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Plenty of sand, but no way to the water: Evanston’s beaches offer limited access to wheelchair users

“Being able to have access to the lake is so important,” said Evanston resident Nura Aly, seen at Lake Street Beach. “Being out in nature is one thing that centers me.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Nura Aly lives nine blocks from Lake Michigan. It takes her about 15 minutes to push her manual wheelchair down Madison and Kedzie streets to Hinman Avenue and eventually the Lee Street Beach. “I love to swim,” she said. “I love to be out in nature. I live in Evanston so I can be so close to the lake.”

But it has been decades since Aly has been able to swim in Lake Michigan. Her way to the water was blocked.

Evanston provides people who use wheelchairs access to its six city beaches, but only one beach offers an actual connection to the lake.

  • At Lighthouse Beach, a plastic boardwalk designed for wheelchair users ends about 42 feet from Lake Michigan. The last two planks of the boardwalk are not anchored properly and bounce under the weight of a wheelchair.
  • At Clark Street Beach, the long blue mat for wheelchair users stops 120 feet from the edge of the water.
  • At Greenwood Street Beach, there is no beach or water access. The beach, which has been closed for much of the summer, had an unstable plastic boardwalk that did not extend past the lifeguard towers.
  • At the Dempster Street sailing beach, there is no beach or water access. A concrete slab ends 48 feet from the water.
  • At Lee Street Beach, a plastic boardwalk, which previously stopped too far from the lake, now leads right down to the water. This is the one beach that offers access to Lake Michigan for people who use wheelchairs, but it is far from perfect.
  • At South Boulevard Beach, a plastic boardwalk ends 72 feet from the lake.

Wheelchair users want to swim in the lake – or at least have that option. Traditional chairs sink deep into the sand.

A long mat for wheelchair users at Clark Street Beach stops far short of the water. Credit: Richard Cahan

“Imagine you’ve been invited to a party, but you can’t get to the bar,” said Karen Tamley, president and CEO of Access Living of Metro Chicago. “If I have friends or nieces and nephews in town and want to take them to the beach, I want to be part of that fun too.” Tamley uses a wheelchair. “This is an important part of inclusion for people with disabilities in our community.”

Providing a path to the water is a matter of money, but it’s a surprisingly small amount.

Evanston uses roll-out portable walkways called Mobi-Mats at the Clark Street Beach and plastic paths called Superdeck at other beaches. Mobi-Mats, a newer technology that requires less maintenance, costs about $50 per linear foot.

The city has enough plastic planks to extend the Lighthouse Beach path to the lake. It then would need to purchase about 240 feet of mats to fully extend the paths at Clark Street, Dempster Street and South Boulevard. It would cost a minimum of $12,000 to purchase mats that extend to the water for these three beaches. (Mats are not sold by the foot, so the final price would be slightly higher.)

Then, five of Evanston’s six beaches would provide a route to the water. Costs for a new wheelchair path at Greenwood Street are not included because the beach entrance has been reconfigured over the past few years. But Greenwood Street Beach is essential, wheelchair users say, because of its proximity to public restrooms.

There is also another way

Access to the lake can also be provided with beach wheelchairs – chairs with balloon-size air-filled tires that can easily navigate through sand and float in the water. The chairs open to the entire beach to users – not just a narrow path.

A floating beach wheelchair can be pushed on the sand into the water. Credit: water wheels

Chicago provides all-terrain wheelchairs for free at eight Chicago beaches. They work well, but they are not used often, according to Larry Labiak, Chicago Park District Disability Policy Officer. “Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job of letting people know about it,” he said.

The chairs cost about $2,500 each. One chair at each of the city’s six beaches would cost Evanston $15,000. But the chairs are not motorized and need to be pushed. “I like to be independent, but it’s better than nothing,” Aly said. “Then I could really get around the beach.” Motorized wheelchairs cost considerably more.

City officials agree that beach and water access is inadequate. Audrey Thompson, who took over as Parks and Recreation Department Director in April, said she hopes the city can provide access to every beach, but she warned it may take a few years. She said it would cost about $80,000 at the start to purchase mats for all beaches and beach wheelchairs – far more than estimates by the RoundTable. Thompson is planning to include money toward mats and chairs in next year’s budget, but said larger capital projects could take a longer.

“I’m a social worker,” Thompson said. She called the mats “a necessity” and promised that at least four beaches will offer paths next year that lead all the way to the lake. “Residents will see demonstrable changes.” Thompson said she will be able to purchase some of these items in this year’s budget, with City Council approval.

A few weeks ago, Nura Aly said she was surprised and thrilled when she discovered that the plastic ramp at Lee Street had been extended to the water. It had taken years. She sent photos of the boardwalk to a friend and texted, “They finally got it.” The friend later forwarded the text to city officials.

