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Beach wheelchair shows access need

The one obstacle at Double Bluff to the use of beach wheelchairs is the three concrete steps leading to the beach. Here, after her beach visit, Carol Spangler is lifted up the steps by her husband Duane at right and Tom Fallon, parks district facilities manger. Terri Arnold, parks director, readies Carol’s regular wheelchair.  - Jim Larsen/The Record
The one obstacle at Double Bluff to the use of beach wheelchairs is the three concrete steps leading to the beach. Here, after her beach visit, Carol Spangler is lifted up the steps by her husband Duane at right and Tom Fallon, parks district facilities manger. Terri Arnold, parks director, readies Carol’s regular wheelchair.
— image credit: Jim Larsen/The Record

One sees a lot of things at South Whidbey’s most popular beach: People with sun umbrellas, teens on skimboards, adults with sailboards and parasailing gear, dog lovers letting Fido roam free and chase sticks tossed into the water.

What you don’t often see is someone in a wheelchair enjoying being pushed along, oblivious to the soft sand and shallow saltwater at low tide and coasting through salty pools of water.

But such was the scene earlier this week when Duane Spangler pushed his wife Carol in their spanking new “beach wheelchair,” a simple yet effective contraption made of white plastic pipe sporting a comfortable foam seat, umbrella holder, netted storage space and fat, soft tires that make pushing a wheelchair through the sand not only possible but downright easy.

The couple moved to South Whidbey in 1968 and both had long careers teaching in the public schools, Carol specializing in

kindergarten. Their farm was a popular spot for the public to pick strawberries and pumpkins, and Duane later became known and an amateur maker of ancient spears called atlatls who has since modernized into crafting bows and arrows that he sells at local craft shows.

When Carol became disabled and could no longer enjoy walks on the beach, that appeared to be the end of one of her favorite pastimes. But then a couple of years ago while visiting San Diego, Duane saw unusual wheelchairs cruising down the miles of public beach. “They were free,” he said. “Some were motorized, but I would not trust Carol.” She apparently has a love of speed that might get her into trouble.

However, Carol was satisfied to simply enjoy the trip as Duane pushed her along the beach under sunny skies and with the gentle breeze at her face. He said the chair was amazingly easy to push, an assessment confirmed by a visitor.

“This is its maiden voyage,” said Duane.

“For me it’s great,” said Carol, stopping for a second. “It rides very well.” At her urging, Duane resumed his pushing.

Watching with interest was Terri Arnold, director of the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District. Spangler had told her that he purchased a mid-range beach wheelchair costing $1,300, and she was interested in seeing if this was a way to give disabled people access to parks trails and well as  beaches.

“Maybe we could get one and rent it for the trails or beach,” Arnold said, suggesting she will present the idea to the elected parks board. “The ease is mind boggling; it turns with ease and in all terrain.”

The few people on the beach that morning were fascinated by the beach wheelchair. “It’s very cool, very inspiring,” said Jennifer Rice, who was out enjoying the sunny morning.

The only problem was access to and from the beach. It required going down three concrete steps and then back up. It took Duane Spangler and Tom Fallon, facilities and maintenance supervisor for the parks district, to lift Carol and the chair up the stairs.

The only other access to the beach is along the off-leash pet trail, but that appears too narrow for the wheelchair and there’s a gauntlet of driftwood logs to overcome before reaching the smooth, sandy beach.

With the Spanglers having proved the practicality of beach wheelchairs, Arnold said she will start consulting with the county parks department to see if Double Bluff can be made more accessible.

Helen Price Johnson, the county commissioner who represents South and Central Whidbey, wasn’t there that day, but said she will pursue the idea with the parks department. “Accessibility is important, that’s a wonderful idea,” she said.

The Spanglers may have opened up a whole new world of outdoor adventure to people who use wheelchairs. Duane expressed total satisfaction with the experience except for one little thing that bothered him.

“It’s made in China,” he said.

 

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