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Here's How to Plan a Summer Vacation for Wheelchair Users

A little bit of pre-planning makes a big difference for people with brain or spinal cord injury.

For Jaimie Moore and her college friends, the early summer trip to Edisto Island, S.C., was a yearly tradition they cherished. The group would rent a large house and enjoy the beach for a week, relishing the chance to reconnect.

In 2010, she brought her boyfriend, Jimmy. On that trip, he proposed marriage. The following year, the annual get-together moved to nearby Litchfield Beach for Jaimie and Jimmy’s wedding.

In 2012, when it came time to plan the annual summer trip, life was very different.

Just two months after their wedding, Jimmy was involved in a car accident, sustaining a C-2 spinal cord injury that left him with quadriplegia. He spent two months in the inpatient program at Shepherd Center before transitioning to the day program. He and Jaimie liked Shepherd and found the city of Atlanta agreed with them, so they decided to move from South Carolina.

“About a month after the accident, my friends asked me if Jimmy and I would be able to make the annual trip,” Jaimie says. “I really couldn’t deal with a decision like that right then. But then I thought about it for a while and decided to give it a try.”

The group rented a wheelchair-accessible house equipped with an elevator. “I thought we were golden,” she recalls. One concern: Would a power wheelchair fit in the elevator? Jaimie had a realtor visit the house and measure it. Sure enough, the elevator was smaller than the chair.

Jaimie briefly considered backing out of the trip, but they found a solution: Bring Jimmy’s manual chair. To make it fit in the tiny elevator, they had to remove the handrails and footplates each trip.

The wheelchair was just one item on a long list the Moores had to deal with on their first vacation after the accident.

Jaimie Moore and her husband Jimmy have found ways to continue their tradition of a summer beach vacation with friends. Jimmy sustained a C-2 spinal cord injury in a car accident in August 2011.

“I tried so hard to make the vacation how it used to be before the accident,” Jaimie says, “but I know now that it won’t be the same. It was a hard realization.” Nevertheless, she and Jimmy are ready to head back to the beach this summer, armed with the lessons they’ve learned to make it more enjoyable. “Next time I won’t feel as pressured to make it the same as it was, and I’ll be more relaxed.”

Many former Shepherd patients who find themselves adjusting to a new normal share the Moores’ predicament: A simple vacation, once an experience of relaxation, can become an excursion into complexity.

The answer to this change is to adapt, plan and be patient. Like Jimmy, Keith Winchell, of Ocala, Fla., learned to make adjustments and manage expectations for a beach holiday. The onetime New York City police officer was injured on duty in 2007 when a car hit his motorcycle. He sustained an incomplete L-1 spinal cord injury. Two years after his accident, he and his family took their first vacation – to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

“I was scared,” Keith recalls. “It was the first time I had been away from home after my accident. I was worried that I couldn’t still have a good time on vacation and that it would be difficult on my children.”

Thanks to a lot of planning, Keith’s experience was positive. He reserved a beach wheelchair from the local fire department so he could go all the way down to the water, and then he transferred to a boogie board in the water. He called ahead to all the restaurants and attractions they wanted to visit to make sure they were wheelchair accessible.

“I spent about eight hours on the phone and on the Internet, researching what was out there,” he says. “I wanted it to be as normal as possible, and I didn’t want to put my family out.”

One thing he would do differently is to get a wheelchair-accessible house, as the stairs proved challenging.

“It was a struggle for me to walk up the stairs,” says Keith, who has some movement in his legs and gets around with both a wheelchair and forearm crutches. “But at that time, I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I know now that if I don’t have to struggle, I won’t.”

Keith’s advice to others who might be venturing on vacation for the first time in a wheelchair is to take time to prepare. “Things will go easier if you do your homework,” he says, adding that when he calls places, he asks them everything from the width of the entrance to whether steps lead to the door to the size of the bathrooms. “You just can’t be afraid to ask questions,” he says.

Arthur Booth, M.D., is living proof that beach living is possible – and can still be enjoyable – in a wheelchair.

