Monday, December 28, 2009

Florida beach gets closer to wheelchair access

From The News Herald in Panama City, Fla. Tom Swett of Panama City Beach, left, who developed an electric wheelchair that can traverse the sand, stands with Jerry and Janet Scott outside the Summit condominium in Panama City Beach.

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Beach scooters for the handicapped remain prohibited at St. Andrews State Park, even though city and county beaches allow them.

But a pilot program underway at St. George Island State Park near Apalachicola might change that, officials said.

With the expected opening in May of the new $318 million Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near West Bay, inventor John Swett said the area should be eyeing the money disabled tourists spend — upwards of $1.2 billion each year on vacations.

“The disabled are not going to come here from around the world if they can’t get to the beach,” said Sweet, who was disabled with polio when he was young. “If I’m disabled, I’m calling ahead.”

Swett and his brother, Tom, of Panama City Beach, first developed the hybrid electric beach cart now allowed on city and county sand.

They said they hope the pilot program at St. George — a program using their invention — will soon clear the way for handicapped beach scooters at St. Andrews State Park.

John Swett said he loved the water and decided to develop a motorized wheelchair so the handicapped could negotiate the sand.

“That is whole reason we’ve invested in the material and the research and the development,” he said.

One snowbird couple who has enjoyed the mobility the scooters give are Jerry and Janet Scott of South Dakota, who have been coming to Panama City Beach for four-month stretches for six years.

Without his beach scooter, Jerry Scott said he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the white sand.

“It’s the only way I can get out on the sand,” said Scott, 73, who has not been able to walk without crutches for 15 years. “It allows me to get out all along the beach. I don’t think I would be coming to Panama City Beach without this, or staying quite so long.”

Janet Scott said her husband recently injured his shoulder rotator cuff, which makes using crutches even more difficult.

“He just wouldn’t be able to walk on the sand,” she said. Although the couple enjoy coming south to Panama City Beach, many of their friends spend the winter in Arizona, instead, she said.

The Swetts say another client, Kim Blakeman and her parents, of Kentucky, were turned away at St. Andrews over Thanksgiving from using a customized cart rented from the Swett’s firm, Accessible Beach & Bath Products.

In addition, there are still many hotels and condos along city and county sand where access to the beach is difficult, John Swett said.

“There are some condos that haven’t quite caught up with the need,” he said.

Last year, both Bay County and Panama City Beach tweaked local ordinances to allow the carts for disabled tourists and local residents, clearing the way for handicapped vehicles “operated for the sole purpose of transporting upon the sandy beach a person with an ambulatory disability.”

Previously, both city and county ordinances prohibited motorized vehicles on the sand except for police, cleanup or maintenance vehicles.

In an e-mail sent to the Swetts, Blakeman said: “My grandmother has diabetes and other health problems which make walking difficult. She has very limited mobility and when we came down last year she was never able to access the beach.”

Unfortunately, she found out that St. Andrews State Park still prohibited the vehicles after renting a beach scooter.

“Just wanted to share this with you,” Blakeman wrote. “Perhaps you can assist us with getting the beach scoot out onto the (state) beach where my grandmother would surely take pleasure in spending time out on the sand.”

Jessica Kemper Sims, information director for the Florida Park Service, confirmed the use of motorized scooters, even for the handicapped, is prohibited on state beaches.

However, “we are evaluating the new beach scooter technology and the appropriateness of its use on state park lands at St. George Island State Park near Apalachicola,” she wrote in an e-mail to The News Herald.

“The ongoing pilot project at St. George Island State Park is designed to determine the feasibility and impacts of the use of personal assistance vehicles,” Sims wrote. “The personal assistance vehicle in the pilot program is new technology called a “Beach Scoot,” made by a company out of Panama City Beach.

“It is a motorized mobility device that will allow visitors with certain types of disabilities access to traverse sandy conditions or rough terrain. The beach scoot can be seen at,” she wrote.

Sims said a non-motorized “beach wheelchair” was available free of charge at the Jetty store at St. Andrews State Park and the wheelchair “is used frequently.”

Those wheelchairs are not motorized and “require the assistance of another person to be pushed through the sand,” Sims wrote.