Water Ways

When summer's temperatures soar, it's great to head to the nearest beach or lake for a cool down.

Beaches: Open to All

It’s not just the law. It’s the right thing to do.

More and more, accessibility at national and state beach facilities is becoming the norm. As per the expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to cover recreational facilities, all new public beaches and many existing ones have developed programs to provide access to all. The general public—including people with disabilities—has a right to participate in the most integrated setting. Complete interaction between individuals with and without disabilities is the required result. It must be provided to the maximum extent possible. Beach accessibility for wheelchair users consists of three components:

(1) an accessible surface to the beach,

(2) provision for beach wheelchairs, and

(3) ramping over barrier dunes (if present).

Accessible Paths

The first of these, accessible surfaces to the beach/water, can be achieved a number of ways. Depending on the beach’s topography, a hard, man-made surface can be provided up to the point where the sand may be naturally compact enough to provide secure, rollable conditions. In cases where local sand conditions are too loose to provide a secure rolling surface, access to the water can be provided via beach mats.

These hard-rubber continuous mats are placed directly over the sand and provide a direct route from the edge of the beach to the water. They are found 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 advantage to this system is that it can be stored during winter months or ahead of incoming storms. The disadvantage is that it only provides a defined path that requires the wheelchair-user to limit his or her area of access. Another way of dealing with soft sand is to provide a concrete apron that also creates a path between the beach edge and the water.

This hard-surface system is often used in many of our national parks. Unlike the rubber mats, this approach does not depend on park personnel for seasonal deployment and, given the concrete material, provides a sturdier surface. As with rubber mats, however, it also offers a single path, limiting the areas of the beach that are truly accessible.

Beach Wheels

The approach that provides the most flexibility for roaming along the sand is the use of beach wheelchairs. These wide-wheel chairs provide sufficient traction and stability in even the loosest sand conditions. They do not depend on a track created by mats or boardwalks and give users full access to any part of the sand and water. Many public beaches provide free use of these chairs. San Diego recently received a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to provide electric powered beach chairs in such facilities as Silver Strand State Beach, Coronado City Beach, and Oceanside City Beach. Many other locations throughout the country have similar programs. This system does require a more complex infrastructure for maintenance, storage, scheduling, etc.

Getting There

The third important component in providing beach accessibility for wheelchair users is the travel path from the parking/approach area to the sand and water’s edge. Many coastal areas have protected sand dunes that provide effective measures against erosion and wildlife habitats. These areas are always transverse by means of elevated walks, bridges, etc. These components must be made accessible. While the coastal dunes may be too soft to provide a safe rolling surface, the part of the beach directly in contact with the surf may be sufficiently compacted to provide areas of direct access. Daytona Beach, Fla., and Hilton Head, S.C., have areas in which wheelchair access is available surfside.

The Right Thing

Many beaches throughout the country, whether as a means of protecting coastal dunes or in order to provide circulation for all, have created boardwalk systems that extend for great distances along the coastline. The boardwalk at Virginia Beach, for example, provides a good vantage point for viewing the shore without necessarily getting down to the sand, if that is not desired. In addition, places like Rehab Pointin Oxnard, Calif., have created paved level paths and boardwalks that thread along the dunes and provide access to the ocean. Both design approaches are valid and can provide full accessibility. The determining factors depend on topography, number of visitors expected, and type of coastal asset to be protected. Due to progressive legislation, enlightened public policy, and citizens’ direct participation, we are seeing more beach and park facilities becoming accessible. It is the law—and it is the right thing to do.

Contact: PVA Architecture, 800-424-8200.

Can You Float?

“Swimming” was easier for me in some places. I finally found out why.

In 1953, I contracted infantile paralysis, more commonly known as” polio,” and lost my ability to stand or walk. When recovery began, I was trotted off to the beach on the beautiful shores of Waikiki, Hawaii, for what we now call rehabilitation. My therapy included learning to float, swim, and walk in sand and graduated to returning to dance class. After dance rehearsals, my complaints about leg pain brought a curt and sharp answer from my mother: “That’s just your infantile paralysis. It will go away.” It never did go away. I grew up accepting pain as part of my life without complaint, simply because I didn’t know any better. Crutches became a part of my life for several years between 1968 and 1972. A car accident in1976 resulted in a cervical spinal injury and broken shoulder, and I lost the ability to walk. Overtime this, too, subsided; life returned to normal, and I returned to the swimming pool. We were then living in the Mojave Desert in California.

In July 1989, during an exhibition ballroom dance, my partner missed catching me, and I fell a good three feet onto a very hard surface. I landed back in an emergency room. After this additional blow to my cervical spine, within a matter of months I could no longer walk much less turn my head, and my first wheels rolled through the door. In 1990, my C5 ruptured, leaving me without any movement and in a hospital in Houston, Tex. I underwent surgery in January the following year. Following months of therapy and a barrage of physicians, I eventually graduated to a mobility device. Years later I learned my full diagnosis from the Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR): post-polio syndrome, neuropathy, degenerative disk disease, and another ten physical disorders. TIRR was on target and made recommendations, including a prescription for a power wheelchair.

Getting Into the Swim

Remember when you first entered a swimming pool for therapy at the rehabilitation center? Even though it was more than 20 years ago, I recall thinking; These people must be absolutely crazy! Nonetheless, I followed instructions, ended up in the water, and slowly agreed to attempt to float on my back. Over time, I regained movement but not my strength. Post-polio and neuropathy ravaged my nerves and muscles. It was impossible for me to stand longer than a couple of minutes or walk any distance without falling over. Soon after my sessions began, the therapist was chatting as I gently floated in the water with her hands beneath me, until I realized her voice seemed to be farther away. I rolled my eyes to the side to see her, but she was not next to me as I thought she would be, and instead was at least two feet away. I didn’t hear her usual comforting words, “My hands are under your back; don’t be scared.” Then the reality hit me: I was floating freely by myself! Now I needed to not panic. Regaining the confidence I once had as an excellent swimmer and diver was about to begin. Although I swam daily in a pool for several years, it was a long time until I finally entered the ocean.

