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Seat at the Beach : Wheelchair Users Can Enjoy Water and Sand in O.C.'s 1st ‘Surf Chair’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been four years since Pat Demar was able take a stroll or jog along the beach, something the artist did every day before the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease left her in a wheelchair.

Demar and her boyfriend, Michael Laux, have since had to enjoy the beach from their car, never getting closer to the water than the parking lot.

But with the recent arrival of a special wheelchair designed for beach use, Demar received a long-awaited chance to travel along the sand, and to even get her feet wet.

“I love it,” said Demar, 35, relaxing in the colorful blue and yellow wheelchair after a trip along the shoreline. “It’s incredible.”

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Laux, who leisurely pushed Demar on the beach, received as much enjoyment from the outing.

“This is just long overdue,” said Laux, 37, of Laguna Niguel. “It’s incredible being able to get back to the water, especially in Southern California, where you can use the beach year-round.

“It’s a little Christmas present,” he added, smiling at Demar. “It got here just in time.”

The beach wheelchair, with its large, inflatable yellow wheels that move easily along the sand, was unveiled recently at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

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“It will open up the beaches for a lot of people,” said Scott Stuart, a state lifeguard who spearheaded a fund-raising drive for the $900 “Surf Chair.”

It is the first in Orange County, and one of only a handful in the state, said Stuart, a state lifeguard since 1974.

He knows better than anyone how hard it is to move a regular wheelchair on the sand.

That’s because the San Clemente resident was paralyzed four years ago in Costa Rica when he dove into a shallow pool. The accident left Stuart, 36, a quadriplegic, although he has regained mobility in his arms and dexterity of most of his fingers.

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He now works as a lifeguard dispatcher at San Clemente State Beach and serves as Orange Coast district coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities Act for the state park service.

The “Surf Chair” is just the first step in making local beaches more accessible to those with disabilities, Stuart said.

Before the busy summer season, Stuart said he hopes to have a wooden boardwalk and ramps built near the main lifeguard tower at Doheny State Beach, the most accessible of the South County state beaches.

Efforts are also under way to buy more Surf Chairs for other local beaches.

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The chair, with its wide wheels, won’t get stuck in the sand like a regular wheelchair. And because it is made of non-corrosive PVC plastic, the chair can get wet when riders venture near the surf.

The chair, which must be pushed by someone, promises to be in great demand.

State lifeguards at Doheny, San Clemente and San Onofre state beaches receive 10 to 15 requests a week during the summer to help disabled or elderly people through the sand.

“There’s a lot of use for it,” Stuart said.

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Stuart said he had never heard of the “Surf Chair” until he received a call this fall from Laux, who had seen one of the chairs elsewhere. The chairs were invented several years ago by Florida lifeguard Mike Hensler.

Within weeks of starting a fund-raising drive in October, the nonprofit State Lifeguard Assn. received enough money to buy the first chair.

“It really uplifted my spirits to see that kind of response,” Stuart said. “I was just stoked that the community did it.”

Anyone interested in using the “Surf Chair” can call the Doheny State Beach entrance station for a reservation at (714) 496-6172.

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Donations to help buy more of the customized wheelchairs may be sent to the attention of Scott Stuart at California Aquatic Safety Inc., P.O. Box 1484, San Clemente, Calif. 92674-1484. For more information, contact Stuart at (714) 366-8525.


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