Island beaches aren’t meeting accessibility needs

A coalition recommends simple fixes, and looks at longer-term issues to improve accessibility.


A multi-group initiative, through a survey and site visits, has found that dozens of public-access beaches on Martha’s Vineyard have barriers to accessibility, some worse than others.

A collaboration between Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, the Dukes County associate commissioner for disabilities, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services disability services rolled out its Beach Within Reach initiative last summer with a 27-question survey to beach managers at 30 beaches across the Island, asking about accessibility features at local beaches.

Following a series of site visits, the collaboration produced a number of individualized recommendations, ranging from providing more access to floating wheelchairs, adding new or upgraded accommodations to make it easier to get to the high-tide mark on beaches, and to provide better access at parking lots.

The “within reach” partnership is aimed at supporting anyone of any age and ability having access to Island beaches. 

Although no Vineyard beach surveyed is a so-called “beach within reach”— meaning that it is accessible to people of all abilities, that it would allow anyone to get to the water’s edge, and enjoy the physical space as independently as possible — several beaches are close.

“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, and some higher-hanging fruit that we need to work together on,” said Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard executive director, Cindy Trish. “There are some things we can do as a community to improve accessibility in the short run, and there are things we need to make certain become part of the fabric of the way we make decisions and prioritize in our community that require a longer-term commitment and change.”

Richard (“Dick”) Cohen, Dukes County associate commissioner for disabilities, and trained volunteers conducted the follow-up site visits. The results and recommendations on a beach-by-beach basis are now being shared with beach managers. 

A major challenge, Cohen says, is accessibility to the actual beach, and particularly into the water. 

“I didn’t find an accessible route that is not only a firm surface to the beach, but all the way to the high tide mark, or in the case of a lake, to the water’s edge,” Cohen said. Yet, he notes, as many as one-third are close to meeting standards. In some instances, it means only extending a mat all the way to the high water mark.

Half the beaches visited have beach-friendly wheelchairs, with large wheels designed to be pushed over sand. And only 17 percent have floating beach wheelchairs for the water. 

Trish points out that in general, they may not be available: They might be locked up and need to be reserved, or have a lifeguard unlock them. 

But the coalition believes that large-wheel beach wheelchairs and floating chairs should be available at all locations, and accessible toilet and shower facilities should be available where they exist for the public at large. 

The site visits also revealed that only 53 percent of surveyed beaches have public transit drop-off spots at or very near the entrance to a beach. The others don’t have drop-off places that are close enough to access the beach, Cohen said. “So we probably need to improve upon that,” he said. 

In terms of driving, over two-thirds of the beaches have at least one designated accessible parking space, but not quite half have an accessible route to the beach entrance from the parking lot or transit stop. 

“The solutions, especially in a parking lot, in most instances, are not that complicated,” Cohen said. For instance, the pathway has to be wide enough, and the surface needs to be firm and level. 

Collaborators say there are numerous opportunities for improvements, some that are relatively low-cost and low-effort. Cohen says that across the board, managers could do a better job publicizing features they offer online and in other publications, so that the public can make a choice before going to a beach. Knowing what is available ahead of time would allow beachgoers to choose locations that suit their needs.

“Sometimes you are not going to get it perfect. Some people may be able to negotiate a beach that is only partly accessible, while others need full accessibility,” says Cohen. 

Other relatively simple measures include installing appropriate signage designating current or new accessible spaces in parking areas, and ensuring the spaces are as close as possible to the beach entrances. Beaches could also add signage indicating an accessible route or routes, particularly where there are multiple entrances to a recreation area. Staff orientation or training is another.

Where it is not feasible to do so, they want sites to consider alternative or additional routes. 

Trish notes that the beach managers have been very cooperative, responding to the survey request last year in a timely manner; some have made changes already, such as acquiring beach wheelchairs. 

“There is recognition that this matters, and they are interested in getting some advice and recommendations,” she said.

The coalition is eager to collaborate with beach managers, which may entail offering technical support, helping to find funding, and sponsoring community events where people can come together to enjoy activities at accessible beaches across the Island. 

In its final report, the coalition states, “Other solutions may require more subject-matter expertise, which may exist in-house in some towns, or nonprofits, or from outside experts. Economies of scale would suggest sharing such resources, information, and solutions.”

Coalition members believe that Beach Within Reach is positive for everyone, regardless of age, health, and ability. “This will benefit everyone, whether it’s seniors, someone on a bike, or a parent pushing a stroller,” Cohen emphasizes.

Kate Lefer, program director of disability services at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, spoke about the importance of the three-organization coalition as a model for addressing some of the overlapping needs of the aging and disability communities: “I think that all people, whether they have disabilities or not, benefit from increased access to beaches. The Vineyard has beautiful outdoor community spaces that should be as representative of all the diversity of the Island as possible.”


    • I agree Hess with your slogan. Stop people from enjoying anything this country has to offer including federal and state parks, the ocean and lakes. too many People are having too much fun and they are burning gas to get to these place.

  1. From what I can see, there are a lot of public barriers to the beaches in Chilmark, and in West Tisbury in particular, where they do not open the beaches up to the island. Let’s address this issue as well and make all beaches open to all the public.

    • The beaches in Chilmark and West Tisbury are open to the people of Chilmark and West Tisbury.
      The beaches are owned, and maintained by Chilmark and West Tisbury, what is the justification for opening them to the Island?

      • There are three town beaches in Chilmark. Menemsha is open to the public.
        Vincent and Squibnocket are NOT owned by the town. They are both private property and Chilmark leases those beaches. The funding for the lifeguards and other amenities at Menemsha comes from the sale of the parking stickers for the other two beaches. So the town does provide a public beach at no expense to the beachgoers.

    • Bob–sunrise in the summer is as early 5:09 am
      and sunset is as late as 8:19
      Lamberts cove beach is reserved for town residents
      for 8 of those 15 hours of daylight. The other 7 are open to anyone-
      including dogs. You can even get a nighttime
      fishing permit there.
      From labor day until at least mid June
      the beach is open to anyone during daylight hours.
      Dogs and cats included.
      I don’t get why everyone thinks W.T is
      so beach apartheidic.
      Eric ??? Where are ya, buddy ?

  2. Very important first steps toward accessibility. Vital for the Island beaches, restrooms and for buildings- including MV Hospital!

  3. On behalf of the entire leadership team of MV Beachgoers Access Group, we want to express our appreciation for the amazing work done on the “Beach Within Reach” Initiative. We are looking forward to collaborating with you on the upcoming phases of this initiative. Great job to everyone involved once again!

  4. Public access should also be wide enough so people won’t come in contact with vegetation. I remember reading an article here about the amount of ticks in the grasses leading to the beaches. The person featured lightly dragged a white sheet over the vegetation and the amount of ticks it picked up was harrowing.

    • Clown comment, yes taxpayers to pay to make paths wide enough for the public to access to reduce Lyme disease. Try to keep up Hess.

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