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    Wheelchairs to aid beachgoers

    Soon a pair of beach-ready wheelchairs will be available at Sand Key Park. Other parks will follow suit.

    By JULIE CHURCH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Made in Pensacola, the wheelchairs are heavier than standard chairs and have larger wheels for use on sand.
    Going to the beach in Pinellas County is about to get a little easier for wheelchair users.

    The County Commission this week approved buying two beach wheelchairs for use at Sand Key Park. Staff at Fort De Soto Park in south Pinellas and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs also plan to purchase similar chairs for their beaches within the next six months.

    Although they are not the first wheelchairs to be used on Pinellas beaches, they are a welcome addition for physically challenged people.

    "Hallelujah!" said George Locascio, 76, a St. Petersburg wheelchair user and advocate of accessibility for the handicapped. "We've come a long way from the days when they advised us to lay snow fences on the sand to pave our way out to the water."

    Clearwater has had four wheelchairs at its beaches for about four years, said Joe Lain, water safety supervisor for Clearwater Beach. They are used almost every day, he said.

    "They have been extremely popular," Lain said. "This is the second batch we've had, and the technology just keeps getting better and better."

    The wheelchairs, which are made in Pensacola, are about the same size as a standard wheelchair but are slightly heavier. They have mesh seats and wheels similar to those used on all-terrain vehicles, which makes them more durable and easier to roll over the sand.

    Two years ago, the Hernando chapter of the National Organization on Disability donated one of the chairs to Hernando County for use at Alfred A. McKethan Park.

    Pinellas County paid about $3,000 for two chairs, said Fred Bruder, supervisor at Sand Key Park.

    "Over the years I've seen so many people struggling to get to the water," he said. "This is something I feel strongly about, and I'm glad we have the opportunity to do it."

    Depending on when county employees finish some signs saying that the wheelchairs are available, they could make their Sand Key Park debut as early as this weekend. The chairs will be available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily on a first-come basis and are free. The chairs are not motorized, and users must find a way to get themselves out to the water, as park staff will be unable to assist them, Bruder said.

    The chairs are designed to be used on the sand, not in the water, said Elizabeth Warren, Pinellas County parks director.

    Purchasing the beach wheelchairs is part of an ongoing effort to make people more aware of county parks and make the parks more accessible to both residents and tourists, Warren said.

    "I just think its a real neat idea, whether it's for a physically challenged person or a spring breaker with a broken leg," she said. "I'm able-bodied, but I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't go down to the shoreline and put my feet in the water."

    -- Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or church@sptimes.com.

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