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How to Plan a Beach Vacation for Wheelchair Users

Coastal communities are helping people with disabilities navigate a beach vacation through ramped and paved walkways, accessible hotels and mobility mats. And beach wheelchairs make it possible for wheelchair users to enjoy the sand and ocean.

Carolina Beach, North Carolina

Ben was just weeks old when he first experienced the beach. When he was old enough, he spent time in the ocean and sand. He fell in love with the sounds, the excitement of each wave hitting his body and the grit of sand in his mouth. 

For the past few years, Ryan and I have been taking Ben on his own vacation, a Beach Birthday. The getaway is all about Ben – what he wants to do, eat and see. Our other sons don't come along on purpose because we want to focus our energy on Ben. (As we get older, we may need the other boys for their strength.)

The first time we planned a Beach Birthday, I scheduled two nights in Beaufort, South Carolina at a Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel was great – walkable to local eateries with a two-room handicap suite. It was also 30 minutes from the beach. The beach wheelchairs were free; first come, first serve; in rough shape, and we could only use them to get Ben on and off the beach. We wore ourselves out.

Hotel beds are an attraction for Ben – the first night. By the second night, he's feeling too comfortable in the room and wants to explore. We left that weekend wiped out.

The next year, we took Ben for one night to the same hotel in Beaufort. Although we knew what to expect, the beach wheelchairs hadn't improved and the one time we went to the beach, Ben only lasted in the ocean for five minutes. He had a blast...for five minutes. All that work for such a short time.

Hampton Inn & Suites Oceanfront Carolina Beach

This year, we tried Carolina Beach in North Carolina. I'd stayed in the Hampton Inn & Suites Oceanfront in the winter and saw how close the beach, boardwalk and restaurants were to the property. Walkways are paved, and the boardwalk has several ramps leading to the beach. 

Carolina Beach Boardwalk

Mobility mats – plastic or hard surface walkways from the ramp through the sand that brings wheelchair users closer to the ocean – are set out seasonally. The Carolina Beach area also has more than a dozen beach wheelchairs available through rental and loaner programs. We reserved one ahead of time for two days and were able to keep Ben seated in it while he was on the beach. It saved our backs and kept him safely buckled in the chair while enjoying the ocean.

This time, Ben made it to the beach twice: 30 minutes on the first day and six minutes on the second morning. He made it clear when he was ready to leave. There was no lounging on the beach or taking in the view: All business with Ben.

Fort Fisher in Kure, North Carolina

We did visit Fort Fisher in Kure Beach on the way home. The paved walkways and boardwalks through the marsh were a beautiful way to end our 24 hours at the coast. 

Michael's Seafood in Carolina Beach – before Ben lost all patience.

Each year, we learn something for the next time and I take notes to remind myself what to do differently. This made it on the list: No eating in a restaurant with Ben. If he's not trying to tip over the table, his impatience comes out in other loud behaviors. Next year, we will focus on ordering take-out and eating it in the hotel.

Everyone's situation is different, and you will know what works best for your family. 

Here are a few tips I've learned which may help you plan your beach vacation.

1. Locate a beach wheelchair. As accessible travel becomes more important to destinations, amenities such as beach wheelchairs are being made available to tourists for free or a fee. Check with hotels, recreation centers, state parks and fire departments to see if they have beach wheelchairs. More companies are renting beach wheelchairs and providing drop-off and pick-up services. 

Beach wheelchairs come in many shapes and sizes but most have large inflatable tires that roll easily on sand. They’re not too easy to maneuver on any surface but they get the job done on the beach.

Not all beach wheelchairs are created equal. Some are made from PVC pipe and have four wheels, while others are aluminum with three wheels. Find out how low the chair is from the ground. If you can ask for details about the style of the chair, it can help determine if it will work for your situation.

I recommend bringing your own lap belt for a borrowed or rented beach wheelchair, depending on the user’s situation. We made a belt years ago with a locking plastic buckle from materials bought at a local hardware store. 

Like newbies, we relied on the one belt fastened to the beach wheelchair. Ben wiggled out of the chair and into the ocean – we don't call him Houdini for nothing. It took all our energy to lift him back into the chair. After we learned our lesson, we added the extra belt, and it kept him secure. 

Ben also wore a personal flotation device the first day, and it saved the day when he willfully slid out of the chair.

Ask how long you can borrow the wheelchair. Some places with a limited amount of chairs only allow you to use the chair to get down to the beach and then return it until you need to get back to your vehicle. Ideally, you want to have the chair for a longer time and not worry about bringing it back and forth.

Ben's chair is always positioned where the ocean meets the sand. Beach wheelchairs aren't meant to take you into the water.

2. Find towns with mobility mats and ramps to the beach. Navigating steps with a wheelchair is never safe and adding sand to the mix doesn’t make it any better. Ramps provide a smooth transition to the beach. Mobility mats also help get wheelchair users closer to the ocean and also show a commitment to accessibility by the park or town.

3. Look for accommodations with the amenities you need. Spas and rooftop bars are wonderful but details such as room size, shower style (roll-in or tub), refrigerator (enough room for medications and drinks) and distance from the beach are more important to the success of the getaway. 

Other questions to ask: Does the hotel have a pool that may be accessed by someone in a wheelchair? How far is the hotel from the beach? What restaurants are nearby or provide delivery to the hotel? Does the hotel provide breakfast? Does the bathroom have a roll-in shower (double-check this if you require a roll-in)? Is there room to maneuver a wheelchair in the bathroom, in the room, to get into the bed?

4. Ask about accessible attractions in the area. When you’re not in the water or at the pool, exploring the local historic sites, museums, parks and greenways leads to new adventures.

5. Feel welcomed by the community. Six people offered us assistance in some meaningful way while we were in Carolina Beach. It felt good to be seen.

Cities and towns making a commitment to accessibility are not just making it easy for tourists with different abilities to visit but they're also raising awareness in the community. Find a destination where you feel comfortable being who you are and enjoying what you like. For the time you're there, you want to be part of the local community.


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