For the last few years of my mother’s life, she was confined to a wheelchair outside of the home. Her illness made it very difficult to walk more than a few meters at a time without assistance. So I was her “pusher”, as she called me. As in, I pushed her wheelchair everywhere. Since we liked to have fun and basically our favorite thing to do was lunch, I was often her “pusher”. Especially in season in our hometown of Hampton Beach.
While the state and community have done much over the years to make the beach and tourist area as accessible as possible for the physically challenged, there aren’t many answers or ways to allow a person with a physical disability to enjoy the close access to the ocean…until now.
A bill snaking through the NH legislature, Senate Bill 346, would authorize the Hampton Beach Area Commission $150,000 to study the “feasibility and implications” of building a pier in Hampton Beach. The idea is to build the pier in front of the beach just south of Boar’s Head and the motivation is to allow disabled access to the sea itself. I can literally picture my mother’s smile on her face – with the ocean spraying – as I fantasize about pushing her onto this pier, which I really hope comes to fruition.
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There are many benefits touted with this concept. A new tourist attraction and one further north than the other activities in Hampton. Fishing opportunities from the pier, perhaps access to personal watercraft. And the reality that besides the jetty, which I personally enjoy walking every summer (although I realize every year I get older I’ll break a hip someday) there is no other “on the water itself”. . at Hampton Beach.
Unlike other coastal communities, we do not have waterfront restaurants or anything like that. This expansive waterfront should be retained primarily as such for beachgoers as this is our biggest draw, but a place to go beyond the sea is a great idea.
However, as with anything, we must learn from the past. State Sen, Kevin Avard, R-Nashua originally came up with this idea after visiting here and meeting a woman from New York who said she had been coming here since she was a little girl. As they spoke, she pointed out her sister in a wheelchair next to the facilities, apparently unable to access the sand and therefore the water. I love it when these kinds of projects come to fruition based on real life experiences and ideas. Sen. Avard has been able to garner bipartisan sponsorship support, including from our own state Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye. The overall purpose of this proposal is accessibility, this is where learning from the past comes into play.
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Many moons ago, Hampton Beach underwent a facelift on Ashworth Avenue and the labeled side streets. While many opposed it for a variety of reasons, one of the biggest selling points was making sidewalks accessible and the movement safer for people with disabilities. I believe the consulting firm that developed the wheelchair-accessible death traps we call accessible sidewalks is from Pennsylvania. Whoever the consultants are who are awarded the contract for this study and project, do not choose them.
After being a “pusher” for many years, my mother and I had the idea that we should become accessibility safety consultants. We didn’t have engineering degrees, just two English majors, but we had something these highly paid consultants didn’t have – experience driving and pushing a wheelchair. We believed, and I still believe, that before building anything under the guise of accessibility, engineers need to create a simulator or proving ground and push a wheelchair with a person in it through the project. Maybe that would prevent a person from falling out of a chair every two meters lips, or decorative trees or street signs in the middle of sidewalks preventing anyone from walking by, let alone driving, without stepping onto the road or contorting oneself Actors in Cirque Du Soleil.
Seriously, who knew planting trees in the middle of a “handicapped accessible” sidewalk made any sense?
I stopped pushing her on sidewalks pretty quickly. The hard shoulder at Ashworth or the roads themselves were safer. Even with a delivery truck parked in the hard shoulder, it was literally safer to pull into actual traffic on Ashworth Avenue down the street than to use the up-down-up-down don’t-hit-a-crack -and -dump mom sidewalks.
It’s not just the sidewalks, I think common sense is at a premium when it comes to accessibility. Why does every single doctor’s office in the Northeast seem to have a trash can behind the extra-wide wheelchair-accessible doors? Don’t these offices understand the importance of being able to fully open the extra wide door to allow a wheelchair through? I think I moved more trash cans than DPW in a week.
I am excited at the prospect of a pier in Hampton Beach for many reasons. I am very happy that a study is done first so that all the ‘feasibility and impact assessments’ can be done – the most important of which will be for me as it is the motivation of the project: ‘Is this real and practical? barrier-free?”
If done right, this would be a great addition to our beach and I know Mama Preston’s only question would have been, “Why did it take you so long?!”
Alicia Preston Xanthopoulos is a former political adviser and media representative. She hails from Hampton Beach where she lives with her family and three poodles. Write to her at PrestonPerspective@gmail.com.