ST. THOMAS — The territory’s first “AccessMat” was inaugurated Tuesday at Magens Bay Beach. The brightly colored vinyl mats, along with beach-friendly wheelchairs, give the physically disabled easy access to the water and pave the way for enhancements to come.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new mat connecting the Magens Bay restroom to the water, V.I. Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White credited the equipment to a $50,000 grant from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
The grant provides mats and buggies to two beaches per district: Magens and Coki Point Beach on St. Thomas; and Cramer Park and possibly Fort Frederik Beach on St. Croix. Two beaches on St. John will also be designated at a later date.
White thanked the 33rd Legislature and Sen. Steven Payne Sr., who sponsored a bill — later signed into law by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. — that appropriated an additional $375,000 to make beaches more accessible, to include ramps, walkways, signage and parking spaces.
Perhaps more than anyone, White credited the tireless advocacy of Territorial Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator Julian Henley Sr.
“Your dream is now a reality,” White told Henley.
Henley, who himself has been in a wheelchair since 2008, said the new equipment represents just the beginning of a long effort to make the territory more accessible. Noting his love for the water, Henley said the beach was a good place to start for those with mobility challenges because “when you’re in the water, you’re just like everybody else.”
“It is an extremely proud moment to see that now persons who are challenged with mobility challenges will have an opportunity to go to a place where they can get into the water and not have to worry about the barriers that have plagued us for all these years,” he said.
Bryan, who also attended Tuesday’s ceremony, acknowledged that the territory’s commitment to the disabled has been “unsung for a long time,” and that his administration is seeking to reverse that.
“They say, ‘Who feels it, knows it,’” Bryan said. “We need to make more of a commitment to making our public spaces more accessible to our residents and our visitors who are physically challenged.”
Bryan said he will sign an executive order to increase the hiring of people with disabilities and to create more diversity in our workplace.
The AccessMats are portable, easy-to-install mats that can be removed. The new wheelchairs, known as “WaterWheels,” are brightly colored vehicles capable of traversing the mats and sand and are designed to float in the water.
V.I. Tourism Depatment representative Luana Wheatley said the equipment will be a boon to the tourism market.
“The installation of these mats throughout the territory will create barrier-free travel and barrier-free access to what we take for granted as going to the beach and going in the water,” she said. “To be able to have barrier-free travel for all visitors and locals is invaluable. Our visitors can see that we as Virgin Islanders are taking their ability to travel to the Virgin Islands seriously.”
Tuesday’s ceremony ended with a demonstration of the equipment by Natalie Rhymer, a client of the V.I. Association for Independent Living.
Also on hand for the demonstration were V.I. Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez, DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol and Magens Bay Authority Chairwoman Katina Coulianos.