A retired physician, Arthur sustained a brain injury from a stroke, his second, in 1997. After spending time at Shepherd Center, he relearned how to walk with a cane. But one morning in 2007, Arthur took a fall outside of church, breaking 14 bones throughout his body. He ended up in a wheelchair again – this time for good.

He and his wife had built a house in Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1992, and in a moment of foresight, they’d decided to make it wheelchair accessible, complete with an elevator for their aging parents. Arthur is able to get around the island just fine in his wheelchair, and the nearby Sanctuary Hotel has a boardwalk that gets him very close to the beach.

Arthur knows the restaurants and attractions on the island that are easy to access, and like Keith, he advises to call ahead when travelling and be specific with your questions. “Sometimes, the person who answers the phone thinks the place is handicap accessible, but it’s really not,” he says.

He also suggests calling back a week before your trip to make sure your reservations are still the ones you need.

“I was travelling once and reserved a handicap-accessible room,” he recalls. “When I called a week before my trip to confirm my reservation, they had given it away. I had to find another hotel.”

Visiting a beach or other places outside familiar territory in a wheelchair can be daunting, especially the first time. To help with the transition, Shepherd Center’s Recreation Therapy Department offers a travel class to give patients a better idea of all that is involved when travelling with a disability, including navigating air travel and staying in hotels. A recreation therapy specialist reviews a vacation checklist with patients before they leave on their trip.

“When planning a trip, being assertive is key,” advises Kelly Edens, manager of the recreation therapy at Shepherd Center. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be an advocate for yourself.” She offers these tips for those in a wheelchair who make a beach trip:

  • BE AWARE OF THE EFFECTS of sand and water that can’t be felt, but can create skin sores. Wear beach or water shoes.
  • SAND AND WATER CAN DAMAGE everyday wheelchairs. Most public beaches have places that rent or loan beach wheelchairs with special tires that can navigate the sand.
  • MAKE SURE SHADE IS AVAILABLE to protect both you and the wheelchair from getting too hot.
  • FLIP THE SEAT CUSHION of the wheelchair when not in use and/or put the chair in the shade so it doesn’t get too hot and cause burns.
  • USE PLENTY OF SUNSCREEN and stay hydrated.
  • BE AWARE OF HOW SUN exposure may affect your medications. The combination could cause adverse reactions.
  • BRING PLENTY OF SNACKS and water to the beach so you don’t have to come and go.
  • BE MINDFUL OF DAILY living routines. The things you need to do at home every day you will still have to do when on vacation.

Brock Johnson, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., used the help and advice of Shepherd Center to help him get back to doing what he loved – surfing. Brock was injured in a diving accident in May 2011, sustaining C-2 and C-6 to -7 spinal cord injuries. Initially paralyzed from the neck down, he has since regained use of his arms.

Before his accident, Brock would be on the beach three to four days a week, surfing and hanging out with his friends. During the five months he spent at Shepherd, he didn’t see any way he could possibly return to that lifestyle. But his recreation therapist introduced him to the Life Rolls On Foundation, a subsidiary of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which helps people with a spinal cord injury to stay active through adaptive sports.

“The people at Shepherd helped me identify what I wanted to do and really encouraged me to get back out there,” Brock says.

A year after his accident, Brock participated in a Life Rolls On beach trip to Wilmington, N.C., where he learned how to surf without the use of his legs. He took what he learned back to Myrtle Beach, where he surfs regularly with the help of friends, who help him get out in the water to ride the waves back to shore.

“What I do is more like body boarding, because I can’t stand,” he says, “but it’s so great to be back.” He hopes to get an adaptive surf board that would allow him to be more independent.

Brock’s advice to others is to try new experiences or find new approaches to do old activities. “The biggest thing is knowing you can do it and not being afraid to try,” he says. “It takes a lot of planning and support. But just because you’re paralyzed doesn’t mean you can’t be at the beach and be active.”

For a list of accessible U.S. beaches, click here.

Written by Sara Baxter
Photography by Steve Jessmore


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.