2005-01-14 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

About twelve years ago, I had an accident in front of my friend’s house. One of my daughters and I were walking home from the beach when I tripped over an uneven sidewalk (one of the cement flags was raised by the roots of a nearby tree pushing it up). I landed in the classic “parachute position” (face down, hands spread outward, etc.). Luckily, my face encountered very little of the cement during impact, but my left knee took the worst of the fall. Hardly able to get up and walk, my neighbor allowed me to enter her house and use her washroom so I could fully inspect the damage. I must have been in there for half an hour and worried my neighbor. I could hardly move as the swelling set in. The pain was beyond belief. My little girl was busily playing with my neighbor’s son so, thankfully, she had no idea how hurt I was. That was until the trip to the orthopedist’s office the next day. I was diagnosed with a fracture of the tibial plateau of my left leg. The pain was bad, the wounds looked worse and the swelling was worst of all! Of course, this had to happen a week before the start of school and none of the back-to-school shopping was done. So what does an injured mom do when her three girls need all their back-to-school necessities? Rent a wheelchair so the hubby can push her around all the malls!

So here we go, to the local mall, all five of us in tow. After taking my heavy-duty pain medication, Al raises the leg portion of the wheelchair so my knee and knee immobilizer can be elevated. Al is patient enough to go all through this rather than risk going to the store on his own and buying all the wrong things, making his girls look like clowns rather than little girls. I truly did appreciate that!

My experience with my short-term handicap was an eye opening experience. This accident also coincided with the new Americans With Disabilities Act implementation, so this trip also served as a lesson in law as well. There were few, if any signs to allow a wheelchair bound person to see above the racks of clothes in the store for some sort of orientation to place and direction. The only business entity that had a sign on the ceiling for directions was McDonald’s. The wheelchair could not fit through aisles with racks close together. Neither could we access any bathrooms, except McDonald’s. The dressing rooms weren’t accommodating nor the shelves where I had to reach for things. The frustration of shopping was mounting. By the end of the day, I totally broke down. I wasn’t full of self-pity. I knew I would be out of the wheelchair in a few weeks. I was more concerned about those individuals who used a wheelchair or other assistive devices on a daily basis just to survive. How do they manage ramps, elevators, shopping, visiting, etc?

Now, thirteen years later, many things have changed and many things still need to change. Please imagine the following scenario. A person with a disability or elderly person drives to an area of the beach with off-beach parking and dune walkover access.  There is proper signage to mark these areas now, whereas in the past signage was pulled down as fast as it was erected. There is adequate off-beach parking with a disabled parking area next to the dune walkover. The parking surface is hard and level and is properly maintained to ensure an even surface. Dune walkovers with stairs have been modified and well-maintained. The dune walkover is wide enough to allow the passage of a wheelchair with a graded ramp on both ends. As the person with a disability or elderly person reaches the end of the dune walkover, on the seaward side there is still approximately 50 to 75 feet of loose sand and debris to travel over to get to the water’s edge. Crossing this distance unassisted via a cane, walker, or wheelchair is nearly impossible. Individuals with disabilities and elderly persons do not travel to the beach to view it from afar, they travel there to enjoy all parts of the beach, particularly to the water’s edge where the hard packed sand meets the Atlantic Ocean. Every time people with disabilities are limited by the lack of access, it also limits their family or friends with whom they are traveling or recreating. Driving this point home, I would like to tell a real-life story that I recently heard from a gentleman who represents persons with disabilities. “I can still remember the frustration that a close friend who uses a wheelchair, shared with me when he told me that when his two small children went to the beach for the first time, he had to watch them and his wife from an overlook where he couldn’t even hear their excited voices. That’s not the way parents want to remember those types of experiences.”  I agree, it should not be this way.

One of these days, the parks department will be hit with a lawsuit that denies persons with disabilities the same access to the water’s edge as the rest of the population can enjoy. ADA lawsuits are very hard to fight because federal laws are very specific and very strong. Let’s hope parking access for the disabled increases at the beach as our communities evolve from wasteland to productive, taxpaying entities. All persons deserve the same right to beach access and oceanfront enjoyment.

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