ASSATEAGUE – A local family is seeking a way to make beach wheelchairs more accessible at Assateague Island National Seashore.
Deal Island resident Michelle Cawood said she is hoping something can be done to address accessibility on Assateague after encountering an issue with the park’s beach wheelchairs. Last Tuesday, while joining a local homeschool group for an evening bonfire at Assateague Island National Seashore, she had to carry her 13-year-old son, George, who has spina bifida, on and off the beach.
“It’s actually not the first time this has happened,” she explained in an interview this week. “They lock the wheelchairs up at a certain time each day.”
Berlin resident Bronwyn Betz, a member of the homeschool group, said she arrived at the park around 5 p.m. last Tuesday when she noticed Cawood carrying her son to the bonfire site. That’s when she learned the wheelchairs were locked during the evening hours.
“It’s an accessibility issue,” she said. “I feel there should be better accommodations.”
Betz said she had contacted Assateague Island National Seashore the next morning, only to be told beach wheelchairs were available during business hours.
“I explained to them that I don’t find that acceptable,” she said.
Cawood said the group returned to Assateague this week, and a ranger was able to provide a beach wheelchair after hours. However, she argued that a better system, such as a key code or sign-out sheet, could be implemented.
“It should be accessible at all times people are allowed to be on the beach,” she said. “We shouldn’t be excluded just because it’s after 5 p.m.”
Betz said she has also shared her concerns with Congressman Andy Harris.
“The problem isn’t solved,” she said. “If we go there today it will be the same situation … I don’t know how to change it, but I am exploring opportunities to change it.”
In a statement this week, Assateague Island National Seashore Interpretation and Education Chief Liz Davis said beach wheelchairs may be signed out at the Beach Hut, located at North Ocean Beach, during the summer months.
“The Beach Hut is convenient and centrally located to the beach access boardwalks at North Ocean Beach,” she said. “The Beach Hut is operated by the park concessioner, Assateague Outfitters, and is open 9am – 5pm 7 days a week. Visitors may sign out a beach wheelchair for 2 hours. If a visitor would like to keep the wheelchair longer, they may check to see if it is available and sign it out for an additional 2 hours.”
Davis noted that beach wheelchairs are expensive and require regular maintenance. To that end, they are kept in locked wheelchair huts near the beach boardwalks and available for sign out during business hours.
“I am told a visitor called several times regarding ‘reserving’ the beach wheelchair,” she added. “The visitor was told of the first-come/first-serve sign out policy and where to sign out each time. The visitors arrived at the ranger station twice in 2 weeks on weekdays at 5:55 p.m. and 5:45 p.m., respectively. The ranger station staff reminded the visitors of the sign out policy each time. On the 2nd occasion, a Law Enforcement Ranger intervened to diffuse the situation and offered to sign out the beach wheelchair for 2 hours as the office closed at 6:00 p.m.”
In a Facebook post shared this week, Assateague Island National Seashore detailed the park’s accessibility system. Assateague Island National Seashore reports the park offers mobi-mats, which provide a flat, stable surface over the dunes, as well as beach wheelchairs, which can be borrowed for limited time intervals.