“It was life-changing.” – Kathy Chiwah, describing how she felt after her son used an accessible beach wheelchair for the first time.
For the first time, Mobi-mats and ADA-accessible beach wheelchairs were available this summer at Evanston’s beaches, one year after Evanston committed to expanding access to people who use wheelchairs and other assistive mobility devices that can be difficult to navigate in the sand.
Mobi-mats, which are firm rollout mats made of recycled polyester, were in place at Lighthouse, Clark Street, Greenwood, Lee Street, South Boulevard and Dempster Street beaches, as well as its sailing facility. Three beach wheelchairs, two adult-sized and one child-sized, were also available.
Less than expected
Evanston residents could borrow an accessible beach wheelchair, with oversized wheels, for free simply by filling out a form and leaving an ID. Some reserved the wheelchairs in advance, but others didn’t bother and just showed up at the beach to use them.
Two people told the RoundTable they had good experiences. Still, overall usage was much less than the city’s Parks and Recreation staff anticipated, despite widespread promotion. “We spoke with special recreation parents, staff at Park School, hung up signs at the beach entrances, and sent flyers in our e-newsletter blasts,” wrote Tim Carter, the city’s lakefront and athletics division manager, in an email.
But getting people to try the new devices was another matter. Only five people signed up to use the wheelchairs, with at least one of those five — the Chiwah family — using it multiple times.
One family who loved using the beach wheelchair was the Chiwahs. Santi Chiwah was a wheelchair “tester” when it was first assembled and taken to the beach for a test drive, pushed by his mom Kathy (you can read about their outing here). They had a great experience, but an outing in a bathing suit and being able to play in the sand was the real test.
Santi loved it
“As Santi’s gotten older and heavier, it has become more difficult for me to help him get around. But this experience was fantastic,” said Kathy Chiwah. “I was able to get him transferred directly from the car to the beach wheelchair, and then we walked over to the beach entrance and the Mobi-Mat was right there. It’s so light even Santi’s twin brother, Panchi, could push it through the sand. We went right to the edge of the lake. I got Santi out, and he kneeled in the sand and played.”
She said the family returned over and over again to the beach. “He loved it,” said Chiwah.
She said people were impressed the accessible wheelchair was available free from the city. She also said that if another family had needed to use the wheelchair, it would have been easy to share.
“It was total accessibility, a whole different experience than other times we’ve tried to go to the beach,” said Chiwah. “It was life-changing for Santi, and for us as a family.”
Another bonus had to do with Santi’s safety. “I could keep his emergency medicines right beside me, in a bag on the arm of the wheelchair,” she said. “I also loved that it had straps to keep Santi secure. It fit him perfectly.”
The Chiwahs used the wheelchair about 10 times this summer. Kathy Chiwah said she told other families with children at Park School, where Santi is a student, and encouraged them to try it. She hopes more people get comfortable with it over time.
Checking off a bucket list item
Theresa Collins used an adult accessible wheelchair this summer to take a friend, Amy Judge, to the beach. Judge, who has Huntington’s disease, hadn’t been out of her apartment for months, except to go to doctors’ appointments, said Collins.
Going to the beach was on her bucket list, and Collins was determined to make it happen for her friend.
Transferring Judge from her personal wheelchair to the beach wheelchair was “difficult,” Collins said, but once she was seated and settled, everything went very smoothly.
“It’s deceiving because the wheelchair itself is very large with these huge wheels. It looks like a moon rover. But once Amy was seated, it was very easy to push. You don’t need to be strong. My friend was so happy to be outside, by the lake, on the beach,” Collins said. “She even got a little sunburn, but she didn’t care. She was delighted and had a great day.”