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Boardwalk opens beach to disabled

"It's a triple A-plus,'' says one advocate for the disabled, whose wheelchairs get stuck in the sand. The county expects the Gulfport Beach walkway to be finished in August.

By KIBRET MARKOS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


GULFPORT -- Angela Watson and her 7-year-old daughter, Gloria, love beaches. But they can't go because a skiing accident in 1988 left Angela in a wheelchair that cannot overcome the sand.

Things will be different for the Watsons next month, when a wooden walkway opens at Gulfport Beach, allowing disabled persons to get to the water without getting stuck in the sand.

"I can only say it's just wonderful," Watson said.

The 110-foot boardwalk next to the Gulfport Recreation Center is the only one of its kind in Pinellas County, said Kathy Lentz of the Caring and Sharing Center for Independent Living, an organization that assists disabled persons.

It is part of the county's Beach Renourishment Project, which coastal coordinator Jim Terry says provides "structural improvement to protect beaches, such as building jetties, and protecting beach vegetation." Funding comes from the tourist development tax, predominantly a tax on local hotels, motels, campsites and condominiums.

Seaway Marine Construction Inc. of St. Petersburg has been working on the structure for two months. The city expects the walkway to open in two to three weeks.

The Caring and Sharing Center for Independent Living intends to have an office at the city's recreation center.

The center plans to organize activities there for the disabled in connection with the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, "and water sports will certainly be a possibility," said Douglas Town, the public liaison at the center. "Our organization is consumer-controlled. If consumers are interested in water sports, we will go ahead with it."

"It's a triple A-plus," George Locascio said of the walkover. He has been paralyzed for 55 years and is an active advocate of access for disabled persons. "It's the kind of thing that we would like to see done by those in charge without us having to beg for it."

The walkway will especially benefit younger people with disabilities, he said. "How frustrating would it be for a child whose friends go to the beach but he can't go because he's not able to get across the sand?"

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