During travel in 1999, I recognized early-on symptoms of another cervical disk ready to explode. I underwent surgery for cervical plate fusion at C6–7. This time, I spent five weeks in the hospital, including rehab, before I rolled out. It didn’t take me long to figure out one of my best resources could well be a cruise. My surgeon agreed.” Swimming” occurred unexpectedly while an escort was taking me to a beach in a distant land. After carrying me into the water, he asked if I could swim. I answered affirmatively, not even knowing for certain whether I could or not in an ocean—but trusting the young man would certainly rescue me if I had any problems.

He lowered his arms, and I seemed to just float from him with the movement of the current. Excited, I began soft strokes with my arms, and swam. Fast-forward to 2004. My insistence to swim in warm South Carolina waters nearly ended with drowning. My son rescued me from the swift current after I was dragged along the shore for about a quarter of a mile. He explained I was not “swimming” but rather floating and being pulled by the southern lateral current. Undaunted, during this same trip I ended up going for a swim in another hotel pool, where I eventually sat on the pool steps.

I could not keep my legs down in the water. Long before this particular travel, a friend and I were discussing paralysis as we watched our legs float in water in a Jacuzzi®. I was already well aware of this strange phenomenon—or at least what I thought strange. In summer 2006, I was in a four-vehicle accident. C4 was now in jeopardy, but not even the surgeon who performed my earlier cervical surgeries would touch it; it was simply too dangerous. Technically, I have C5 incomplete paraplegia, but if you take hand and arm strength and neck rotation into my scenario, what does that make me? There would be no more wheelchair racing on bumpy roads or sidewalks for this gal, but I will always respect my mother’s determination for me to have the ability to overcome any obstacle.

Going Under

Three years later I returned to the ocean via a cruise vessel and took advantage of swimming pools on the ship to ready myself for a snorkeling venture near the island of Aruba. Testing swimming skills on the vessel was a good idea; it provided approximately the same amount of turbulence as in waters off the island. The “test” was a quick reminder about finding the necessary stamina to bob myself into a horizontal position in the water in order to swim and know my arms’ strength. Swimming was easy once I was horizontal, even though the current bounced me around. On the second day, using a portable swimming-pool lift and assisted by crewmembers, I accessed another swimming pool. After being lifted into it, I released the securing seat belt and basically floated off the chair, once again taking advantage of swimming in water and gaining more awareness. Most other swimmers took to the sides and allowed me to swim without distraction. There was no doubt in my mind: The first day of swimming in a pool gave me more confidence, the second day provided more stamina, and I knew I was ready for my snorkeling venture on day three in Aruba.

Once ashore and then later on the Red Sails Sports catamaran, I was eager to go snorkeling but did not expect the dramatic difference between the lesser or no-salt water on the cruise ship and the heavier salt content in the water close to the island of Aruba. This was indeed anew concept to me—one I did not understand completely. Why could I swim and float more in salt water than in fresh? With barely any effort, my swimming was more a case of floating with minimal movement of my arms. Snorkeling was a no-brainer; in my previous life I not only snorkeled but also scuba dived. On this venture I was unable to force my body downward to stay under water.

Without wearing weights, I couldn’t dive to the coral beds, even in a reasonably shallow depth. In spite of this, I enjoyed the warmth and sensation of the current—all except not being able to tread water other than by using my arms. I grasped a buoy thrown out to my swim buddy, but then another phenomenon occurred. My legs kept popping to the surface. I was almost in a horizontal position while clinging onto the buoy. Apparently my swim buddy knew what was happening. He reached out to hold my legs down with his hand, but my knees later popped up through the hole of the buoy. At times like this, reality strikes. Hopefully, a person can discover the humor as well as the potential of catastrophe.

Regardless of how well someone who is paralyzed or has regained some mobility can swim, doing so without a buddy is not recommended. Paralysis may equal “natural floater” for many people, but it is not something you can take for granted. You can easily end up face down or even sink “rear down.” The distribution of body weight is likely an important factor. Nonetheless, I still wanted answers for the difference I experienced in swimming pools filled with fresh water or that of salt water in the ocean.

Eureka! The Answer, at Last

The following day, while visiting with Jan Brouwer, a reporter and photographer who writes a series of articles featuring some of Bonaire’s interesting vehicles and people for his column” Bonaire on Wheels,” I finally had an answer that made sense to me: “Sea water contains salt, and fresh water or drinking water (as we call it, ‘sweet’ water) does not—or hardly does—contain salt.

The more solution of salt in the salty seawater, the heavier it gets but the easier it is to float in or even more or less float on. I believe it is the Dead Sea, which is the saltiest sea on earth. I think they named it Dead Sea because life in it is almost impossible because of the high concentration of salt. This makes you more or less able to float on the water. Of course, there is always the life vest or buoy to help control your floating!” I also learned the island of Bonaire is abundant with salt mined from the ocean, and is undoubtedly a diver’s paradise.

Evidently Bonaire’s waters contain more salt than around other islands in the Eastern Caribbean. I wonder what it would be like to swim in the waters of Bonaire now that I know why I can float so well—at least in part. Bodyweight and weight distribution for all limbs and the torso play an important role.

Take the test first, not the plunge, and make certain you have an attendant who can pull you out of the water if necessary when you tire or should you find you can’t float.


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