By: Jon Richards
It seems like nowadays building a surf park is on everyone’s mind. Think about it…having a wave pool in your back yard and being able to surf any kind of wave whenever you want. It is every surfer’s dream. With that said, this utopian vision must include everyone, and therefor we must look past the endless supply of perfect waves and understand how to offer access to everyone.
Accessibility in the United States has been law for almost 30 years when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. The law was designed to protect against discrimination towards disability and to allow reasonable accommodations for those who may need them. Although this is an area that still requires diligent attention, we are much better today than it was in the past.
For the last ten years the popularity of adaptive surfing has grown so much that it has broken through the barriers and become a mainstay of adaptive sports. Surfing has an opportunity to rise above, where other sports have not. It has a moral obligation to cultivate accessibility when constructing surf parks and wave pools. Think about it for a minute. We want to build surf parks to help develop the sport of surfing and if we make parks accessible to anyone, then we are doing a great justice to the development of the sport and the people who participate.
Constructing an accessible surf park benefits everyone. You should not think of it as beneficial to just a particular population, but an opportunity to provide value for all who use the park. It improves the ease of access to a sport that is rapidly growing in popularity. This is true for people with and without disabilities, kids, senior citizens, beginners and so many more. For the purpose of this article when we talk about accessibility, we mean all populations.
When designing accessibility in the park, it should include physical features and non-physical features. Physical features would include the layout of the park and ease of mobility within the park. Non-physical features would include the employees and the support that staff can offer their guests.
Before we discuss physical features, I truly believe that a park must have the properly trained staff to utilize the physical aspects within the facility. Staff should be trained on how to assist surfers who may need the extra support. You can have the most accessible facility in the world, but if you do not know how to use it, then it is not nearly as effective. Improperly trained personnel will not know how to serve their customers, which often can become a safety hazard or make the park inaccessible. Trainings should be designed to incorporate all populations, to include people with and without disabilities. There will need to be an emphasis on cultural and sensitivity awareness along with learning about different disabilities and disorders. Another focus needs to be on safely transferring a surfer into another chair or onto a surfboard while in the water. The trainings are key to the safety of any program or facility’s success.
The next topic is to address physical features. What physical features should we consider when designing for accessibility? The first thing to understand is that accessibility must be placed into the initial designs of the surf park. Some of the build may cost extra money upfront. However, later if it is determined that you need the extra features and they were not built into the original construction, it will cost you more down the road. This could be a costly mistake and can incur major overhauls which could close the facility for periods of time.
The design should start in the parking lot with closer, designated facility parking and extra space offered. This allows for more room to get in and out of the vehicle while having the additional space for accessing personal equipment, such as: wheelchair, walker, surfboard, waveski, medical supplies and anything else that may be needed. When leaving the parking lot, there needs to be clearly displayed curb cuts that are available in order to move to the walkway to get to the main facility. If a staircase is present, a ramp or elevator will be required. If the facility has multiple levels this will be a concern throughout.
Bathrooms should also be a main focus allowing extra space and wider stalls. Other things to be included are larger changing rooms and roll-in showers, with a bench. This can allow for privacy, but also will keep the bathroom stalls open if a person is changing their clothes.
On the deck top there are several things to consider. One is the ability to move around on the deck. Is there enough space to maneuver a wheelchair? Is the deck made of wood or concrete to help improve mobility? Are there obstacles in the way like tables, steps, or other people? With a well thought out plan, solutions for each are easy to put into place. Plenty of shade should be provided as a safe place for people to cool down in the heat of the sun. Another thing to lay out are benches for people to eat or hang out while watching the action. There will need to be space for wheelchairs to roll up to a bench or table. This can be as easy as taking chairs away from a table; however, it should be outlined in a plan.
Entry into the wave pool can be difficult for most. An easy option is to have a ramp with rubber flooring that goes into the water. The ramp should have a railing so people who can walk have the extra support when entering. The ramp should lead to where the takeoff originates and the surfer can get to with ease. Not everyone will need a ramp, so steps into the water would be a good addition. A great feature would be to have a beach style grade (ramp) that exits in the water across the entire width of the pool. This will benefit everyone. Once off the wave and paddling in you will not need to search for an exit. This can be difficult when eyesight is at water level and an exit is harder to see. Another way to improve entering and exiting a wave pool includes access to a beach wheelchair. Since there are many kinds of beach wheelchairs to choose from, having a couple of options is important.
Each surfer will have a different level of independence. Wave size, type and speed should be regulated for the skill and ability level of all surfers. Surf parks with several options to different kinds of waves and pre-determining the setup of the wave improves access to surfing. This will make a difference in someone having a good experience or not.
The water temperature can also influence accessibility. An example of this is that people with spinal cord injuries do not have the ability to control body temperature regulation. If the facility is not equipped to control water temperatures, then they should provide or rent wetsuits to people that may not have one.
The future of adaptive surfing or assisting someone to surf is optimistic with the help of surf parks. As time progresses there will be innovations that will be developed to assist people in surfing. Such ideas will further revolutionize the wave pool and surfing altogether. One idea is to use a winch system similar to wakeboarding. A surfer who may not have the ability to paddle into a wave could benefit from such a system to get them into a wave without being pushed. The system may include a remote on the handle that the surfer could control. This would promote independence which allows the surfer to initiate getting into the wave without a second person’s assistance. Another innovation could benefit people who are visually impaired or someone who needs to learn when to paddle for a wave. This system would utilize beeping sounds and would require an overhead cabling system that could move the noise maker throughout the wave. An initial beeping sound can get a surfer set in the correct place of the lineup to prepare for the wave. Once there, another beeping sound would come towards the surfer as the wave approaches. The noise would get faster and the sound closer/louder as the wave approaches the surfer. Beeping can continue and stay above the pocket of the wave, again promoting independence.
There are endless possibilities to help improve access to surf parks and this committed effort will take pre-planning. It will begin in the design of the facility and proper training of staff. It is imperative to do both in order to operate a safe and accessible facility. Doing this with a well thought out plan will also help with branding of the facility. It would be a good opportunity for marketing and stating (and really meaning it) that everyone can participate. More people are likely to go to a user friendly facility, rather than spending money and time at a facility with limited access. Overall, the final product further develops the sport of surfing and is beneficial to all who enjoy the activity.
*Author, Jon Richards, is the Supervising Therapuetic Recreational Therapist for the City of San Diego
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