There’s truly something special about a day at the beach. The sand, the sunshine, the sea — simple pleasures that bring so much joy. The beach presents an invitation to both relaxation and adventure, allowing people from all walks of life to have a natural encounter with the ocean in whatever form it takes, whether that’s curling up on the coastline with a good book, catching waves on the deep blue, or simply feeling the sand between your toes as you stroll along the shore. Everyone should be able to enjoy everything the beach has to offer, but for the differently abled, the beach environment presents certain challenges that are barriers to access. To ensure equitable beach access to people with disabilities and mobility challenges, the City of Tybee has teamed up with Savannah AMBUCS to make beach-accessible wheelchairs available to people of all ages and abilities who may need them.
The City of Tybee has been working to make the beach more accommodating to those with disabilities and limited mobility. The first accommodation was the installation of MobiMats, durable hard surface mats that permit wheelchairs to cross over soft sand, which were placed at three beach access points. The latest accommodation is the introduction of fat-tired, floatable beach wheelchairs, which the city was able to acquire with the help of Savannah AMBUCS.
It all started a few weeks ago when Tybee’s city marshal Walter Hattrich reached out to Savannah AMBUCS president Kevin Sheehan. Hattrich has long been involved with the nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to inspiring mobility and independence among the differently abled.
“I’ve always been around the AMBUCS most of my life,” said Hattrich, who has volunteered with the organization and been an avid supporter for years.
As a part of their Beach-Able Tybee initiative, the city was looking for ways to better serve people with disabilities, and Hattrich knew that Savannah AMBUCS was the right organization to partner with.
“Their whole mission is to provide adaptive equipment to people with mobility issues. That’s what I’m trying to do at the beach, to let those people who normally wouldn’t come to the beach come out and enjoy everything and make those memories with their families and do the things we take for granted,” Hattrich said.
So he made the call to Sheehan about a potential partnership and was invited to speak to the AMBUCS board about it.
“He came to our meeting and our members decided we wanted more than just a partnership. We felt like we needed to invest in this program because it fell in line with [our mission],” said Sheehan.
Savannah AMBUCS contributed $16,800 to purchase eight brand-new fat-tired beach wheelchairs, adding to the three the City already had — two of which Hattrich purchased himself. A few more chairs were donated, bringing Tybee’s total to 16 beach wheelchairs. The chairs are suitable for people of all ages and abilities and can hold up to 350 pounds. The fat tires allow the chairs to navigate sand easily and they float in the water, enabling people with disabilities to experience the beach in the same ways that able-bodied people do.
The beach wheelchairs are available now to those who need them at no cost, and requesting this accommodation is easy.
“All you do is come to us or we’ll come to you. You just need a driver’s license or state-issued ID and a responsible party, whoever’s going to get it from us. There’s a little bit of paperwork to sign for it and then we’ll come pick it up whatever day you’re leaving. If you’re here for three days and you need the wheelchair for three days and you don’t want to run it back and forth to us, we’ll let you hold it for three days, four days — we’ll let you hold it the whole week,” said Hattrich.
The beach wheelchairs can be picked up from Tybee’s code enforcement office at 1509 Strand Ave., which is near the pier and pavilion. The wheelchairs can also be delivered at no cost anywhere on the island.
“This is 100% free. We’re not charging. . . We committed right off the rip that we would not charge a penny for our beach wheelchairs,” Hattrich expressed.
He and Sheehan believe that the beach should be accessible to any and everyone, and these chairs will help make it so.
“Everyone deserves the right to feel the beach in its entirety. . . This will now give everyone the opportunity to have a complete beach experience,” said Sheehan.
The beach wheelchairs are just the latest phase of Tybee’s equitable beach access initiative. In the future, the island will host adaptive beach access days for those with different abilities.
“We are hoping to have a cadre of trained volunteers who will be able to take those people to the water, stabilize the chair for them and allow them to get wet and experience the ocean,” said Hattrich, who anticipates that program launching in the spring.
“We have some proof of concept days coming up in the future. The first one will be an AMBUCS day where we’re bringing AMBUCS members to participate in the event,” he added.
Tybee officials are working hard to make their beach community more accommodating to people with different needs and abilities.
“People with disabilities have been marginalized their entire lives, and that group of people has been marginalized for all of recorded history. I really feel like if a city claims to be inclusive of people’s race, creed, color, religion, political affiliation, whatever, they can’t forget about things like this. We have MobiMats and ADA crossovers and things like that, but . . . we can do so much more and provide a very simple thing [like] a beach wheelchair,” said Hattrich. “It’s not a complicated piece of equipment, and it’s not a huge investment in money or time. It’s this simple thing that we can take that one extra step to provide. We should all want to take that one extra step past [what] the Americans with Disabilities Act says we have to do to be inclusive of people with different abilities. I want to be more than that. And I want Tybee to be more than that. I think you’re quitting halfway if you don’t take those extra steps.”
To request beach wheelchairs or receive more information about the Tybee’s beach equity initiative, call the code enforcement office at (912) 472-5089. And to learn more about Savannah AMBUCS, visit savannahambucs.com/.