by Savannah Vasquez and Jennie McKeon

Everyone loves going to the beach, but for some, just getting down to the shoreline is a challenge. For those wheelchair bound, getting from the car to the shore means finding close parking, navigating the board walk, and finding a wheel chair that will operate in sand.

To get the full scope of what resources and amenities are necessary to wheelchair bound people on the Emerald Coast, Destin.com reached out to The Arc of the Emerald Coast, a local advocacy organization that offers services and development programs to people with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities.

Okaloosa County Lifeguard Dalton Groves delivers a beach wheelchair to an individual. Special to Destin.com
Okaloosa County Lifeguard Dalton Groves delivers a beach wheelchair to an individual. Special to Destin.com

“I have a daughter with disabilities and she uses a wheelchair,” said Erin Thatcher, Community Development Coordinator for The Arc of the Emerald Coast. “We go to The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, where you can rent wheelchairs that can get onto the beach,” she said. “I believe they are free you just have to call and reserve them.”

Besides going to the beach, Thatcher said there are a few other ADA friendly places in Destin that she frequents with her family.

“As far as shopping, the Destin Commons and Silver Sands Premium Outlet malls are easily accessible because they are single story,” she said.  “Also dolphin cruises, most of them have ramps that you can get onto.”

However, Thatcher did warn that finding your way down to the harbor in Destin can be a challenge. Her advice? Park in the parking garage at the Emerald Grande.

“If you park in the main area and not the parking garage it is almost non-accessible,” she said. “Park in the parking garage and take the elevator down, otherwise you will have to go down the steep slopes by AJ’s or Coyote Ugly’s, but I wouldn’t recommend that for someone alone in a wheelchair. But, once you are down there everything is easily accessible.”

As for a swimming pool, Thatcher said the Arc of the Emerald Coast is in the process of building a fully accessible aquatics center that should be completed sometime this summer.

“It will be an actual swimming facility designed and built for persons with disabilities,” she said, noting that the aquatics center will be located on Homes Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach.

For a rundown of ADA beaches from Navarre to 30A, here is what we at Destin.com found out:

Navarre Beach

Out of 14 access points, Navarre Beach has two ADA-friendly spots: Navarre Beach Marine Park and public access No. 10 on Gulf Boulevard. Navarre Beach Utilities Supervisor Terry Wallace said folks also don’t have to miss out on a day of fishing.

“On Navarre Pier, there’s about 12 handicap fishing spots where the rails are lowered,” he said.

There is one beach wheelchair available on a first-come, first-served basis through the Navarre Beach Marine Science Center. You can inquire about the chair by contacting Charlene Mauro at mauroc@santarosa.k12.fl.us.

As you head west on Gulf Boulevard, you can stop at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Beach wheelchairs are available on request. For more information, call 934-2600 or visit nps.gov/guis.

Okaloosa County

This beach chair at the Shirah Access in Destin was donated by the Church of Destin in 2013.
This beach chair at the Shirah Access in Destin was donated by the Church of Destin in 2013.

Lifeguards in Okaloosa County are standing at the ready with free beach wheelchairs available for delivery to locals and visitors.

“We currently have four beach wheelchairs available to the public,” said Justin Cook Captain for Okaloosa County Beach Safety. “They are available year-round.”

Cook explained that the hours of availability vary due to the time of year. For example, during the off-season, which runs from November 1 to the end of February, beach wheelchairs are available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and during the life guard season, from March to end of October, they are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“We deliver them only on Okaloosa Island,” Cook added. “From Beasley Park to Access 7 on Santa Rosa Boulevard.”

To request a beach wheelchair call Okaloosa County Beach Safety at 850-259-4131.

As for Destin, the Destin Fire Control District has three beach wheelchairs available. However, deliveries are limited to the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day and can only be delivered to the Shirah Public Beach Access. You also can venture to Henderson Beach State Park, which is ADA friendly and offers beach wheelchairs.

To request a beach wheel chair from Destin call Destin Fire Control District Station 9 at 850-837-8413.

South Walton

A beach wheelchair sits by the life guard tower at Inlet Beach Access in South Walton County. JENNIE MCKEON/Daily News
A beach wheelchair sits by the life guard tower at Inlet Beach Access in South Walton County. JENNIE MCKEON/Daily News

ADA-friendly beaches are growing in South Walton.

“Prior to this year, we had three spots with beach wheelchairs. Now we have five,” said David Dunn, beach safety director for South Walton Fire District.

At each of the beach accesses, beach wheelchairs are on a first come, first-served basis. Lifeguards can be notified when you get to the beach and will help get visitors from the parking lot to their desired beach spot. Wheelchairs are located near the lifeguard towers.

“The need for beach wheelchairs has really grown,” Dunn said. “We try to help as much as we can.”

As for the 16 beach communities that make up South Walton, Dunn advised to look for regional accesses, which all have handicap parking and accessible boardwalks.

Grayton Beach State Park also is a good option, with accessible amenities such as beach wheelchairs, mobi-mats, pavilions

and campsites.

ADA Access Beaches:

A teen views the beach during a Lighthouse Retreat in 2015 in South Walton County.
A teen views the beach during a Lighthouse Retreat in 2015 in South Walton County.

Navarre:

  • Navarre Beach Marine Park: 8740 Gulf Blvd.
  • Gulf Island National Seashore: West of 7315 Gulf Blvd.

Okaloosa County:

  • John Beasley Park: 1550 Miracle Strip Parkway, Okaloosa Island
  • The Boardwalk: 1450 Miracle Strip Pky SE #206, Okaloosa Island
  • June White Decker Park: Scenic U.S. Highway 98 and south end of Restaurant Row, Destin
  • Henderson Beach State Park: 17000 Emerald Coast Parkway, Henderson Beach Road, Destin
  • Shirah Street Access: Shirah Street and S. 98 E, Destin
  • Pompano Street Access: Pompano Street S. 98 E, Destin
  • James Lee Park: 3510 Scenic Highway 98, Destin

South Walton County:

  • Tower 1, 438 South Orange Street
  • Tower 2, 3486 E. County Road 30A
  • Tower 3, 1931 E. County Road 30A
  • Tower 6, 4447 W. County Road 30A
  • Tower 10, West of 2375 Scenic Gulf Drive
  • Grayton Beach State Park, 357 Main Park Road

Rent a Chair

Here are some local spots to rent beach wheelchairs for the day or for the week:

  • Racetrack Ready Rent – 850-862-3176 (push chairs)
  • 30 A Bike Rentals – 850-231-0959 (push chairs)
  • La Dolce Vita – 850-650-0289 (push chairs)
  • Destin Wheels – 850-424-7278 (push and motorized chairs)
  • The Fun Store – 850-916-4386 (push chairs)
  • Beach Powered Mobility – 800-533-1168 (push and motorized chairs)