The 141 miles of oceanfront along the Central and Southern New Jersey coast, affectionately known as the Jersey Shore, lures millions of vacationers each year. Jim McCann and his family are among the throngs of people who flock to the shore as often as they can during the summer. For Jim, it’s a tradition that dates back to childhood, when he often stayed at his aunt and uncle’s place in Ocean City.
“I loved the beach as a kid, running around, playing in the sand, hitting up the boardwalk,” said Jim, 41, of Northeast Philadelphia.
On some weekends Jim and his wife, Kristin, are on the beach with their two young daughters as early as 10 am. A beach wheelchair allows him to get out on the sand, where he soaks up the sun and helps 4-year old Natalie and one-year old Vivian build sandcastles.
“I’m definitely a beach person. My wife is too,” said Jim. “I enjoy it just as much as an able-bodied person.”
Jim’s life was forever changed 22 years ago. He was robbed and shot while making a call at a payphone in Northeast Philadelphia. The bullet left the then 19-year old man paralyzed from the chest down. During his months recovering at Magee, he often thought about how his life had changed so drastically and wondered what his “new normal” would look when he returned home.
“I wanted to do the same things as everybody else was doing,” Jim said.
Determined to live life to the fullest, Jim started going back down the shore with his group of friends two years after his spinal cord injury. Back then he didn’t worry about wheelchair access, because his buddies carried him up steps and took him out onto the beach. As the years went by, though, Jim realized this approach wasn’t very practical. Taking a traditional wheelchair on to the beach wasn’t a viable option either.
“The sand gets in the bearings,” he explained. “The wheelchair starts to sink too.”
Over the last 15 years there has been a push across the US for communities to improve beach accessibility for individuals who rely on wheelchairs. Today, places like Sea Isle City, where the McCann family visits, have installed blue heavy-duty polyester mats that are positioned at beach access points and anchored into the sand to provide a smooth level surface for wheelchairs. This makes it easier for people with disabilities to enjoy the beach without having to trudge through thick, powdery sand.
With all of the time they spend at the shore, the McCann family purchased a beach wheelchair for Jim. Beach wheelchairs can be quite costly to buy – between $1,000 – $3,000 depending on make and model. However, most shore towns have them available to use for a few hours at no cost. Advance reservations are highly recommended. Information about accessibility and beach wheelchairs is generally found on each municipality’s website.
“I do enjoy my time at the shore. Nothing’s changed,” said Jim, who also serves as a Peer Mentor to spinal cord injury patients at Magee. He counsels them about what to expect in the days and months ahead as far as rehab, recovering and moving on with their lives – part of that includes going to the beach and enjoying life. A day at the beach does take some preparation and planning. Jim is mindful to generously apply sunscreen. He also covers his legs with a towel, because he can’t feel them and wants to avoid sunburn.
“It’s vital for you to have a productive life, especially from the beginning,” Jim said. “You gotta live it up.”
In addition to his beach wheelchair, Jim uses a stair climbing wheelchair to assist with accessing their home at the Jersey shore.