Providing Access to Beaches

Providing access to beaches enables people with disabilities and their friends and family to enjoy a time honored vacationing tradition.

A beach is a designated area along a shore providing pedestrian entry for the purpose of water play, swimming or other water shoreline activities. Coastal areas, inland lakes, ponds, and rivers all have beaches. However, beach is not synonymous with sand. Soil, gravel, grass and other surfaces are found along shorelines and are also considered to be beaches. Due to the dynamic nature of shorelines, the surface is generally not firm and stable and therefore may not be accessible. This monograph addresses this and other issues involving access to beaches for people with disabilities.


Access to beaches for people with disabilities is a complicated issue due to the ever-changing nature of shoreline surfaces. Standards such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) address access to the built environment, however at the time of adoption in 1991 did not provide provisions regarding outdoor environments. These “bricks and mortar” guidelines do not easily translate to the outdoors where there is less development. In the built environment, the goal is to build to suit the owner whereas in the outdoors, preserving the natural environment is part of the desired experience. For example, in the built environment, acceptable procedures include bulldozing a lot and constructing a new building to provide goods and services. However in the natural environment, the purpose is not perhaps to cut down the trees but to enjoy their shade or to protect their very existence.

The U. S. Access Board, the independent federal agency designated to develop accessibility guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Architectural Barriers Act, has responded to the need for guidelines addressing outdoor environments. In 1993 the Access Board established a Recreation Access Advisory Committee to develop proposed accessibility guidelines for recreation environments and outdoor developed areas.

As the proposed accessibility guidelines for recreation and outdoor developed areas (trail, beaches, picnic areas, and campgrounds) were put forth, many proposed guidelines drew intense public comment. As a result, the Access Board in turn created a Federal Regulatory Negotiation Committee on Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas. The Federal Regulatory Negotiating Committee had a difficult task of coming to consensus on guidelines for trails, beaches, picnic areas and camping facilities. The result is the Outdoor Developed Areas Report (Sept 1999).

Currently, the Access Board is preparing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) based on the Regulatory Negotiation Committee’s report. Once published, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will be available for public comment and then published as a final rule. As a final rule, the guidelines will be adopted by the Department of Justice. Although the rulemaking process has not been completed at the writing of this monograph, the Outdoor Developed Areas Report is currently the best available information for accessibility to beaches.

Scoping & Technical Provisions
The following features of beaches are addressed in the Outdoor Developed Areas Report put forth by the Federal Regulatory Negotiating Committee:
  • New Beaches Vs. Existing Beaches
  • Surface
  • Clear Tread Width
  • Passing Space
  • Openings
  • Protruding Objects
  • Maneuvering/Resting Space
  • Slopes
  • Change in Level
  • Edge Protection

Beach Access Route

A beach access route is a continuous unobstructed path designated only for pedestrian use that crosses the surface of the beach. A beach access route must be provided in the same area as the general circulation path to the maximum extent feasible. An access route for the built environment and a beach access route differ in that an access route for the built environment has more stringent requirements. For example, the maximum running slope of an access route is 1:20. A beach access route allows steeper slopes for short distances.

