A walk on the beach is a simple pleasure, the kind that can be taken for granted. At least by most.
To be steps away from the beach, smelling the salt air, hearing the waves crash onshore and feeling the breeze in one’s hair, yet being unable to dip so much as a toe in the water: that’s an obstacle disabled members of the community face all too frequently.
Responding to a social media petition organized by a disabled resident, the Flagler Beach City Commission Thursday said it was interested in exploring the issue–and will do so in time. But not through a workshop, and “not for a while,” Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said today. “The group was requesting one, but that’s not how it works. The items need worked with the city manager and then when some concepts can be pulled together, it will be an agenda item.”
Donna Lane, originally from Long Island and familiar with its many beaches, moved to Palm Coast six years ago. A year later she was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), which took away her ability to walk and speak. After visiting Varn Park, expecting to see a ramp that led down to the beach, Lane was heartbroken once she saw that the end of the ramp was reconstructed into a flight of stairs after a hurricane. (Varn Park is a county park, outside of Flagler Beach’s jurisdiction. Flagler Beach has its own many beach access walkovers, though disabled access is largely limited to the ramps near the pier.)
“I was so happy heading up, to be stopped by steps. How did they ever think that was ok?” said Lane in an email. This experience sparked Lane’s goal to raise awareness and improve beach accessibility for the disabled, believing that “all beaches should have a ramp that goes out to the water or close to it.” Doing more for disabled beach access “would not only mean the world to me and others disabled,” Lane said, but the beach is “immediately calming. It is healing mentally. It brings peace to your soul.”
Doreen Scott, diagnosed with a rare neurological disease akin to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) said she, “grew up enjoying beaches all my life,” but can no longer enjoy the beach to its fullest extent because she is in a wheelchair.
“There are no ramps that allow me to take my wheelchair down to the water and enjoy what others take for granted. For four years I’ve been unable to use my beaches,” she said. “When you are bound to a wheelchair your world gets smaller, having access to the beaches is mentally and spiritually important. It also allows the wheelchair bound a sense of freedom, inclusion and normalcy. I want to go to the beach and why shouldn’t I be able to.”
This week Lane posted a petition on Facebook to illustrate the minimal beach accessibility for the disabled. With hundreds of reactions and comments, the petition spread quickly, gained 329 signatures and catching the attention of Flagler Strong, a local Flagler Beach community group.
Many discussions under the Facebook posts highlight the pre-existing handicap beach access and aids. Flagler Beach has dedicated handicap parking, a ramp by the pier and beach wheelchairs, which elicit comments such as “cumbersome” or “difficult to use.”
While Varn Park is outside of Flagler Beach’s jurisdiction, the petition to make beaches more accessible for the disabled was discussed in a Flagler Beach city council meeting Thursday evening. Tracy Callahan-Hennessey, representing Flagler Strong, acted as a voice for Lane and other disabled community members, bringing the topic to the attention of the commissioners and city manager.
“I know we are already ADA compliant, but I think we can do better,” said Callahan-Hennessey, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires businesses and governments to ensure that facilities are accessible to the disabled. But compliance can be subjective and have its blind spots. One of the first things Callahan-Hennessey brought to light was that there is no signage, other than for handicapped parking, indicating where the ramp or beach wheelchair rentals are, making it difficult for disabled people to even find an access point to the beach.
Residents addressing the commission mentioned the value of an educational campaign and additions to the current ramp, including new products such as a portable mat that would allow regular wheelchairs to roll further on the beach than the current ramp allows. With the community’s backing, Callahan-Hennessey was asking for a “blessing” from the city to start fundraising towards more beach accessibility for the disabled. “I would like to ask the commission to schedule a workshop. This way we can invite our handicapped citizens to come speak, tell us their needs, their concerns,” Callahan-Hennessey, said.
“I like the idea of the workshop,” Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson, who started his job with the city this month, said. “So we’re working it into the schedule. Right now, I’m in the middle of budget as you know, and I’m backed up, because I’ve just got here. And there should have been a lot more work done on a budget before I got here.”
Commissioner Jane Mealy said she would love to have a workshop, “it’s just kind of out of the blue right now.” Cooley noted his preference for a discussion of the issue as an agenda item during a meeting rather than at a workshop, and for defining the item to make sure it’d have a clear purpose. While the city commission seems to be on board with improving beach accessibility, timing and funding are the main setbacks.
Cooley, addressing Flagler Strong, said the group was “onto something really good,” suggesting local officials will take some action–eventually.
–Terra White for FlaglerLive