For Bronson Ebanks, going for a swim in the clear, calm waters off Seven Mile Beach has been virtually impossible since he suffered a stroke in 2015.
That changed Saturday when the 72-year-old became the first person to benefit from a new “Mobi-Mat” installed on public beach to allow elderly and disabled people easy access to the water.
The mat – a removable heavy-duty rubber and plastic pathway – allows wheelchair users to roll over the sand and into the sea. It was installed for a trial last weekend and is expected to become a permanent fixture on the beach from next month.
For the various government and community groups behind the project, it is a symbol that the Cayman Islands is rolling out the welcome mat to people with disabilities on the island’s beaches.
“This is momentous for the Cayman Islands because it makes Seven Mile Beach the first public beach in the Caribbean to be wheelchair accessible,” said Kim Voaden, director of the Sunrise Adult Training Centre and a member of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities.
“It has been a real treat to watch people use it.”
The mat, largely funded by Rotary Central and a handful of private donors, is a joint initiative involving various groups and the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, which coordinated regulatory approvals with multiple government departments. Susie Bodden, president of Rotary Central, which has also funded a new beach wheelchair that can be used to help people get into the water, said she hoped it would be a significant first step toward making Cayman’s beaches accessible to all. “We hope that when people see it in action, they will come forward and help fund others around the island. It is not a huge cost and I think it is something the hotels could do as well,” she said.
Ms. Bodden, who is also executive leader of the Special Needs Foundation, said she had made the issue a key campaign of her Rotary presidency.
“We wanted to fund the first one, so people could see it in action and see the difference it can make in people’s lives.”
She thinks having accessible beaches will also be an advantage for Cayman’s tourism industry.
Morne Botes, an advocate of beach access and one of the founders of the Save the Cove campaign to prevent Smith Cove from being developed in 2016, and his wife Shani are among a number of the private donors for the project. Mr. Botes said he was already rasing funds for a similar accessibility mat at Smith Cove.
“Eventually we want to put it on every public beach on the island,” he added.
The installation of the Mobi-Mat has involved a lengthy process, requiring sign-off from as many as five government departments.
Saturday’s trial run involved entrants in the Guardians Alive event – a run and swim for elderly or disabled people and their caregivers.
Several of the participants used the Mobi-Mat to access the water. New governor Anwar Choudhury and West Bay legislator Tara Rivers also showed up to watch.
Adonza Harrison, who organizes the Guardians Alive event, said Saturday’s demonstration had shown the simple technology had the power to make a real difference in people’s lives.
“To see seniors walking happily up and down the beach, taking joyful pics with younger persons and truly enjoying themselves was surreal,” she said.
“This was their joyous return to enjoying the water and being able to move easily on the sand.”
For Mr. Ebanks, who was able to go through a therapy session in the water, it has opened up new opportunities.
His cousin Faylene Ebanks said his family struggled to get him in the ocean since his stroke. “This is wonderful,” she said.
“The main problem has been getting across the beach. It is extremely difficult to get him in the water on a regular basis. This is going to be a tremendous benefit for a lot of people in Cayman.”
Cathy Frazier, whose 35-year-old son Jule Frazier suffers from cerebral palsy, was also able to test out the mat on Saturday. She said going to the beach was a big part of her son’s life and the Mobi-Mat would make it a much smoother experience.
“We live on an island and he loves the ocean like everyone else. Going in the water is one of the best exercises for him. He just loves it. It is freedom.”