Although Florida has more than 800 miles of beaches, people who use a wheelchair have a hard time getting to the ocean because the thin wheels sink into the sand. The solution? All-terrain wheelchairs with oversized wheels.
“The very first person to use one of our motorized beach wheelchairs was brought to tears,” said Stephanie McDonald, manager at Florida’s William J. “Billy Joe” Rish Recreation Area.
“When she actually made it onto the sand and tested the chair out, she did a 360 and yelled, ‘Freedom!’ She’s since been a repeat visitor.”
Duke Energy provided a $150,000 grant to Florida State Parks Foundation’s efforts to make the outdoors more accessible. The grant paid for six all-terrain beach and trail wheelchairs for Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Lake Kissimmee State Park in Lake Wales, Rish Recreation Area in Port St. Joe, Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park in Gilchrist County and Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka. Some of the money supported construction of an ADA accessible playground at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park in Wakulla Springs.
"At Duke Energy, we are strong supporters of diversity and inclusion," said Melissa Seixas, Duke Energy Florida state president. "We are proud to support the Florida State Parks Foundation and the amazing work they do to preserve and protect Florida's natural resources and expand access to outdoor recreation opportunities for all Floridians."
Providing access to Florida’s more than 175 parks fell under Duke Energy’s diversity and inclusion strategy. The company helps groups that preserve and protect the environment and is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We were able to marry two of our biggest priorities at the Foundation," said Sarah Schwirian, director of stakeholder engagement for Duke Energy Florida. "And being able to provide access to outdoor activities to our beautiful state parks and be able to share that beauty with more Floridians and visitors."
Paula Russo, director of services at Florida State Parks Foundation, understands how important it is to be independent. She uses a mobility scooter to get around.
“Duke Energy has been a partner of the Florida State Parks Foundation in several projects,” Russo said. “Many people are going to benefit.”
Two of the all-terrain chairs are ready to roll at Rish, a 100-acre park designed to provide recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and their families. Each chair features two polyurethane balloon wheels in the front and two oversized all-terrain wheels in the rear. Adjustable seatbelt, arm and headrests and a metal foot plate help position the wheelchair user. The motor and battery sit under the cushioned seat. A joystick on the right side controls the movements of the chair.
Guests request a chair from Rish’s visitor center on a first-come, first-served basis. The boardwalk and a Mobi-Mat get guests closer to the water. Once on the sand, park guests can enjoy 1 mile of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline. The motorized chairs are unable to go in the water.
Although Donna Dickens lives almost 70 miles away in Crawfordville, she travels to Rish for accessible amenities such as cabins, a swimming pool and walking paths.
Since the all-terrain chairs arrived, she has visited three times to ride on the sand and the nature trails. On her last trip, at sunrise, she grabbed a cup of coffee and made her way to the water in the motorized wheelchair.
“I realized that at no point in time in my life had I ever been able to independently walk down the beach,” she said, “nor had I ever been that far on the beach independently.”