I haven’t been to the beach in eight years. I still remember that visit to Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast with my then-8 month-old son and several family members. I had already been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), but I could still walk and heat wasn’t an issue on that November day. But fast forward to today where I’m confined to a power wheelchair, and enjoying the fine quartz Florida beach sands seems as unattainable as exploring the red sands of Mars.
Azure O’Neil is one of my closest friends, and she’s a round-the-world adventure motorcycle rider who documents her adventures at My Ticket to Ride. She’s spending some time living in Sarasota, Florida, so we planned to spend a couple of days exploring the coastal city and nearby beaches. I usually balk when I hear the word “beach,” until we discovered that nearby Siesta Key Beach is one of the three dozen or so locations in Florida that have a Mobi-Mat® installed on the sand. So what is this contraption that makes beaches accessible allows wheelchair users to enjoy one of Florida’s finest outdoor experiences?
I spoke with Greg Scull at Mobi-Mat® Deschamps to find out more about these innovative pathways. The mats themselves are made of 100% recycled polyester roll, and are simply laid down over soft or sandy surfaces to allow wheelchair or mobility aid users to walk or transfer over that surface. Mobi-Mat® has actually been extensively used by the Marine Corps Expeditionary Units for the past 20 years, as it was originally intended as a helicopter landing surface over the sands of Iraq. These days, in addition to being used to provide beach access, the mats are also used for dune crossings, in national parks, in cemeteries, over snow and ice, and for special events in uneven areas. Currently there are mats installed at over 30 Florida beaches, including Hollywood Beach (the first one installed in the state, back in the 1990s), Miami Beach, Cocoa Beach, Fort Myers, and Mexico Beach. Greg couldn’t tell me the exact locations of the next Mobi-Mat® installations, but he was able to say we would see more of them in the Florida panhandle.
Azure and I arrived at Siesta Key Beach around 2:30pm, ready for this new adventure. I initially started in my Invacare ProntoAir power wheelchair because I wanted to see if the mat would handle the weight. At the time, I didn’t know that the mats had originally been used to hold helicopters, so the weight of my chair and I combined were no problem! However, as we started moving down the length of the Mobi-Mat®, we started noticing that it was sort of industrially staked into the ground with wooden slats. This caused indentations of the mat into the sand, often several inches deep, and these little trenches were filled with sand that has the powdered consistency of flour. Azure was able to dig out the sand in the first few trenches, but closer to the water they became too deep for my power wheelchair to traverse. I was actually a bit foolish and took one of these trenches at high speed, causing my front wheels to catch and my body to catapult me forward out of my chair and onto the ground. Fortunately, minus some skinned knees, I was okay and Azure and a very nice gentleman were able to carry my back into my chair.
We headed back to the restroom/shower and concession area to inquire about the beach wheelchairs, which would allow me to actually get near the water. The Mobi-Mat® can get wet and they do extend at some beaches into the surf, but at Siesta Key Beach, it’s a good 20 yards short of the water line. After a good 20 minutes of searching high and low for someone to unlock on of the chairs for us to use, we discovered that they stop loaning out the chairs at 2:00pm, and the ones that are already out have to be returned no later than 3:30pm. Azure and I both found this ridiculous since that was prime beach time, but we moved on with a promise to return another time.
Not ready to call it a day, Azure thought it would be a good idea to switch from my power wheelchair to the manual chair I had brought with me. That way she could muscle me backwards over the dips in the Mobi-Mat® with the chair’s large wheels and take me to the end of the mat to watch the sunset. The sun had come out by this time, so we camped out on one of the four mat “wings” that jutted out off the main strip to watch other beachgoers frolicking and enjoying the gorgeous Florida December day. While we were relaxing, we were approached by a gentleman from Sarasota County who oversees and ensures ADA-compliance across over a dozen locations. He wanted our feedback about the Mobi-Mat® and beach in general, so we explained the problem with the deep dips, as well as the unavailability of the beach wheelchairs. He explained that the trenches were not necessary nor related to the mat itself, and were actually a result of an installation flaw that could – and would – be repaired. He was also apologetic about the beach wheelchairs because the hours of operation were controlled by the vendors, not the city itself. We were so happy that he happened to find us after our somewhat jarring experience, and even happier to hear the dips would be removed.
I haven’t watched a beach sunset since well before my MS diagnosis, and I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to do it not only with a close friend, but from the seat of my wheelchair thanks to the presence of the Mobi-Mat® at Siesta Key Beach – and in more than 30 other coastal locations in Florida. So if you’ve automatically crossed Florida beaches off your list of potential vacation spots, it’s time to rethink your options and bust out the bathing suits and sunblock!