Having been born and raised in South Florida, visiting the beach used to be as routine for me as going to the grocery store. However, losing my ability to walk slowly diminished my ability to walk across the sand, and eventually my ability to swim. I went eight years without going to the beach, and thought it was unattainable for me forever. This was until I discovered two revolutionary inventions – the beach mat and beach wheelchair – that reopened the magic of my native Florida beaches to me again. I’m even more thrilled to know that today, wheelchair users have access to over 30 wheelchair accessible Florida beaches – a number that’s growing every year.
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.
Some of Florida’s state parks offer free beach wheelchairs for use during your visit. Several beaches also provide free access to beach wheelchairs, including the Gulf Islands National Seashore Beach, Briggs Nature Center Beach, Honeymoon Island Beach, Sunny Isle Beach, Sandy Key Park Beach, Oxbow Eco-Center Beach, Jetty Park Beach and beaches managed by the Osceola Ranger District, Hernando County Government Center, Okaloosa County, Broward County, Charlotte County, City of Miami, the Conservancy of Naples and the Naples Parks and Recreation Department. Here is a list of accessible beaches on the Emerald Coast 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 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 (see link below). 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.
Here’s the lightweight manual wheelchair I use: Karman Healthcare S-105 Ergonomic Ultra Lightweight Manual Wheelchair, Pearl Silver, 16 Inches Seat Width
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 the Sunshine State; here’s my list of the top 5 wheelchair accessible beaches 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!
I am paralyzed from the waist down and am having trouble finding hotel rooms with mattresses leval to my cushion on my wheelchair. I am sure I cannot be the only single female traveling and staying in hotels. I will be in Melbourne, Florida on the 15th of this month for the rest of the winter. When I go to the beach I stay on the boardwalk. Hope to meet you soon. Take care. Colleen
Hi Colleen! I always have a problem finding hotel rooms with lower beds. I recently stayed at a Westin in Los Angeles, and I had their maintenance people come to my room and remove the legs from the bed so I could get in it. I recently wrote a review of the Aloft Hotel in Sarasota, and I LOVED it, partly because they had platform beds with only one mattress! I don’t know if all Aloft Hotels have this, but I was so thrilled. I hope you have a wonderful stay in Florida!!
Hi Colleen – it’s only in the last few years that hotels and rental condos seem to go for ridiculously high beds – so accommodation that was once perfect has now bocome a no go area for some of us – why don’t people think of the implications before they make these changes 😔
I know a program down in South Florida that my husband attended last year with his spinal cord injury. It is called the Center for Neuro Recovery. I cannot tell you how much of an amazing place it is to watch my husband after a traumatic spinal cord injury to be able to regain strength, function and control. It’s centers like these around the United States that make all the difference in the world when one suffers a neurological injury. I wish everyone the best and I’m so happy to see That he now has something to do recreationally on the weekends. We’re going to look in the cities that have these beach mats so that he can return to the ocean. This is truly amazing!
Karen, this is wonderful to hear! Thanks for sharing!
I was at Cocoa Beach in November and they didn’t have one.
Hi Brandy! Cocoa Beach is pretty big, and I think you may have missed it. Which part did you visit? http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2016/09/28/race-organizer-will-donate-beach-access-mats-cocoa-beach/91226946/
[…] my last amazing experience on Siesta Key Beach back in December, I couldn’t wait to come back–specifically to spend the day out on the […]
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Do you have a list of the 30 beaches in Florida?
Unfortunately I don’t, or I would have posted a link to the list. The beaches are managed by the different cities/counties, so there’s no comprehensive list created by the state or Visit Florida. For proprietary business reasons, even Mobimat doesn’t want to list where their mats are located, which is crazy. If you do a Google search for accessible beaches, you can get some listings pieces at a time (which is what I got).
Hi Sylvia. Thank you so much for your wonderful and informative site. My husband and I would like to visit the Florida Keys in May and would like to know if you have any ideas or suggestions for accessible resorts,hotels beaches that we could utilize. My husband is a st c.f. Spinal cord injury post 23 years. He uses a Permobile wheelchair . Thank you. If I need to request through your travel agency please direct me to that site. I
[…] One of the most amazing inventions for wheelchair users is surprisingly one of the most low-tech. It’s the beach wheelchair, and it’s allowing people with a wide variety of physical disabilities and limitations to enjoy the sand and ocean in a way they never could before. I’m incredibly grateful that my home state of Florida has really taken the lead in providing these chairs to the public, allowing you to explore more than 30 wheelchair accessible beaches across Florida! […]
[…] spot for wheelchair users. The Sunshine State is known for it’s excellent beaches, and dozens of them have access mats and/or boardwalks that make them wheelchair accessible. Orlando is home to several theme parks, including highly accessible ones like Walt Disney World, […]
[…] occasional conflict. In recent years, dozens of beaches in my home state of Florida have installed polyester beach mats on the sand so wheelchair users can roll safely almost down to the water’s edge. These are hailed with much […]
[…] beaches to me again. I’m even more thrilled to know that today, wheelchair users have access to dozens of accessible Florida beaches – a number that’s growing every year. Here’s my personal list of Florida’s best […]
My son is quadriplegic & has an electric wheelchair.
What is the best beach he can get closest to water,& what hotels are close to water- best place to stay if your paralyzed & need accessibility to wider doorways, room, ect?
Any info you can give me would be greatly appreciated. We will be flying down to Fla.
& have never been on plane since paralyzed . So any and all information anyone has is welcome . Thank you.
My son is completely paralyzed, quadriplegic. I need information on a hotel we can stay in in Florida that his lift can get under the bed so we can use it to get him in the bed. Are there any hotels that furnish Lifts or do I have to bring one on the flight? What is the best airline to use? We have never flown since he’s been paralyzed. Is he able to stay in his chair on the plane, or does he have to be put into a seat that would be very difficult on him . Do any hotels have bariatric beds ? what is a city that beaches have access for wheelchairs? Please any information is welcomed, thank you .
I just enjoyed a lovely afternoon at the beach for the first time in years. I got MS right after 911 and never thought I would not be able to enjoy the beach with with my toes in the sand and water. We spent the afternoon at the Paradise Grille in Pass-A-Grill Beach Florida. They have one of your water beach wheelchairs and I was able to use it for several hours and enjoy the water with my family. Thank you so much for making this product available and having it out there for others to use. Kudos to you and Paradise Grill.
My husband has ALS and cannot use his legs or hands and we are always trying to find Hotels with beds that are high enough off the floor to get his lift underneath. He loves the ocean and so I have started looking for beaches wit these mats so he can get close to the water. Thank you so much for all this information, it is very helpful.