Living Well

Wheelchair-friendly Gulf Coast Beaches

By Barbara and Jim Twardowski  |  Photography courtesy of Gulf County Tourist Development Council

Beach ramps, mats and specialty wheelchairs allow accessibility to Gulf Coast beaches for everyone.

Glorious sunsets, sparkling waves, and sandy beaches make for an irresistible vacation. However, for people who use wheelchairs, maneuvering on shifting surfaces is impossible. Communities all along the Gulf Coast have been busy implementing new services so their shores are welcoming to people of all abilities.

Accessible beaches provide ramps or use synthetic mats that grip the surface. Typically, neither reaches all the way to the water because the tides would cover them. To get beyond this point requires a beach wheelchair. 

Karen Deming founded DeBug Mobility Products along with her husband, Mike, in the mid-90s. “At that time, there were only three companies making beach wheelchairs. I can’t even count how many manufacturers there are today,” Deming says. What was previously a niche market has skyrocketed and the Pensacola-based company ships their products to vendors around the world.

Beach wheelchairs have oversized tires that can navigate the terrain and won’t get stuck in the sand. Manual beach wheelchairs require someone to assist the occupant with pushing while motorized chairs allow the user to drive independently.

Many communities provide beach wheelchairs at no cost to those who need them, but they do ask something of value be left as a deposit such as a driver’s license. Others charge a fee. Generally, these beach wheelchairs are available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, some loaner chairs are only offered seasonally.

The best option is to rent one. Companies that rent outdoor gear (such as bikes) often stock beach wheelchairs.

Anyone borrowing a beach wheelchair should ask for detailed instructions on how to properly use it. Some are only made for use on land and will be ruined if taken into the water. Other models roll on the sand and convert to a floating lounge chair when immersed in the waves. Be sure to confirm when and where a beach wheelchair needs to be returned. After reviewing all the operating instructions, do ask for the phone number of someone who can assist you if there are any additional questions.

Beach wheelchairs vary in design. Not every chair has a seat belt. Users might want to bring a long piece of Velcro to loop around their waist for added safety. Some users also prefer to use their own cushion. Most beach wheelchairs are low to the ground and transferring from a personal wheelchair can be difficult which might necessitate additional assistance.

​Planning a wheelchair accessible vacation requires intensive research. Contact a destination’s official tourism office for advice. With advance research a Gulf Coast trip can be a fun beach break for every member of the family.

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