I tried surfing once, and I was awful at it. My wife and I went to Hawaii a few years ago for our 25th wedding anniversary and no trip to Hawaii would be complete without trying to learn to surf. We spent an hour in Waikiki Bay with an instructor who was one of the more patient people I’ve ever met, and failed miserably at surfing. At the very end, we were both able to get on the board for a few moments — long enough to get some snapshots which will be misleading for all eternity. A picture, in this case, does not tell a thousand words.
I do, however, love the beach. I just got back from one of my favorite places in the world – Nokomis Beach in Florida. Jill and I have been going down there for over 30 years and, added together, I have spent over one year of my life in Florida, hanging out at the beach. Beaches are great — free parking, free fun. Put on some suntan lotion, grab a good book and something cool to drink, and you have a truly enjoyable experience.
For people in wheelchairs, however, the beach can be impossible. It is pretty hard to draw up a fun location to go to that is less accessible by it’s very nature than a beach. People in wheelchairs can go out on the pier, or the jetty, if they are set up correctly. They can go in a boat, provided the boat or marina has a lift to help them aboard. But it is incredibly difficult to actually go to the beach itself or (pipe dream) surfing, if you are a wheelchair user.
There is a wonderful organization called AmpSurf that is trying to change all of that. In partnershp with students from University of California at Berkeley they are creating a prototype of a power wheelchair that will handle beach terrain. This is actually not new…. There have been created before that could help wheelchair users go on to the beach. What makes this effort unique is that this chair is being designed to help users with disabilities to surf.
The chair has a side rack to carry the surf board. The user drives the wheelchair out into the shallow water and, once they have taken out the board and dismounted the chair, pushes a button on their phone to send the chair back to the beach. When the surfer is ready to come out, the chair will return to the water to help the user exit the ocean.
This type of technology sounds incredible and it will no doubt have a profound impact on some people. It does, however, highlight how tough the field of assistive technology can be. One of the questions to be asked when a new product comes along is: Who is it for? In this case it is apparently for (a) wheelchair users who (b) live near the ocean and (c) want to surf and (d) have the money to spend on it. I fear that would be an pretty small piece of pie in the end.
Surfing is a very niche sport and activity. But millions of people love going to the beach. Over half of the states in the USA border an ocean or one of the great lakes. Many warm weather states, like Florida, cater to an elderly population. If this product can be marketed to beach lovers (with the added bonus to surfers), it might have a chance. I wish them well – because everyone deserves a day at the beach!