch a celebrity sighting in Newport!) Its quaint and charming allure adds a certain flair to a quintessential New England summer. But the lack of accessibility often puts a damper on my summer activities.

When I go to the beach, it’s not as simple as parking the car and driving my wheelchair onto the sand. After all, my wheelchair tires wouldn’t be able to plow through it. I’d sink immediately. (Yes, I’ve tried multiple times.) Instead, it’s a two-person job to get me onto the sand. It goes something like this:

My mom goes ahead and lays down a blanket and some pillows for me. We try to stay as close to the pavement as possible so that we can monitor my wheelchair while it’s unattended. Unfortunately, people have tried playing with it in the past. From there, my dad scoops me up, carries me over, and he and my mom lower me onto the blanket. Because my parents are getting older and I’ve been gaining weight, getting me on and off the blanket has been harder on my dad’s back. So my mom assists.

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As content as I am to be at the beach, our routine has some drawbacks. If the entrance to the beach is crowded, or if we’re unable to find a spot that allows us to keep an eye on my wheelchair, we have to find another option. My dad can’t carry me long distances, and the only beach wheelchair available is often being occupied by someone else. But it’s so difficult to position me in the beach wheelchair that I’d rather forgo it anyway.

Another drawback — the one that discourages me the most — is that I can barely see or hear the ocean from where I lie. Alas, I don’t have many other choices. And I’d much rather be at the beach with some drawbacks than not have the opportunity to go at all.

Wheelchair users deserve beach access, too

While I’m there, I often daydream about what it would take to have access to the ocean in the Ocean State. Would it be a pier that led into the water? Would it be Mobi-mats on the sand, a simple yet effective solution to inaccessibility?

In neighboring Massachusetts, I see beaches starting to become accessible, and hope that my small but mighty state will soon follow suit. I can’t imagine the freedom of being able to bring my wheelchair onto the beach. I often wonder if it’s a cause I should consider pursuing.

Recently, I went to the beach with my parents and my brother’s family. I asked my brother if he’d be willing to carry me to the shore since I knew he was stronger and able. His kids had discovered their love for boogie boarding earlier in the summer, and I wanted to watch them play. Without hesitation, he carried me right down while my dad drove my wheelchair back to our van so it would be safe while out of our sight.

It was such a treat being so close to the water’s edge, an experience I felt deep in my soul. And something tells me I need to chase that feeling — that change can be possible. Accessible beaches shouldn’t be a luxury. They need to be a necessity.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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