Feeling waves for first time: Floating wheelchairs big hit on P.E.I. beaches
'It's about inclusion and enjoying the beach'
For the first time in her life, 26-year-old Meghan Hughes has been able to feel what it's like to have waves wash over her, thanks to a floating wheelchair at Cedar Dunes provincial park.
The floating chairs are provided at four P.E.I. provincial park beaches including the park at West Point, P.E.I. That's where Hughes, who's visiting from Windsor, Ont., recently took her first ride into the ocean.
You know she's happy when she hits the water.— Maryann LaFlamme
"As soon as the water touches her toes, she knows she's in the water," said her beaming mom, Maryann LaFlamme.
Hughes has severe global developmental disorder and autism, can't speak, and has had seizures daily since she was 15 days old.
The three-wheeled buggy made by a company called Water Wheels, has balloon tires and floating armrests and is designed so the user remains in a reclined position.
'Not being able to get in the water'
Until recently, whenever the family went to a beach, Meghan could only sit in her wheelchair on shore and watch.
"It's sad," LaFlamme said. "We just have to bring her chair and let her look at the water, not being able to get into the water."
LaFlamme does have another option to get her daughter closer to the water. When the family travels, they often bring an inflatable boat, but say it's a lot of work.
"We have to blow it up," LaFlamme explained. "We have to pull her chair down as close as we can and then put her into the boat."
But sitting in a boat is not the same as being in the water.
"Feeling the waves going by and what temperature it is," is important, LaFlamme said.
'Water calms her'
As LaFlamme pushes the wheelchair into the water, Hughes grins and makes joyful sounds as the waves gently lap over her legs.
"You know she's happy when she hits the water," LaFlamme said. "She'll maybe vocalize, use her sounds, so that's a beautiful thing."
Floating in the ocean can also be soothing, she said.
"Water calms her down, with her certain disabilities. It's relaxing," LaFlamme said. "She'll fall asleep out in the water. That's why I always take her to the water for therapy."
'A good deal'
The floating wheelchairs cost about $3,000 each.
"That kind of investment for that much enjoyment? It's a good deal," said Shane Arbing, manager of provincial parks on P.E.I.
"Big smiles from everybody, and to have the availability to get into the water like that, it's great," Arbing said. "We're really, really pleased."
Cedar Dunes park is next to the West Point Lighthouse Inn, which is where most people in the area enter the beach.
While the inn doesn't own the floating wheelchair, it does benefit from having it available for guests.
"We have more and more people looking for beach accessibility ... and our rooms are up because of it," said Kim MacDonald, the inn's general manager.
"People with disabilities are checking in and using the beach and the chair."
'Everybody's going to want to come and use this'
LaFlamme agrees the floating wheelchairs will draw tourists to the Island.
"Everybody's going to want to come and use this," she said. "It's for all ages, young and old. It's about inclusion and enjoying the beach with your family."
LaFlamme would like to see all parks across Canada offer floating wheelchairs.
"I've got to say, P.E.I. you're setting the example to have the accessibility for all."
LaFlamme added that she and Hughes are leaving the Island with some happy memories of floating in the waves.
"Every time that she did go in, it was a blast," LaFlamme said. "Can't wait to come back."