New Beaches vs. Existing Beaches

    There are two scoping provisions regarding beach access routes. The first addresses new beaches. A new beach is a constructed beach where none previously existed through the importing of a beach surface. New beaches require a minimum of one beach access route for every one half mile of linear feet of new beach. The access route should extend to the high tide level, mean riverbed level, or the normal recreation pool level. The second scoping provision refers to existing beaches. Beach access routes for existing beaches should be where a pedestrian access route is provided from a developed site to the edge of an existing beach surface and extend to the high tide level, mean riverbed level or the normal recreation pool level. There has been some controversy regarding the chosen terminology for this section. For example, the term “mean riverbed level” is not recognized by some resource management professionals. NCA strongly encourages professionals to gather comments and suggestions to submit to the Access Board during the NPRM.
Proposed exceptions for beach access routes on new beaches or existing beaches include the following:
  • A temporary beach access route is permitted. This can be achieved by using a temporary surface. However, the temporary surface must be available during all hours of operation (anytime the beach is open to the public).
  • Routes that are created solely for the purpose of shoreline maintenance are not required to be accessible.
  • Routes that are provided solely as undeveloped public easement are not required to comply.
  • If another beach access route is located within one half mile and in the same jurisdiction.
  • When existing beaches are replenished for beach nourishment, the alterations provisions are not applicable
  • When pedestrian route is six inches or higher above beach surface. (This has been another area of controversy in that sand can fluctuate six inches rapidly depending on the wind.)
    The surface of the beach access route is to be firm and stable. The ADAAG requirement for surfaces to be slip resistant is omitted in the outdoor environment. Firmness refers to how much the surface compresses when pressure is applied and stability refers to the horizontal displacement of the surface when for example, twisting of the foot occurs. Firmness and stability can be measured with a rotational penetrometer, a device designed by Beneficial Designs. The rotational penetrometer uses a spring-loaded device connected to a caster that when lowered simulates the force of a wheelchair on the surface. The amount of penetration of the caster into the surface reflects the firmness measurement. The caster is then rotated back and forth to measure the stability. The measurements are read from a digital caliper. The material used for a surface should be aesthetically pleasing and not of a material that gets hot from sitting in the sun. Accessibility should not detract from the nature of the experience. Although natural beach surfaces are generally not accessible, they are still part of the beach experience, and should be preserved to the greatest extent possible.
Clear Tread Width
    Clear tread width is the measurement of the unobstructed width of the accessible route. The minimum for clear tread width is 36 inches. This allows for the width of a wheelchair to comfortably travel along the route. However, keep in mind the average wheelchair is 28 inches wide, this does not provide enough room for a person to pass by or to walk alongside a person who uses a wheelchair. Therefore, 60 inches is recommended to offer plenty of space for visitors to walk together and pass other visitors.
Passing Space
    Passing space enables people who use wheelchairs, other assistive devices or are simply carrying all their beach gear to comfortably pass other visitors who are traveling along the same route. Where the clear width of the beach access route is less than 60 inches, every 200 feet a passing space of a minimum of 60 inches or a T-shaped space providing a 60 inch in diameter turning space must be provided. The arms and stem of the T-shaped space must extend at least 48 inches beyond the intersection.


