Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Florida Accessible Beaches and Outdoor Spaces

A beach wheelchair with balloon tires is shown sitting atop gravel, parked underneath a "handicapped parking" sign, with shrubbery in the background.Recently, many people have begun to rediscover their love for nature. As Floridians, we are lucky to have access to beautiful beaches, parks, and other, wheelchair accessible spaces. These places are perfect for having fun, while continuing to practice social distancing. So pack your PPE masks, umbrellas, sunscreen, and phones! Here are some accessibility tips to help you make the most out of Florida’s great outdoors.

When most people think of our subtropical state, they likely imagine picturesque palm trees, beaches, and the open ocean. Let’s begin by exploring some of these natural treasures, and take a closer look at some amenities that are accessible for wheelchair users.  

You’ll notice that some locations offer accessible mats. Once thought impossible, Mobimats allow wheelchair users to roll themselves onto the beach! Click here to learn more about these incredible mats. If you are a wheelchair user who’s itching to get shoreside, need, here’s a pro tip: before making the trek out to your favorite, accessible beach, give your city/county a call to make sure that Mobimats are available. Accessible beach mats are rolled up during sea turtle nesting season, which may affect your beachly adventures.

A boardwalk ramp is shown, leading down to the beach. Bright skies and white sand are in the backgroundHave you ever seen one of those wheelchairs that sport big, balloon tires? If you want to feel the salt on your skin, these beach wheelchairs can be a great way to cruise the dunes. There are several locations in Pinellas County, including Fort DeSoto Beach, where you can rent a tropical chariot. The best part is that you can usually borrow these at the low price of... free! These chairs make it easy for wheelchair users to glide over pesky sand with ease. 

Though Gulfport Beach is missing from the aforementioned list, a Mobimat was installed 2019. 
Treasure Island Beach also boasts a Mobimat, which you can learn more about by clicking here. But what else does Pinellas County have to offer? Click here to explore some more Florida beaches, learn more about St. Petersburg’s accessibility.

St. Pete Pier is shown, with calm water below, and blue skies filled with white clouds above

More Outdoor Spaces To Explore 
Since the St. Pete Pier was recently remodeled, it is very accessible, and features lots of room for social distancing. From there, you can even enjoy the beautiful views of Tampa Bay and Downtown St. Pete. Thanks to its flat terrain, the entire pier is easy for wheelchair users to explore. The ramped area makes it easy to get closer views of the water, and who wouldn’t want that? It is a pier, after all. While seeking out St. Pete’s secrets, you can check out a variety of local art projects and learning centers, including the murals, the Bending Arc, and the Discovery Center!

A black & white picture of Bok Tower, with palm trees in the background.If you’ve been searching for a National Historic Landmark, look no further than Bok Tower Gardens. Located in Lake Wales, Florida, this beautiful attraction was originally founded as a bird sanctuary by Edward and Marie Bock. It boasts over 100 species of birds and encompasses more than 200 acres. The “Singing Tower” Looms a whopping 205 feet tall. Almost all of the area is wheelchair accessible, including handicapped parking and restrooms. It’s is open to the public year-round, so make sure that you don’t miss out!

If you are a person who likes variety, Florida’s state parks offer some of the most diverse environments. Whether you need to cool off in our natural springs, or want to venture along scenic trails in search of wildlife, there’s a little something for everybody. Wheelchair users should keep in mind that clear, paved, or gravel-covered paths are the easiest to tread. And if you have a cognitive disability, some parks provide literature that will tell you everything you need to know about high-traffic areas, as well as the sights and sound that you can expect. 

Click here to learn more about the accessibility of Florida state parks.
Click here for another great resource, covering the 5 most accessible
parks in Florida.
Click here for a map, which can help you find more accessible, Florida State parks.

A couple sits on on a bench, in a park, with green grass surrounding them and a lake in front of them.
Myakka River State Park is near Sarasota, and offers some unique experiences for wheelchair users. In addition to experiencing their Birdwalk, you can even take a tour of the park by an accessible tram or boat. This river is Florida’s first state-designated, wild and scenic river. It flows through a vast expanse of unspoiled wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands that make up Myakka River State Park. Click here to learn more.

Sea birds perch on rocks protruding from the ocean.If you are a fan of wildlife viewing, the Little Manatee River State Park is famous for it! The park protects over 2,400 acres of habitat for hundreds of common, Florida species, in addition to dozens of rare and listed species. Make sure to venture into this park at sunrise or sunset, when it’s best for wildlife viewing. Don't forget to bring a pair of binoculars, a camera, and a trail map!

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is located about 2 hours north of Tampa, and has accessible walkways for viewing different breeds of Florida birds, in their natural habitat! There’s also a manatee viewing area. Click here to learn more.

