Inclusive Island: Beach Wheelchairs Ensure Equitable Access to the Beach

A group of people playing on the beach with yellow rafts.

Inclusive Island: Beach Wheelchairs Ensure Equitable Access to the Beach

The beach is a natural treasure beloved by all who encounter it, but not everyone has the luxury of doing so. For people with different abilities or mobility limitations, the beach isn’t always accessible or accommodating. Traditional wheelchairs aren’t made for soft, uneven surfaces like sand, nor are they well-suited for use in the water. Too often, people with disabilities skip out on beach days altogether because of the hassle; they don’t want to inconvenience their loved ones, so they might opt to stay inside while others spend a fun-filled day amid sand and sea.

“We hear a lot of times from people who say that things like, ‘we brought my father to the beach and he’s an amputee, and he just wouldn’t leave the hotel or the rental because it was too difficult to get him out there and he didn’t want to be a burden on us,’” said Walter Hattrich, Tybee’s city marshal. “I don’t ever want that to happen.”

A lineup of beach wheelchairs.

To prevent scenarios like that, the City of Tybee is taking action to ensure equitable access to the beach as a part of their Beach-Able Tybee initiative. It started with the installation of Mobi Mats, which provide a hard surface for wheelchairs, at three dune crossovers. The latest measure has been increasing the number of fat-tired, floatable beach wheelchairs that the city has available to those who need them. 

The city initially had three of these beach wheelchairs, two of which Hattrich purchased himself. The total has grown thanks to a partnership with Savannah AMBUCS, a local nonprofit that seeks to inspire mobility and independence by providing adaptive equipment and recreational opportunities to people with different abilities. 

Hattrich has been a longtime supporter of Savannah AMBUCS and knew the organization’s president Kevin Sheehan personally. So a few weeks ago, he gave him a call, which led to a $16,800 investment by Savannah AMBUCS to purchase eight brand-new beach wheelchairs for Tybee. A few more were donated, bringing the current total to 16. 

All of these chairs can accommodate people of any age or ability up to 350 pounds — and the best part is that they’re available at absolutely no cost. 

“This is 100% free. I think Jacksonville Beach and some other beaches charge to rent these by the hour or by the day. We committed right off the rip that we would not charge a penny for our beach wheelchairs,” Hattrich said. 

Requesting this accommodation is simple. All that is needed is a responsible party with a driver’s license or other form of state issued ID. After a little paperwork, the beach wheelchair is free to use. Requesters can pick a wheelchair up from the Code Enforcement Office at the base of the Pier & Pavilion, or have it dropped off anywhere on the island free of charge. The wheelchair can be kept for the duration of your trip, so there’s no need to turn it in and check it out multiple times during your stay. 

This equipment makes it possible for people with mobility challenges to have a more complete beach experience.

A group of people playing on the beach with yellow rafts.

“With these beach wheelchairs, they can get in the water. They can feel the waves. The exhilaration that they will receive, we take for granted, but it could be life-changing for them,” said Sheehan. 

The wheelchairs are a part of a larger plan the city has to make beach access more equitable. The city aims to host adaptive beach days in the future.

“Our adaptive beach days will be specific events on the beach for people with different abilities. We are hoping to have a cadre of trained volunteers who will be able to take those people to the water, stabilize the chair for them, and allow them to get wet and experience the ocean,” Hattrich explained. 

All of this is an effort to remove barriers because the beach should be for everyone, and Tybee is committed to living up to that. 

“People with disabilities have been marginalized their entire lives, and that group of people has been marginalized for all of recorded history. I really feel like if a city claims to be inclusive of race, creed, color, religion, political affiliation, whatever — if they’re being inclusive, they can’t forget about things like this,” said Hattrich. “We have the Mobi Mats and we have ADA crossovers, but  . . . we can do so much more and provide a very simple thing like these beach wheelchairs. It’s not a complicated piece of equipment or a huge investment in money or time. It’s just this simple thing that we can do to take that one extra step. We should all want to take that one extra step past what the Americans with Disabilities Act says we have to do to be inclusive of people with different abilities. I want to do more than that. And I want Tybee to do more than that. I think you’re quitting halfway if you don’t take those extra steps.”

To request beach wheelchairs or receive more information about the Tybee’s beach equity initiative, call the Code Enforcement Office at (912) 472-5089.

You might also enjoy