The Dukes County Commission for Disabilities, in collaboration with Healthy Aging M.V. and the Island Disability Coalition, is working to make beaches more accessible for those with disabilities and mobility and vision impairments this summer.
The Times spoke with Dukes County Associate Commissioner for Disabilities, Richard (“Dick”) Cohen, who is part of the team pioneering the effort.
As results from the Beach Within Reach survey start to return, Cohen is optimistic and enthusiastic about the effort.
The Island-wide survey consists of questions to gauge a wide range of accessibility issues, like the availability of handicapped parking, the availability of beach and floating wheelchairs, and the existence of a firm and stable, accessible route for wheelchairs from the parking lot onto the beach and to the “high tide mark,” as Cohen puts it.
The Island-wide survey consisted of a questionnaire that was sent to each of the Island towns, the Trustees of Reservations, the Land Bank, and the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (there are nearly 40 public-access beaches on Martha’s Vineyard).
“A person in a wheelchair or with a walker has trouble negotiating the sand,” Cohen said. “The idea is to put features in to enable the person to do so as independently as possible. “
According to Cohen, at least 6 percent of the Island’s population has significant visual or mobility impairments. He suspected the number would be higher if the elderly population were included, and even higher with the visiting summer population.
There is still another week and a half until the survey deadline, but Cohen says most beaches have already returned their surveys. Because of the sheer number of beaches, the coalition decided to start with self-survey, instead of evaluating every beach themselves.
“We’re not necessarily going to sit and rely on those results,” said Cohen. “If it’s incomplete or unclear, we’ll go look at some of the beaches ourselves. We hope the towns on their own will make improvements, which we’ll monitor, and we’ll help them.”
“The Island has a long history of being receptive to people with disabilities, and including them in activities,” said Cohen. “I’m not 100 percent surprised that people are receptive to wanting to do right in this area in 2023.”
The current state of access to many of the Island’s public beaches varies. Some, like Inkwell Beach, Joseph Sylvia State Beach, and Bend in the Road Beach, are fairly accessible, with parking close by and wheelchair-accessible boardwalks available.
Other public beaches, like the Land Bank’s Great Rock Bight property, require hiking a steep trail to get to the beach.
“I have been to a number of the beaches, and there’s a lot of variability,” said Cohen. “Some do have a lot of accessibility features, others don’t have any. Some are fairly compliant, but there are probably none that are 100 percent compliant.”
The survey was sent out to the management at some 40 public-access beaches on the Island to evaluate just how accessible the beaches are to those with disabilities, particularly for people in wheelchairs and people with vision impairments. Survey questions included questions about the number of available beach wheelchairs, how to access them, how they are publicized, and where they are stored. The goal is to make as many public Island beaches as accessible as possible.
Cohen says the “vast majority” of responses from the towns and other entities have been returned within the two-week deadline. “We have actually already seen a little bit of movement,” Cohen said. “People are not only responding and responding quickly to the survey, but beginning to make some improvements.”
Some of the improvements Cohen hoped to see were increased availability of beach and floating wheelchairs, the installation of beach mats or boardwalks, and increased marketing and visibility of accessibility resources for the public.
Cohen hoped towns and other organizations would work to promote these resources to make it easier for people in need of disability accommodations to find the information they need.
“One of the questions we asked on the survey was what do we do to inform people of accessibility features. Here on the Vineyard, there are so many ways to market what’s going on, so that’s something that towns will need to do. People with disabilities have been shut out for so long, their expectations are fairly low. You need to let people know what accessibility features you have,” Cohen said.
Beach wheelchairs, floating wheelchairs, and boardwalks or the trademarked blue Mobi mats are all ways that towns can make their beaches more accessible for all. Cohen said some of the changes they are hoping to see take time. Construction of a boardwalk or the creation of new parking spaces are projects that require some time to complete, but turning an existing parking space into a handicapped spot is a quicker fix, said Cohen.
Other solutions involve the use of Mobi mats, the wide, blue boardwalk laid out on the beach. It’s an inexpensive and easy-to-install option to increase accessibility, but it can take some time to order.
When it comes to assisting the towns and other nonprofit parks organizations with accessibility, Cohen said he is eager to help. “We are not just doing the survey and sitting back, we are willing to help in any way,” he said. “We are willing to help the towns, counties, and nonprofits in any way we can.”
Funding for the purchase of beach wheelchairs, construction of boardwalks, purchase and installation of temporary beach mats, and creation of more handicapped parking comes from special state grants that towns can apply for, and from private donations.
“Often there are major private campaigns to raise money,” said Cohen. “On the island, that can be very fruitful, because of well-to-do folks who are very progressive who donate substantial sums, or a combination. Sometimes the town or other citizens will match donations.”
In the 1970s, Cohen said, if a beach received state funding for renovation or any kind of government support, the beach had to be handicap-accessible. Because of the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), now all places open to the public, whether they receive government funding or not, are required to meet certain accessibility standards so as not to discriminate against those with disabilities.
In the case of the Island’s beaches, particularly those accessed by long paths or hiking trails, there are limits to what can be done. Alternate beach access routes could be created, and current access routes can be maintained as well as possible to accommodate visual impairments, like making sure there are no branches protruding into the path or stumps sticking up in the middle of the trail that people could trip over. Ultimately, it is up to each town how much work they do to serve this community.
“Visual disabilities are often overlooked,” said Cohen. “Disability isn’t one great monolith; everyone is different.”
Towns are required to come up with their own evaluation, separate from Cohen’s survey, to look at everything the public has access to for accessibility, not just beaches. Where there are deficits, according to Cohen, towns come up with a compliance plan. Both the self-evaluation and the compliance plan are available to the public on town websites. Even with the existing evaluations, Cohen acknowledges there is still room for improvement, which is part of the motivation for the Beach Within Reach movement.
“Sometimes even though they are well-intended, they may not cover everything, or not everything is fully carried out, due to lack of resources or lack of will,” said Cohen.
“When you look at the amount of money spent on beaches and trails, the other types of features that nonprofits or towns spend money on for the general population, the amount of money to enable these citizens [with disabilities] to utilize and enjoy these wonderful elements is not out of proportion to what we spend overall on this stuff,” Cohen said.
For those seeking beach wheelchairs this summer, they can be arranged by contacting beach staff. Contact info can be found online on the town or Trustees websites. This goes for all town beaches, both public and private, including sticker-only beaches like Lambert’s Cove Beach in West Tisbury and Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark.
The Beach Within Reach project is led by Cohen, executive director of Healthy Aging M.V. Cindy Trish, and communication coordinator for Healthy Aging M.V. Susan Silk. The Island Disability Coalition was not available for comment.