Mobility mats are coming to Clearwater Beach. This resident hopes more beaches will follow suit
According to MobiMat, about 30 public parks and beaches in Florida have the non-slip, rubber mats that allow people to stay in their wheelchairs. Cost, tides and sea turtle nests are factors in acquiring them.
Thirteen years ago, Clearwater resident Jessica Baker was in a car crash that left her using a specialized wheelchair to get around.
Now, it's more difficult to go to one of her favorite places: the beach.
"When I was able to walk, it was fun," said Baker, 33. "And I was included in it. But now using a wheelchair ... You see people at the beach, you can go out there and it's not difficult. And it would be nice to have something that made it easy for everyone to enjoy it."
Her father, Mike Baker, said it's frustrating that Jessica's family, friends, and caretakers have to stick to sidewalks, and places like the Pier at Clearwater Beach.
"So what happens is you go hang out, and you roll around a little bit, and you look at the water from afar, but nobody can actually enjoy it," he said.
When it comes to accessibility, many Florida beaches already provide manual wheelchairs guests can rent for free, but they're difficult to push across the sand.
Some beaches, like Clearwater, started offering electric wheelchairs with oversized tires that move more easily. But guests who require custom wheelchairs, like Jessica, can't use them.
Another option is a long, thick, non-slip, rubber mat rolled down the sand that allows people to stay in their own wheelchairs.
But those can cost tens of thousands of dollars, require approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife, and come with so much red tape that it makes it difficult for munipalities to even consider them.
According to one popular brand, MobiMat, only about 30 public parks and beaches in Florida have a MobiMat installed. MobiMat reps say the average cost to purchase and install one of their mobility mats ranges from $4,000 to $20,000.
Joelle Castelli is with the city of Clearwater. She said the city is also limited to how far down a mat can go because of high tide and sea turtle nests.
"So it's kind of more of a managing expectations," she said, "as opposed to an issue of not wanting to do them, you know, people will see them, and they will want them to go down all the way to the water, because that's where they want to be."
But the mats must end 175 feet before the wet sand begins, and some Florida beaches just aren’t wide enough to accommodate a mat at all.
They also need regular maintenance. Beach workers must made sure the mat doesn't dig grooves in the sand into which baby turtles could fall. They also need to be cleaned regularly, and rolled up during emergencies such as hurricanes.
Castelli said Clearwater expects to get approved for three mats — ranging from 50 feet to 125 feet — on the beach in the next few months at a cost of just over $18,000. But installation may not happen for some time.
To protect sea turtles, construction activities on the beach must be scheduled outside their nesting season, which lasts from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Ashley Richmond is from a disability access group in Largo called Help Us Gather — or HUG. She's working with local governments to work through permitting obstacles.
"The permitting process itself can be can be slow and tedious," Richmond said. "If you don't fill out the application perfectly, it simply gets rejected. And you have to start over again."
When it comes to the issue of cost, her group has partnered with the Disability Achievement Center and the Forward Foundation, which has written a blank check to cover the costs of these mats at Florida beaches.
"The funding is a big hurdle. And then obviously getting the permit ... So for a lot of communities, they want to be inclusive," Richmond said. "But it's a really, really big uphill battle."
HUG has also a website that will track all the wheelchair access, handicap-accessible parking, and other amenities across the state’s beaches.
In the greater Tampa Bay region, mats are installed at four beaches: Treasure Island, Gulfport, St Petersburg - Spa Beach, and Indian Rocks Beach. Several others, like Clearwater, are making their way through the extensive permitting process.
For Jessica Baker, while the mats aren't the ideal solution since they don't go all the way down to the water, they're still better than sitting on the sidewalk and admiring it from afar.
At Indian Rocks Beach recently, she was able to roll down their mat and get closer to the water than she has in a long time.
"I really enjoyed it. It goes out pretty far," she said. "And I was able to sit with my family or hang out with friends out there."
She hopes more beaches will consider the mats, said it's an “excellent start” when it comes to accessibility for everyone.
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