“I love it that the beach here has become more inclusive to people with disabilities,” said Gulfport resident Beth Stombaugh who uses an ultralight self-propelled wheelchair. “I’ve always been disabled so it lets me get down closer to the water and enjoy the sand instead of just sitting up at a pavilion. When friends that I have want to enjoy the beach, now I can go with them.”
Earlier this year, Michael Ciafone, a resident of Pinellas County, spoke at a Gulfport City Council meeting about a product called Mobi-Mat, said Mayor Sam Henderson.
“He contacted me and I told him he should come to a meeting,” said Henderson. “He’s been going around to different waterfront communities encouraging them to get these mats. He just wants to help special needs people.”
The flexible and penetrable fabric mat is removable, durable and “a pretty minor expense to give people the opportunity to get down there and be closer to the water,” Henderson said. “It’s completely reasonable for what it offers people.”
The total cost of the product was $6,595 out of the 2019 budget, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
The mat is good for people using “a wheelchair, a motorized scooter, a stroller or even a rolling walker,” said Stombaugh. “Otherwise, it’s difficult to navigate sand because wheels tend to get stuck.”
Located near the public restrooms at the center of the public parking area along Shore Boulevard, the accessibility mat extends from the paved sidewalk out onto the sandy beach toward Boca Ciega Bay to a point just before the high tide area. Two wings near the water form a Y-shape.
“I think the wings are more for motorized people” so it’s easier for them to turn around, said Stombaugh. “Also, if you’re in a wheelchair, you can sit on one of those wings and then somebody else can use the mat and you’re not in the way. It also helps amputees because the sand it not good for their prosthetics or their balance.”
Stombaugh explained she has been on other mats in the area like the one at Treasure Island’s beach.
“That beach is so wide you can’t get anywhere near the water,” she said. “This one in Gulfport goes fairly close to the water at high tide.”
City employees installed Gulfport’s mat, said O’Reilly. “On a case-by-case basis,” like during special events or when severe weather threatens, it will be rolled up then reinstalled afterward.
During beach cleanups, if people could sweep any accumulated sand off the mat, “that would be great,” said Stombaugh.
For more information, visit mobi-mat-chair-beach-access-dms.com/recpath.
“I’m grateful that a small town like Gulfport was able to budget this and make the beach more inclusive to all people,” said Stombaugh. “Hopefully, it will encourage more people with disabilities to visit Gulfport.”