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Why Our Beach Vacation With a Disability Wasn't Fun in the Sun

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How many times have you heard someone say they need a vacation from their vacation? Vacations, planned for relaxation and family adventures, are often more work than we bargain for. This can be even more true when a family member has a disability. Many places that beckon families are woefully inaccessible for someone who uses a wheelchair. Even “the happiest place on earth” was barely capable of accommodating our mobility-impaired teen. It’s a harsh reality that one learns to accept with time, but acceptance doesn’t make vacationing any easier.

At 19, my son can no longer be carried onto the beach and across the sand. And while we have purchased a variety of wheeled carts and have tried various methods such as carrying him onto the sand via hammocks and kayaks, there is no “easy” way to get him across the large expanse of sand. The undertaking requires at least two adults and necessitates that we stay on the beach for most of the day, as going back and forth requires too much energy. It’s just one of those things we have learned to deal with the best we can, including getting him up and down the wooden stairs onto the beach.

This year, however, our efforts to access the shore were thwarted when the state decided to replenish the beach in front of our family vacation home. After many months and many millions of dollars, the shoreline was rejuvenated with hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of new sand, much to the delight of most beach-goers. In addition to luxurious white sand as far as the eye can see, the development of the new beach included the creation of a 14-foot tall dune (which equates to over a story of steeply graded sand.) The dune is part of an effort to fight beach erosion, and while this plan sounds wonderful on paper, nowhere during the multi-million dollar job was any disability access created through the monstrous wall of sand.

So this year, as we made our annual Fourth of July trip to the beach, we launched a heroic effort to get my son over the dune with the rest of the family.  This proved to be an engineering nightmare as the coordination and pure muscle-power required to pull him over the 14-foot-high wall of sand was nothing short of superhuman. One trip to and from the water was enough for us to know that we had reached the point of diminishing returns: the effort was no longer worth the reward. We fought the sand dune, and the sand dune won.

We made the best of things; we took bike rides while pulling him in his adult-size bike trailer and watched the fireworks from the house. We went shopping and ate good beach food. And while other families were relaxing in the sand and playing in the water, we stayed inside. It’s what you do when left with few options.

Under current ADA guidelines, a percentage of beach construction budgets must be spent on accessibility. And while beach re-nourishment is considered construction under these guidelines, we have yet to see the execution of this condition. One would think this requirement would have been implemented during the construction process over a year ago. But it wasn’t. Instead, a big wall of insurmountable sand lies between my son and the ocean.

Our beach access is designated as accessible by the state because of my son, however you’d never know it.  Maybe they are hoping we will be so delighted with the new beach that we will overlook the fact that we can’t enjoy it.  Or maybe what our child needs doesn’t matter at all. One little voice yelling for help is barely audible beneath the cacophony of voices rejoicing in the oasis of pristine sand.

Majority rules, as they say, and this new development is not entirely foreign to us. The fact is, we rarely find natural public areas that have been modified to provide access for mobility-impaired individuals. Over the years we have acquiesced to things like inaccessible school field trips (such as the year my son stayed inside watching a movie about birds while all of the other students went on a nature hike), and parks with only grassy slopes for access. Yet I find it difficult to accept that the basic pleasure of sitting beside the shore at our own beach house has now been rendered next to impossible.  Sure we can get in the car and drive to the accessible beach 20 miles away, and that is likely what will have to happen from now on, even though we have a beautiful beach right in front of our house. Unlike other families, we have no choice in where we go…accessibility decides for us.

So the next time you hear someone complain about how exhausted they are from their vacation, perhaps gently remind them that at the very least, it was a vacation of their own creation, not one imposed on them by the constraints of their physical environment and the powers that be.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


Originally published: July 13, 2016
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