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Huntington Beach launched last year a free electric shuttle service downtown, called Circuit, which has one accessible shuttle among its fleet of five.Visit Huntington Beach

David Gins didn’t exactly fight Huntington Beach City Hall, but he did take them to task. A surfer, as many are in the city officially known as Surf City USA, Gins learned the hard way that the very thing that puts the California city on the map, more than 16 kilometres of soft sand beach and reliably surfable waves off the Pacific Ocean, was inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t walk.

Gins had been teaching two teen brothers to surf. One of the boys, Kumaka Jensen, has spina bifida, and his brother would carry him to the water’s edge from the parking lot. Gins would always meet them at the shore line, until, with the older brother away at college, he had to help Jensen to the water. “I was stuck having to carry him, and was struggling, falling down, his dad was laughing at me,” he says.

“I feel like if we have handicapped spots in the beach parking lot, there needs to be a way for those handicapped people to get to the ocean. It’s not enough to just bring them to the beach, they need to be able to enjoy the beach.”

It took multiple e-mails to city staff and to four councillors before one member of council came down to the beach with Gins to understand the problem firsthand and to consider his proposed solution: Gins was asking for the city to put in a Mobi-Mat, a biodegradable nylon mesh mat that sits on top of the sand and runs from a parking lot to the shore line. In May, 2021, Gins’ goal was realized with the installation of the city’s first Mobi-Mat. It’s helping those in wheelchairs get to the water, as well as others with adaptive needs, senior folks with mobility concerns and families pushing strollers.

Since then, the city has installed a second mat (one on each side of the Huntington Beach Pier, which is filled with restaurants, bars and shops) with three more to come, and local companies, like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa, have acquired their own to deploy when needed. The Hyatt rolls it out for guests who require accessibility accommodation and want to take part in another local tradition – a beach bonfire, complete with hot chocolate and s’mores.

The Mobi-Mats are just one of the recent initiatives to make Huntington Beach more accessible. In 2018, the city opened its first all-inclusive beach playground. It includes slides, climbing elements and swings that are geared to children of varying abilities (a Mobi-Mat is strategically located adjacent to the playground). And in 2021, two local educators, Adeel Asif, a behaviour specialist, and Anthony Palmeri, a special-education teacher at a high school, launched Able Coffee Roasters. The café is staffed by people with autism and other disabilities, and Asif and Palmeri have opened a second location in Fullerton, Calif., near Anaheim. Last year Huntington Beach launched a free electric shuttle service downtown, called Circuit, which has one accessible shuttle among its fleet of five.

In May, 2021, the city installed its first Mobi-Mat, to help those in wheelchairs get to the water, as well as others with adaptive needs, senior folks with mobility concerns and families pushing strollers.stephanie plomarity/Visit Huntington Beach

According to the World Health Organization, 15 per cent of the world’s population (or about 1.2 billion people) live with some form of disability, and as the travel industry attempts to right itself, serving this population is essential. The tourism-focused marketing agency MMGY Global recently released the report Portrait of travellers with Disabilities: Mobility and Accessibility, which makes an economic case for addressing the needs of this population. Tourists with mobility disabilities spend US$58.2 billion per year on travel, and take on average three trips a year – the same as those without mobility limitations. The biggest issues they face are accommodations (96 per cent said they’ve faced problems in the past), flights (86 per cent experienced challenges with air travel) and transportation once at their destination (79 per cent cited this as a problem).

Fernando Resende is one of these travellers. Based in Mississauga, Ont., Resende is an incomplete quadriplegic, which he describes as being more like a paraplegic. “I can move my arms and I’m very active. I play wheelchair tennis, I do a lot of cycling, I mountain bike,” he says.

Resende has been travelling to Huntington Beach for more than 15 years. He has family there and frequents the pier where, as an avid photographer, he snaps pics of surfers. Huntington Beach is the first place he’s seen a Mobi-Mat. “I was floored,” he says. He also hand cycles on the beach bike trail and has participated in Life Rolls On, an annual adaptive surfing event.

“I did it a few years in a row. There are straps on the front of the board, so you would grab the straps and the event’s volunteers push you on to a wave. Oh my gosh, it was amazing. I did a six-foot wave the first time,” he says.

Local pro surfer Rocky McKinnon, through the adaptive surf program he launched in 2019 as part of his surf school, McKinnon Surf & SUP Lessons, is making it possible for people of all abilities to get out on the water any day they like. He runs tandem lessons for autistic surfers, meaning he’s on the board with them, accompanied by a safety escort in the water. And using his surfboard shaping knowledge, he created a chair board – a large surfboard with a seat on it. Rocky surfs on the back of the board while a student with mobility disabilities reclines in the chair. They’re also joined by a safety team in the water.

In 2018, Huntington Beach opened its first all-inclusive beach playground. It includes slides, climbing elements and swings that are geared to children of varying abilities.stephanie plomarity/Visit Huntington Beach

“Some of the people are pretty much immobile, they’re coming off a wheelchair. So I put them in a life jacket, and if we happen to have a wipeout, I’m with them in a matter of seconds,” he says. Depending on an individual’s particular needs, McKinnon opts to keep some clients closer to shore, but with others, they are able to just “go for it,” he says.

Word is spreading: He’s had requests for adaptive lessons from students all over Southern California and a handful of other states. “It’s really been transformative, not just for the participants, but for me also because it makes me better, makes me more patient, more understanding. And makes me develop programs and ways to go about it that maybe haven’t been tried yet,” McKinnon says.

And like Gins, for McKinnon it’s simply about helping people experience the surf, and make the most of Huntington Beach. “If you have an inclination, a desire, to get in the ocean and want to surf and be a part of wave riding, I want to make that happen.”

The writer was hosted by Visit Huntington Beach – Surf City USA, which did not review or approve this article.

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