    Openings refer to spaces in surfaces where a cane or wheelchair caster may become stuck or cause a tripping hazard. For example, wooden boardwalks have openings between each board, if the openings are too wide, a person with a mobility device may have difficulty traversing along the route. The openings must be no larger than 1/2 inch elongated. Elongated openings are to be placed so that the long dimension is perpendicular or diagonal to the direction of travel. This prevents the wheels or casters of mobility devices from getting caught in the spaces. Elongated openings are permitted to run parallel to the direction of travel where the opening does not permit the passage of one-quarter inch sphere.
Protruding Objects
    The requirements for protruding objects are based on standard cane techniques used by people with vision impairments. A person who is blind or visually impaired and uses a cane for orientation and mobility utilizes the combination of the angle of the cane and a sweeping motion from side to side in front of him while walking to detect obstacles in his path. The standard sweep of canes allows detection of objects with leading edges up to 27 inches from the floor. Overhead objects are also not cane detectable and therefore should not hang in the path of travel. Based on this, objects projecting from walls with leading edges between 27-80 inches above the floor cannot protrude more than 4 inches. This prevents a person who is blind from running into the object by keeping the object in a cane detectable area, or above their head.
Maneuvering/Resting Space
    Space enabling a person who uses a wheelchair to turn around or rest if needed is referred to as maneuvering space. Maneuvering space must be provided at the high tide level, mean riverbed level, normal recreation water level, or end of the beach access route. Maneuvering space cannot overlap with the beach access route and must be a minimum of 60 inches, or an intersection of two walking surfaces providing a T-shaped space mentioned such as discussed in passing space. An additional use for this area is to enable people who use wheelchairs to park their wheelchairs without feeling like or being an obstruction in the route of travel.
    Two types of slopes are addressed: running slope and cross slope. Running slope refers to the slope running parallel to the direction of travel. Cross slope refers to the slope perpendicular to the direction of travel. Although both slopes can cause difficulty to people who are traveling along a path, a steep cross slope can have larger impact on people who use wheelchairs in essence pulling the user off the path as they travel across it. The cross slope can be a maximum of 1:33. Cross slope is permitted to go up to 1:20 for drainage purposes. Running slope can be 1:20 for any distance. A maximum slope of 1:12 is permitted for no more than 50 feet. If the slope continues at 1:12 for a distance greater than 50 feet, resting spaces must be provided. Running slope is permitted to be a maximum of 1:10 for no more than 30 feet. Resting intervals must be provided every 30 feet if the running slope continues as 1:10 for more than 30 feet. Consider a person who uses a wheelchair, any slope may cause difficulty, and then adding on all their beach gear will cause additional strain in pushing up the path. By offering the least amount of slope possible, all visitors will benefit from the ease of the route leading to the beach.
Changes in Level
    An example of a change in level is where temporary surface tiles join one another. If a person has an uneven walking gait or problems with depth perception, obstacles caused by changes in level can cause a person to fall. Changes in level in the beach access route can be no higher than one inch. Even at a height of one inch, obstacles can cause difficulties for people who use wheelchairs or other devices. For example, a mother pushing her child in a stroller may struggle to maneuver the stroller over a large rock projecting up from the path of travel. Removing the rock allows for smooth travel and also can help prevent a tripping hazard.
Edge Protection
    When dealing with a raised beach access route with a drop off of more than 6 inches, edge protection can act as a safety feature preventing people from falling off the elevated route. Sometimes the raised height of the route can be a tripping hazard; therefore edge protection was recommended by the Reg Neg committee. Edge protection is required when the drop-off from the beach access route to the beach is 6 inches or higher, and may include curbs, walls, railings, or projecting surfaces that prevent people from falling off of the route. The edge protection must be at least 2 inches high. If the drop-off is less than 6 inches, edge protection is not required, however the edge of the access route should be beveled. A beveled edge should be a 30-45 degree angle into the sand to enable easy traversing.
Assistive Devices & Temporary Surfaces

The National Center on Accessibility has conducted three research projects on beach access. The first study took place at Bradford Woods, Indiana University’s Outdoor Center, between August and October 1992 and in Dade County, Florida during March and April, 1993. The study included the testing of assistive devices and surfaces for beach access. A total of 111 subjects participated from ages 9-91. The beach assistive devices were evaluated for three factors: Appearance, independence and safety. The beach surfaces were evaluated for four factors: function, appearance, texture and width.

As the original study was conducted more than 10 years ago and as many new products are now on the market, NCA conducted a follow up study in February 2003. Typically, beach wheelchairs take the structure of standard wheelchairs with some adaptations for beach use such as wider tires and water resistant seat and frame. This study picks up where NCA’s first research study in 1993 leaves off, looking at usability and independent operation of these devices. People with mobility impairments tested a variety of devices in Daytona, Florida. Each individual transferred to a beach wheelchair and took it for a “test drive” across the beach surface. After using the beach devices, individuals participated in focus groups to determine user preferences and drawbacks for each design. Overall, while the devices traveled better through sand than standard wheelchairs, not many of the beach devices facilitated independent use, as was the finding during the first study in 1993. The majority of devices were difficult to propel across sand independently or with limited mobility, requiring the assistance of another individual to push the chair from behind. The executive summary for the research study will be available later this season. It is hoped that the NCA research findings will assist product vendors in designing assistive devices based on the preferences of people with disabilities. In addition, the research findings will assist beach operators as they decide which types of devices to purchase based on user preferences.

Considerations for Purchasing Beach Assistive Devices

Beach devices or beach chairs are mobility aids that enable a person with a mobility impairment to travel anywhere on the beach. While a beach access route may get you to the water, a beach chair can get you to a lounging spot on the beach, enable a person to enter the water or go for a stroll along the shoreline. Currently, there are several wheeled beach accessibility devices on the market. When shopping for a particular device, consider the following:

    The independent operation of a device will determine whether a beach goer can get around on his own and have an enjoyable experience or be left relying on others to push the device from sand to surf.

