How and where to plan an accessible family beach vacation.
Carol Tabas has taken her four children—including her oldest son, Chet, 24, who has a severe developmental disability—on summer beach vacations for years. She’s rented a house along the New Jersey shore, traveled to Florida and island-hopped on cruises. On one trip to the Florida Keys, Tabas and her kids lived in their bathing suits for a week, basking by the pool and swimming with dolphins. “The most wonderful thing about it,” Tabas remembers, “was that there were a few other families there with special needs kids. We felt so comfortable.”
On the beach, Tabas does worry about the ocean. But swimming is one of Chet’s favorite things to do, so she sits him in a low beach chair in the water and lets him feel the gentle waves lapping and the sand under his fingers. In calmer waters at a Vermont lake, Tabas put two inner tubes around him, tied a rope to them, and let him balance in the water. A beach vacation, she says, “is just such a healthy, wholesome vacation. Everybody feels clean and relaxed, even though they’re exhausted and dirty.”
Any family can have a successful beach vacation with their special needs children. So, before you head out to the beach this summer, here’s how to make sure each one of your little ones has maximum fun.
Research before you go. You’ll want to know how you’re going to get onto the beach, how you’re going to get around once on the sand and how to deal with the water. Renting a beach house may be the best way to experience the beach, and it allows you the freedom to manage your child’s schedule. The beach house on the Jersey shore was ideal for Tabas and her family, and after visiting for a few summers in a row, the community knew them and the lifeguards had the beach wheelchairs ready upon their arrival.
Every beach comes with its unique attractions, not the least of which is the bustling boardwalk. Some boardwalk rides may not be accessible, and when it’s in the middle of the summer season, the throngs of people, flashing lights and loud arcade noises may be overwhelming for some kids. If you’re intent on visiting a boardwalk this summer, Virginia Beach has a wildly popular and very accessible three-mile boardwalk (www.vbfun.com).
No matter how far from home you wander, there’s a beach resort for your family. San Diego’s beaches are more accessible than ever. According to accessible travel magazine Emerging Horizons, San Diego recently received a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to add power wheelchairs to the Coronado City Beach, the Silver Strand State Beach and the Oceanside City Beach that are free for visitors with disabilities. The electric beach wheelchairs are a step up from the traditional beach wheelchairs, which can be difficult to move over sand, and they allow kids using power wheelchairs more independence. Accessible San Diego’s Web site offers resources for planning your vacation to the area (www.accesssandiego.org).
Along the New Jersey shore, Beach Haven has an accessible beach and playground. In south Jersey, Avalon Beach has accessible beach wheelchairs available (www.avalonbeach.com). While you’re in south Jersey, head over to Delaware and visit Rehoboth Beach’s bustling boardwalk, complete with ramps to the beach and “Beach Wheels” wheelchair availability (www.beach-fun.com).
Florida has miles of beach coastline, but try Fernandina Beach, a small resort community on Amelia Island, the state’s first resort area, between the Amelia River and the Atlantic Ocean. Fernandina Beach recently added accessible features throughout the city, including playgrounds, beaches and marinas (www.fbfl.us).
Also in Florida, Vicki Thorp of Accessible Travel in Denver, Colo., recommends Miami’s South Beach for its paved walkway alongside the sand and beach wheelchairs (available on a first-come first-serve basis). Off the beach, the Miami area is welcoming and accessible.
The Puerto Rico Mar Sin Barreras (Sea Without Barriers) facility at Luquillo Beach is designed for wheelchair access. Ramps lead from the parking lot to a platform in the ocean where visitors don’t even have to get out of their wheelchairs to experience the water. In addition to the accessible beach, bathrooms, a recreation area, aquatic wheelchairs and specially trained lifeguards are all on site.
For a Caribbean getaway, check out the Beaches Family Resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos, which have nannies available and are wheelchair accessible. The Secret Harbour Resort on St. Thomas has an accessible restaurant, restrooms and accommodations. Next door to the resort is Carl Moore’s dive/scuba shop which offers accessible snorkel and scuba classes for anyone who can hold a snorkel unassisted.
The Bay Islands Beach Resort on the Honduran island of Roatán, exceeds ADA standards. All the beach level rooms are accessible, and there’s a hard boardwalk that connects the buildings in the resort so you don’t have to manage a wheelchair across the sand. In addition to having the basic accessibility, the resort has a spacious 44 acres and has a dive staff that’s trained to work with divers with physical disabilities so everyone can explore the deep (or maybe just snorkel). One concern, says sales manager Bob Beaumont, is that the airport isn’t yet equipped to handle heavy motorized wheelchairs, so you might want to stick with a manual chair for this trip.
Many beaches have wheelchairs available, but if you live by the beach and want to buy one of your own, check out Landeez (www.landeez.com). When ordering a beach wheelchair, explain your child’s specific needs so you get the appropriate chair.
When you’re heading to an island resort, Thorpe recommends planning backup transportation, whether that means bringing a manual wheelchair in addition to a motorized one, or coming with a list of backup accessible taxi companies to call just in case.
If you’re heading to a beach not included here, the Access-Able.com travel Web site (www.access-able.com/summer_fun) has a list of different beach locations and accessible options at each of them.
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