This photo of Nura Aly was sent to the city after the path for wheelchair users was finally extended to Lake Michigan. But she says the ramp is still dangerous. “Technically, that’s the bare minimum,” she said. Credit: Aly Family

Aly, born in Evanston with spina bifida, was able to walk with leg braces and crutches as a child but started using a wheelchair at age 13 to make life easier. She remembers swimming in Lake Michigan but can’t even place how many years ago. And she recalls being carried to the lake as a girl by a lifeguard. That can no longer happen. “I’m 35 years old now. It’s so inappropriate,” she said.

Progress, but ‘how long will this last?’

“Swimming is so freeing,” Aly said. “It’s one of those things I can do. I can be like everybody else and do like everybody else. It’s not like: Here’s that girl in a wheelchair. I’m proud to be who I am, a woman with a disability. But in some cases, it’s nice to be free.”

On the day she saw the completed Lee Street ramp, Aly rolled her wheelchair along the plastic pathway with glee—all the way to the lake. “I actually sat there. The water came up to me. It was really fun. Had I had my suit, I would have gone swimming. I was really, really happy at that moment. But I thought: How long will this last?”

Just about every year she writes or talks with Evanston officials about improving accessibility. She hears excuses: The ramps and mats cannot go all the way into the water. They are difficult to maintain. Or there is not enough money to make things right.

The plastic ramp at Lee Street Beach is not without challenges, Aly said. “Any little bump could cause me to fall because of the way these little wheels can get caught,” she said. “The material they have is not the best. It does not stay flush. There are lots of bumps. It can be scary at times.” Aly has yet to swim. But she’s not worried about the lake water damaging her wheelchair. “My chair is my legs. It goes through all elements. It gets wet in the rain. I can replace the bearings.”

There is a gap between the sidewalk and plastic boardwalk at Lighthouse Beach. Credit: Richard Cahan

Kathy Chiwah, an Evanston resident for 17 years, is the mother of four children, including Santi, who was born with cerebral palsy 11 years ago. “The beach is a favorite place of ours,” she said. “Water, playing in the sand, is perfect for kids with special needs.”

Chiwah said the plastic boardwalks are not well designed and are often not well maintained. A gap between the sidewalk and boardwalk at Lee Street Beach makes it difficult to wheel on the beach. “If you are not in a wheelchair, the gap hardly matters,” she said. “If you are in a power chair or you are an adult in a wheelchair, it’s impossible to make that jump,” she said. Lighthouse Beach has a similar gap.

In addition, the parking lot between Greenwood and Dempster is gravel, which is tough on wheelchairs, and parking blocks make for a circuitous route to the beach, Chiwah said. She said she knows several wheelchair users that don’t use the beach because it’s too hard to navigate.

“Now our son is 11, and it has gotten harder for me to carry him,” Chiwah said. “The lifeguards are excellent. They will pick him up and carry him.” But she knows their beach days are limited as her son grows older. “I would like a boardwalk for each beach that is set up properly.”

Beach worker Sean O’Connor helps by carrying Santi Chiwah at the Dempster Street sailing beach. Credit: Chiwah family

Evanston resident Tara Ahern has muscular dystrophy. “It’s been a steady decline,” she said. Her doctors and physical therapists tell her swimming would help, but she stays away from the beaches. “It’s physically exhausting to get into the car and have to traipse through the sand to get on the beach” she said.

She wants more accessible parking spaces, mats that are wide enough in spots so that she can pull off and let people pass, and better communication from the city. “Lots of people say this town is progressive, but we don’t even have beach wheelchairs,” she said. The city’s website says the Clark and Lee street beaches are accessible. “But I don’t know what that means,” Ahern said.

‘Take it to the next level’

The key to improving the beaches is to include people with disabilities in the planning process, said Karen Tamley of Access Living. “I’m definitely appreciative that there’s thought being put into ways for people using wheelchairs or walkers to be able to get to water,” she said. “That’s a huge step forward because that never existed in my lifetime. I just think we need to take it to the next level so that people can actually access the water.”

Parks and Recreation Director Thompson agrees. “We will be making a request to the Referrals Committee of the City Council in September to change the Commission on Aging to the Commission on Aging and Disabilities,” she said. “In this process, we have talked and met with people with all types of disabilities, advocates and family members to ensure this change would be welcomed and appropriate.”

Aly, the longtime critic of Evanston’s inclusion policies, is hopeful. But she said she is tired of “the bureaucratic smile and nod like they understand and really don’t” and she holds on to the wish that it is a new day in the city. “What frustrates me is saying these things over and over,” she said, “and seeing things being done temporarily but not fixed.”

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