It’s Not On the Map: Beaches for the Differently-Abled

Not on the map
“Beach wheelchair” by qnr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Difficulty in finding the way

Once upon a time we were trying to map-read a cunning cross-country route between Kent and Oxford without going too near London. Somewhere in Surrey, we got lost. The villages on the signposts just did not correspond with what was on the map – I swear it. Had we strayed into a patch of England that was deliberately concealed from the Ordnance Survey? Maybe during the war, a colonel running a counterintelligence office, had decreed that the locality should be off-map.

Do You Know the Way to … ?

I got the same sensation the other day when trying to discover how to get to Camber Sands by public transport and on foot without climbing dunes. Someone has decreed that the connection between bus stops and footpaths is off-map.

Once we got there, and chatted to a local bus passenger we were shown the right bus-stop and a convenient, but unsignposted, flat footpath through the houses to the beach access area, which includes various beach stalls and eateries, which are probably staffed by the same residents who are happy to conceal the path to them for people on foot.

All the mapping and google searches had pointed me either to the other two car-parks operated remotely and profitably by Ringo (too near the dunes) or to the Pontins holiday camp. 

Kent Beaches with Facilities for the Differently-Abled

This made me think about how difficult it is for families with differently-abled members to plan for a beach trip. In the UK, it is estimated that 18% of the population have a limiting or long-term illness. A local corroboration of this is that some 19% of respondents to the Folkestone survey on the plan for the Town Centre reported having physical limitations.

I googled for disabled and Kent beaches and got through to the UK Beach Guide, which lists 23 Kent beaches as having facilities for the disabled. I suspect this just means toilets for the disabled. Many coastal towns complain of being ‘run down’ and, like Folkestone, have plans to increase ‘footfall’ – an ironic term when it often means just bringing more shoppers in cars to multi-story car parks, rather than truly making it easier for people to get there on foot. Anyway, who are these people, these customers, who might give the town an economic lift?  As already pointed out, 19% of them might have physical limitations.

One category, blind people with dogs, are well served with information, in that the Beach Guide does list all dog-friendly beaches. But, having also visited Rye and Canterbury recently, it is to be noted that medieval streets with narrow pavements and big SUVs roaring past are not dog-friendly, and these towns do not show the most dog-friendly routes.

Providing for Wheels

Another category: people needing wheels (this includes wheelchairs and buggies for infants, and possibly mobility vehicles) cannot easily discover which footpaths are asphalted and which are not. They will probably need to steer to  seaside towns that have promenades. But this does not serve well families that have one wheeled member who also may want to picnic and play with the rest of the family on the beach.

One solution to this might be the seasonal use of tough, wheel-friendly matting on the sand, on a beach like Camber. Not a solution on shingle, or where there are steps to the sea-level. So, does Grandpa have to wave from the promenade while the toddlers paddle down below? Maybe, but the way to make a town attractive for these all-family outings is to have some attractions especially for the differently-abled.

A seaside garden for the partially sighted, for instance, could include both large scale monster models, touchy-feely pebbles, and plug-in sounds of the sea in different weather. For the deaf, it could include video plus vibration or touch reproductions of the waves. Both could enjoy smelly sensations – of different fishes!

Have a Heart!

Another large category of physical limitation is those with cardiac conditions, about 3% of the population in England. Coronary death is decreasing here mainly because of the increased expertise, medication and equipment of the NHS. But heart attacks can occur without warning signs, so a family might be planning a beach trip unaware of the risk to Granny. The RNLI have just installed a defibrillator at the dock in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, thanks to a donation from the British Heart Foundation.

But the UK Beach Guide gives no information about how suitable a beach is for heart patients, although it does state if a beach has lifeguards. The RNLI, who supply beach lifeguards, declares they are experts on ‘sea safety’, so the assumption is that they can save someone drowning, but not someone having a heart attack. They should be urged to add this to their skills and more donations for defibrillators should be forthcoming.

Kent Not Among the Best

Kent does not seem to feature in tourism sites aiming to appeal to the differently-abled. The sites for wheelchair travelling and tourism for all chart the best beaches in the UK: Skegness, which rates low in some other travel sites, scores top marks for disability provision.

It is interesting to note from such sites which features are praised and which could easily be copied in Kent. For instance, if some beach-huts feature an electricity outlet, it is easier to recharge mobility equipment. Sand wheelchairs can readily be made available for hire.

Needed: Joined-Up Talking

What is needed is imagination and joined-up thinking. There is enormous expertise among the care staff employed by KCC to assist those with special needs. But are they systematically consulted by planners and developers?

Even if disability provision is on a planner’s tick list, the range of possibilities is not readily understood by those who have never had family experiences. Also the mindset needs to change from thinking of provision reluctantly as just for the disadvantaged, to thinking of this as an opportunity for 19% of potential customers.

It’s Not On the Map – Time for Action!

It is time to actively gather the information that will assist in attracting these – whether it be information about footpaths, sign-posting, sand wheelchair hire, sensory gardens or whatever. If these things are off-map, then how can more diverse families join in the holiday-making trips to Kent beaches?