Beach Access: Itโ€™s Not Just the Law!

Accessible beaches allow wheelchair users to enjoy the surf and sun

Summer is just around the corner, and many people will head to a beach for some relief from the heat. All new public beaches and many existing ones have programs to provide access to all.

Beach accessibility for wheelchair users consists of three components:

Accessible paths to the beach/water.

Depending on the topography, a hard manmade surface can be provided up to where the sand may be naturally compact enough to provide secure, rollable conditions. When conditions are too loose to offer a secure rolling surface, access to the water can be via beach mats. These hard-rubber continuous mats are placed directly on the sand and provide a direct route from the edge of the beach to the water. You find them in such diverse applications as the beaches at Hilton Head, S.C., South Padre Island, Tex., Coney Island, N.Y., and the Lake Michigan beaches in Chicago. The disadvantage of these mats is that they only provide a defined path, limiting wheelchair user’s area of access.

Another way of dealing with soft sand is to provide a concrete apron that also creates a path between the beach’s edge and the water. This system is often used in U.S. national parks. It does not depend on park personnel for seasonal deployment and provides a sturdier surface. Like the mats, it offers a single path that limits the areas that are truly accessible.

Beach wheelchairs.

This approach provides the most flexibility for roaming along the sand. These wide-wheel chairs offer sufficient traction and stability in even the loosest sand conditions. Because they don’t depend on a track, they give users full access to any part of the sand and water. Many public beaches offer them for free.

Travel path from the parking area to the sand and water’s edge.

Elevated walks, bridges, etc. must be accessible. The part of the beach directly in contact with the surf may be sufficiently compacted to provide areas of direct access.

Also, many beaches throughout the U.S. have boardwalk systems that extend for great distances along the coastline.

Due to progressive legislation, enlightened public policy, and citizens’ direct participation, more beach and park facilities are accessible. It is the law—and it is the right thing to do.


Adapted from “Beaches: Open to All” by Frank Menendez, PVA Architecture.


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