Admit it. The true lure of any sunshine filled vacation is the beach. The whole reason we stuff our belongings into a suitcase, fight our way through crowded airports, and pay top dollar for a shoebox of a room, is for the joy of relaxing on a warm, sandy beach and taking a dip in the soothing coastal waters.
So, what happens if you're in a wheelchair? Does enjoying a beach holiday have to mean admiring the sunbaked shore from a boardwalk or nearby patio? Definitely not!
Many coastal communities throughout America are seeing to it that everyone has equal access to their beaches. Boardwalk ramps, lifts, and even paved paths have been introduced at many popular U.S. beaches. Still, getting a wheelchair over the sandy terrain can be almost impossible, and there is still the issue of actually getting into the water.
The most common answer to the beach mobility dilemma is to use a beach wheelchair. These plastic or aluminum chairs are equipped with mesh seating slings and oversized tires that will not sink into the sand. Although they cannot be propelled by the wheelchair user him-or-herself, they do roll pretty smoothly with somebody pushing from behind.
Of course, trying to bring one of these chairs with you on your trip can be rather cumbersome. Fortunately, beach towns from Rehobeth, Delaware to Honolulu, Hawaii now have these chairs available for visitors to use on their vacations. Lifeguard stations at most beaches can fill you in on the particulars for their specific beach.
Great as these beach wheelchairs are for sitting out on the sand, they do have a limitation when it comes to getting into the water. Because of their lightweight construction and huge tires, these chairs start to float as soon as they come in contact with the water. For somebody who can walk a step or two from the chair into the water, this is fine. But for those who need complete entry assistance, a floating wheelchair can be extremely destabilizing, and has resulted in the chair's tipping over on occasion.
Being a huge fan of the water and faced with this problem, I was able to devise an interesting alternative that may work for many of you as well. What I came up with was the idea of using a stretcher to be carried into the water and then placed on a float.
Standard stretchers, such as the ones that paramedics use, come either with solid frames or watertight slings. Neither is suitable for a water transfer, since submerging the stretcher without it becoming full of water would be difficult at best. Instead, I took the two aluminum poles from a standard stretcher and stripped off the sling, replacing it with a heavy-grade nylon mesh. This way, water could flow freely through the stretcher without it collecting and adding weight.
Assuming you are staying right on the beach, it is easy to have the stretcher slipped under you in bed. Then, depending on your size and the strength of those helping you, 2-4 people can lift the stretcher and carry you directly into the water. Once there, simply have them release the stretcher as they put a flotation mat under your body. As long as the waves aren't too rough you can spend countless hours floating peacefully on the water. It is truly a spectacular feeling of freedom, especially for those of us who spend most of our time either sitting in a chair or lying in bed.
Another discovery I made was that by securing a floatation belt around my chest, and with some balancing help from friends, I was able to stand upright in the water. Quite an experience and new perspective after having not been in a standing position in almost two decades!
The stretcher method turned out to be a success in my situation. However, it is possible that the beach wheelchair, or even some third alternative is better suited to you. No matter which way you decide to tackle the beach, the key is just that: trying.
Sun soaked beaches are a great way to spend a vacation, and just because you're in a wheelchair is no reason to miss out.