When you think of Florida, chances are, the beach is one of the first things that comes to mind. With more than 600 miles of beaches, the state’s sandy shores are enjoyed by more than 80 million visitors each year. Yet, for people living with paralysis, like Sabrina Cohen, seaside areas can be largely inaccessible.
“Florida has an estimated 2.6 million people who have a form of disability, or 16.5% of the population over the age of five,” said Cohen, a Miami Beach native who sustained a C3-5 spinal cord injury in 1992 from a car accident at the age of 14. “These disabilities range in type and severity and may have varying impacts on mobility and the quality of people’s lives.”
In 2006, Cohen added her voice to the fight against paralysis and founded the Sabrina Cohen Foundation (SCF) to spread awareness and raise the much-needed funds to help the paralysis and disability community. Initially, SCF focused on stem cell research, an area that has enormous therapeutic potential for various conditions, including spinal cord injury. Over time, SCF broadened its interests to include adaptive fitness and recreational quality of life initiatives for people living with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.
Two years ago, SCF launched a partnership with the City of Miami Beach to create a fully-accessible beach and playground for the disabled, including seniors, veterans and children with special needs. To help fund the project, Cohen reached out to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grants Program.
“The Reeve Foundation was enormously supportive of the whole initiative, from concept to reality,” said Cohen. “The Quality of Life grant is helping to fund a year of the project, including equipment and all the other pieces needed to make it successful. The Reeve Foundation funding was the perfect complement to the groundwork done by me and my staff to create a high level of support to bring the idea to light.”
Launching in summer 2016, the project provides, for the first time in Miami Beach, a dedicated public beach space with improved wheelchair access, and outdoor adaptive fitness and watersport activities managed by qualified staff and volunteers. The development of a fully accessible playground is slated to begin later this year. Located on 64th and Collins Avenue, the project will greatly improve the ability for disabled people to get onto the public beach and into the ocean.
“More accessibility will provide opportunities for the disabled population to come together with family and friends to enjoy health and wellness activities on and by the beach,” said Cohen. “The project also serves as a model for the state of Florida, where so many other beaches are inaccessible. I think the Reeve Foundation saw an early glimpse at an opportunity to support something new that could serve as a pilot program to replicate and share with other cities and states.”
Users will have access to six adaptive beach wheelchairs, including water-wheels beach chairs that float in the ocean, on-land beach wheelchairs, and an adaptive stroller. The beach will also include a new platform of decks and mats help provide access to a number of new programs such as adaptive meditation, yoga, art therapy, hand-cycling along the boardwalk, adaptive surfing and water sports.
The Reeve Foundation grant also purchased special cushions to prevent pressure sores on beach chairs, an ON-it adaptive surfing kit, several adaptive surfboards and paddle boards and an adaptive beach walker. A director of recreation who is certified to coach was hired to work hands-on with disabled individuals on the beach and in the water.
“The ultimate goal of this adaptive beach project is to get as many people with mobility issues into the ocean and enjoying outdoor recreation activities like everyone else,” said Cohen. “I want to extend a major thank you to the Reeve Foundation for their commitment to support this initial program and the grant to make it possible.”
A long-time Reeve Foundation supporter, Cohen has attended several advocacy events and is part of the Reeve Foundation’s Public Impact Panel, a six-member group created to bring authentic voices, advocacy and action to the spinal cord injured community.
“The Reeve Foundation offers a nice mix of research and quality of life that covers the full spectrum of what the spinal cord community needs; everyone looks up to them to take care of and empower the entire community,” said Cohen. “Their tremendous support provides the opportunity for the on-the-ground advocates, like me, to do our work and share our success. It is a true blessing.”