If you are searching for an accessible park near Gainesville, the Ochlockonee River State Park is just north. Sporting a renovated boat launch area, it provides access to the Ochlockonee River, as well as surrounding creeks and waterways. Paved sidewalks lead to a floating boat dock, paved ramp, and even a separate kayak launch that’s wheelchair accessible! Sidewalks lead from the parking lot of the day-use area to a number of fun areas, including: two picnic pavilions, the swimming beach, playground, river shoreline, as well as an accessible outdoor shower and drinking fountain. Click here to learn more.

A man in a blue shirt sits next to his wheelchair, on the beach, as he looks at the ocean.

With all of these wonderful parks at our disposal, what are we all still doing inside? Let’s get out there and enjoy all of the accessible activities that Florida has to offer!

Mary Carol Peterson
A profile picture of Mary Carol Peterson, holding a clipboard and tape measure as she smiles for the camera.

Kyle Romano

Edited by:
Kyle Romano

Monday, September 28, 2020

Olivia Babis, Political Advocate For Disability Rights

Profile of Olivia Babis. She's wearing a blue top and smiling for the camera

Oliva Babis, a public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida and one-time candidate for the Florida Senate, has often faced a variety of barriers and
discrimination. You see, she was born an amputee. Because she dealt with these obstacles at an early age, Olivia's experiences taught her to battle for herself and other people with disabilities. And that was just the beginning. By overcoming these challenges, Olivia steeled her resolve and became the incredible disability advocate that she is today.

Olivia went on to become a public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, and later a Democratic Candidate for the Florida Senate. But what set her on this path? Like most people with disabilities, Olivia has faced her fair share of barriers and discrimination. And like many others, her journey began in the public school system. She began by attending a Polk County elementary school, where she was placed in a Special Education class. Though Olivia neither had a learning nor an intellectual disability, it was difficult for her family to convince the county to mainstream her into a "typical" classroom. On top of that, accessible transportation was an issue. If Olivia had to take a wheelchair accessible bus to school, she would've missed an hour of class... Every day... By chance, her grandmother worked in the school system, and was able to help Olivia get to and from school.

After a drastic amount of effort and time, Olivia was partially mainstreamed in the third grade. There, she spend part of her day with the Special Ed. class, and the rest with a "typical" class. At this time, there weren't many public schools that were wheelchair accessible. As a result, Olivia had to attend specific schools that could accommodate her needs and was often separated from her friends. If you ever had to change schools as a kid in elementary school, you can imagine how it made her feel. And since she was forced to attend different schools because of her disability, we can only imagine how much more uncomfortable that made her feel.

During her time in Special Education, Olivia became friends with other kids that had a wide range of disabilities. What Olivia began to notice, was that each person had their own set of needs, unique to themselves. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in History, Olivia became passionate about advocating for disability rights. What she learned encouraged her to fight against injustices related to people with disabilities. Olivia set her sights on politics, using that platform to raise awareness for the disability community, which doesn’t get much attention in the mainstream media.

Since starting her career in politics, Olivia has worked on a number of prestigious campaigns, and has continued to fight for her people. The first piece of legislation that she was assigned, through Disability Rights Florida, was related to a statewide straw ban. Olivia wanted to show that a ban on straws wouldn’t just affect the environment, but that it would harm disabled people. And while the bill passed through Florida legislation, it was unfortunately vetoed by the governor. This campaign was still important because it did succeed in raising awareness about disability rights.

In 2018, Olivia decided to check off a bucket list item: she was going to run for office. After Greg Steube resigned from the Florida State Senate District 23, the opportunity finally presented itself. During her campaign, Olivia shed light on a number of disability-related issues. One of her main goals was to reach people who were federally recognized as "disabled," even though they didn't consider themselves to be. As a result, many of these individuals couldn't receive the government assistance that they needed to stay healthy. By also addressing issues such as abuse and neglect, she wanted to create solutions to benefit the lives of people with disabilities and the elderly.

Unfortunately, though not by much, Olivia came up short in the election. Despite this minor setback, this portion of her political career has been extremely important for all people, and put a face to this civil rights issue. Since this topic doesn't often get the spotlight, Olivia’s campaign was important because it served as an important teaching moment for our community.

Olivia’s determination, ingenuity, and tireless work ethic continues to  propel her career and advocacy efforts forward. Her actions show the unlimited potential of people with disabilities, and demonstrate the importance that they play in their communities. Olivia is an invaluable resource for our local community, who will continue to fight for the rights of people with disabilities.

Kyle Romano

Accessibility Review: Sunken Gardens

Accessibility Grade: B- At about 100 years old, Sunken Gardens is an historical landmark in Downtown St. Petersburg . It's the area'...