    Can this device be operated independently? Independence is a critical factor, it means that a person with a disability may use the device unaided by others. Independent use may come in the form of a power source to propel the device, such as a motor, or manually pushing the wheels or using hand pedals. However, presently hand propelled models require a high degree of upper body strength. When a device is not easily operated independently, it can have a negative impact on perception of the overall beach visit. Having to wait for someone else every time a person wants to move is discouraging for both the person using the chair and their companion especially if they are loaded down with beach gear such as towels, coolers, and an umbrella. Needing someone to push the assistive device can also draw attention and pity from others.

    Is it easy to transfer in and out of? As mentioned before independence is a critical factor for any assistive device. Part of that independence includes transferring in and out of the device. A device that can be operated independently is still a barrier if a person has difficulty getting in the chair to use it. 

    Is this device easy to maintain and is it able to withstand water? The effects of water, salt and sand can be destructive. Keep in mind the materials used to construct the device and how well they will hold up to the beach elements.

    How can this device be transported to and from the beach? If the device is collapsible or easy to disassemble/reassemble then transportation is much easier. It is also helpful to know how much the unit weighs. Weight will help determine whether it can be transported from one beach to another.

    Is the appearance of this device appealing? For example, some beach wheelchairs are brightly colored and can cause a user to feel self-conscious. Be aware of how much attention may be drawn to the person using the device. Beach wheelchairs are assistive devices and should not necessarily look like a child’s toy or stroller. Some beach chairs have a medical look to them. Color and style should be age appropriate to avoid loss of dignity by adults that may use the device. The device should blend into the beach environment as much as possible.

     Are options available? Understand the options available and how each option may impact the experience of the user. For example, umbrellas may provide shade for the user, but some umbrellas may have an undignified appearance. Again, even with the options, the device should blend into the beach environment.

    Is this device comfortable? Comfort is an issue anytime a person will be sitting for an extended period of time. Keep in mind each person is an individual with their own body shape. What may be comfortable for one person may not be for someone else. The best bet is to test out different devices finding which one is comfortable for the majority.

    Is this device safe? It is important to know how much weight the chair is designed to hold. If a device is unstable and tips over, injuries may occur. Even those injuries to the ego can sometimes ruin the most beautiful day at the beach.

    If the device has a power source, what is the charge capacity? Some devices can be run on batteries similar to electric wheelchairs. Be sure that the life of each fully charged battery is ample for the time and duration the beach wheelchair will be used. For example, the charging time may need to be longer if the device is taken for a long drive along the beach than if it is used for short trips.
Testing Temporary Surfaces for Beach Use

The third research study conducted by the National Center on Accessibility focused on temporary beach surfaces, and took place in Daytona Beach, Florida in 2001. The study assessed seven temporary surface products for installation time, installation ease, maintenance, user preference, tactual function, mobility, aesthetics, detract, and relative cost. A total of 72 subjects with disabilities participated in the assessments and no single surface was selected as first choice by the majority.

Natural beach surfaces generally are not accessible. Under the proposed accessibility guidelines the beach surfaces for access routes across beaches are required to be firm and stable and may be permanent or temporary. Temporary surfaces include rubber mats, recycled plastic decking, plastic mesh, lattice and other materials. Beach surface applications are used to inhibit thin wheelchair wheels, canes, crutches and walkers from penetrating sandy areas, and also provide paths for families with strollers and people with unsteady gaits. Temporary surfaces can offer a solution to providing access. Due to beach erosion, a permanently installed beach route may not be suitable for some environments. A temporary surface that can easily be installed and maintained may in the long run provide greater access. Although labeled as temporary, these surfaces must be available at all times while the beach is open unless pedestrian use is prohibited.

The key findings from NCA’s research study on temporary beach surfaces provide the following considerations for those who are considering the purchase of temporary beach surfaces.

    How much time is required to install the surface? Installation times vary greatly among various products. The difficulty of installation should also be considered. If the surface requires extensive staff time, it may not be cost effective in the long run.

    What is involved in maintaining the surface? Sand, wind and water can cause erosion on some materials. In addition, sand build up is an issue.

