Freewheeling At the Beach

By Christina Elston

special needs beach wheelchairs

Ashley Lyn Olson, who founded, enjoys a beach wheelchair at Laguna Beach. PHOTO COURTESY WHEELCHAIRTRAVELLING.COM

A day at the beach is a quintessential SoCal summer family outing. And even if your child uses a wheelchair, you can hit the sand.

Ashley Lyn Olson was paralyzed in a car accident at age 14, and has become a lifelong access advocate. In 2006, she launched to encourage people in wheelchairs to “come access your world.” The northern California resident travels the globe and often hits the beach. will give you tips for access at Long Beach, Venice Beach, Malibu, Santa Monica Beach and – just for fun – beaches and other destinations up and down the coast and around the world.

Locally, Santa Monica Beach and Venice Beach are two of Olson’s favorite destinations. The city of Santa Monica even offers an Accessible Santa Monica Beach map .

Beach wheelchairs – which have balloon tires that let them roll easily over the sand – are a great way to get your family onto the beach. Santa Monica Beach has manual beach wheelchairs available free at Annenberg Community Beach House. Perry’s, also has electric beach wheelchairs at two of its three locations on Ocean Front Walk, and manual chairs at all three locations. Venice Beach has beach wheelchairs available at the main lifeguard station near the southwest corner of the parking lot along Ocean Front Walk. You can find chairs at many other local beaches as well, via this map from the L.A. County Dept. of Beaches and Harbors.

Olson advises calling in advance for information about how to get a chair, and arriving early if you hope to use a beach wheelchair, as many locations have just one chair available on a first-come first-served basis. If you’re fortunate enough to secure one, you’ll also need either a place to store your child’s regular chair, or someone who can lift and carry it to your spot on the beach – assuming you can keep the sand at bay. “The sand will definitely be problematic for the wheelchair,” Olson says.

If your child is used to using a motorized chair or propelling himself or herself in a manual chair, be aware manual beach wheelchairs can’t be propelled by the user, so someone will need to push the child in the chair.


Some beaches even have accessible playgrounds. PHOTO COURTESY WHEELCHAIRTRAVELING.COM

Some beaches also have accessible pathways that let wheelchair users in regular chairs get in or close to the water. Santa Monica has paths at Arizona Avenue, Bay Street, Ocean Park Boulevard and Ashland Avenue. On Venice Beach, path access is limited to Ocean Front Walk (the Strand).

When scoping out accessible beaches, Olson also looks for amenities such as accessible picnic tables (Venice Beach has one a few yards away from the Rose Avenue parking lot) and accessible playgrounds (Santa Monica has one at Ashland Avenue, and another under construction near Montana Avenue).

Restrooms are another issue to consider. Venice Beach has several as does Santa Monica – including all three on the pier. But Olson advises checking them out beforehand if you can. “Those beach wheelchairs, some of them can be really big,” she says, meaning you might have to transfer your child to her or his regular chair to fit through the bathroom door or into the stall.

Finally, be ready to make your child comfortable in the surf or on the sand. Olson reminds parents that the seat and metal parts of a wheelchair can get hot in the sun, which could lead to a nasty burn for your child. The water, meanwhile, can be chilly, so Olson suggests a wetsuit might be a good idea if your child will be getting wet.

While you’re planning, don’t forget the sunscreen, and plenty of water so everyone stays hydrated. Olson invites families to share their accessible beach adventures at

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