    What is the tactual function of the surface? Tactual function includes things such as how rough a surface is, how slippery the surface is and what the comfort level is for the use of the surface. Is the surface comfortable to roll a wheeled device across, walk across with sandals, barefoot, or with wet feet?

    What are the mobility functions for this surface? Is the surface stable, even over sand? Can a wheeled device maintain control and ease of movement? Can you turn around easily?

    Is this surface aesthetically pleasing? Accessibility should not detract attention from the natural setting. For example, the color of the surface can be a color that blends with the sand and looks natural.

    What is the cost of installation for the surface? Cost is often a big factor in a buyer’s decision. When comparing prices, keep in mind the longevity of the product’s use. Buying a less expensive surface that must be frequently replaced, requires extensive installation or maintenance can end up actually costing more.

 Why accessibility?

A day at the beach, playing or relaxing in the sand and surf, can provide all of the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual benefits that recreation has to offer. Providing equalizing opportunities for people of all abilities should be the goal of park and recreation practitioners, including beach operators. One out of five people has some type of functional limitation, 20% of the population, a significant portion of potential visitors to consider. In addition, the friends and family of people with disabilities includes an even greater portion of the population. By including people with disabilities, their friends and family are also included.

Designing facilities, including beaches, that are accessible can increase visitation by people with disabilities. Marketing accessible programs and features can ensure increased use by people with disabilities, their families and friends. Including accessibility features in brochures, program guides and other marketing materials is also a great opportunity to attract new visitors. Visiting beaches is one of the most popular vacation activities. Families and friends flock during spring break and other vacation times to have some fun in the sun. Providing access to beaches enables people with disabilities and their friends and family to enjoy a time honored vacationing tradition.
Products & Resources 

*The National Center on Accessibility does not promote or endorse any products. For your convenience, we have compiled this information to be used as a resource. Products listed may or may not meet accessibility standards or recommendations. It is important to check design specifications of products. This list is not comprehensive. For more detailed information, please contact the NCA at (812) 856-4422 Voice, (812) 856-4421 TTY or

    Division of Aggressive Industries
    8333 Sunset Road NE
    Minneapolis, MN 55432
    (800) 355-4093

    Tuff Roll
    Surface America
    PO Box 157
    Williamsville, NY 14231
    (800) 999-0555

    Sport Court, Inc.
    939 South 700 West
    Salt Lake City, UT 84104
    (800) 487-7655

    Usine de Bourisson B.P. 20
    La Couronne France

    Rollout Path System Kit
    P.A.T.H.S. (Providing Access Through Hard Situations)
    #26 1551 Johnston Street
    Granville Island, Vancouver
    British Columbia Canada
    (905) 944-0004                                                                                                                                                      

    Eco Track
    Bike Track Incorporated
    PO Box 235
    Woodtock, VT 05091
    (888) 663-8537

    Modular & Roll-Away Walkways
    Mister Boardwalk
    PO Box 789
    Point Pleasant, NJ 08742
    (800) 813-4050

    De Bug
    Deming Designs Inc
    141 W. Pinestead Rd
    Pensacoala, FL 32503
    (850) 478-5765

     Land Roller
    Innovative Products Unlimited
    4351 W. College Ave, Suite 505
    Appleton, WI 54914

    Landeez All-Terrain Wheelchair
    Natural Access
    PO Box 2222
    Princeton, NJ 08543-2222
    (800) 411-7789

     Hotshot Products
    920 Del Amo Blvd, #A
    Torrance, CA 90501
    (888) 663-5911

    Achievable Concepts
    PO Box 361
    Moonee Ponds 3039
    Victoria, Australia

    Assistive Technology, Inc
    530 South Whittaker Street #240
    New Buffalo, MI 49117
    (800) 478-2363

    Seeker Wheelchair
    Lincoln Equipment, Inc
    2051 Commerce Avenue
    Concord, CA 94520
    (800) 223-5450

    Surf Chair Beach Wheels
    J-Mac Industries
    73 Uhl Path
    Palm Coast, FL 32164
    (386) 437-6539

The citation for this article is:

National Center on Accessibility. (Summer 2003).  Providing access to beaches. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington.  Retrieved from