Getting to the beach and taking a plunge in the sea for severely disabled people can be a challenge: meet the associations that are making it possible in Italy.
Going to the beach in Italy, at least for those living along the roughly 7500 km of coastline, is a human right: as much one as a plate of spaghetti with seafood – eaten out possibly with a sea view. This is probably the reason why there is a growing movement of local, often family based associations that have gone and are going to the conquest of “a place in the sun” for friends and family members with disabilities all throughout the country.
Access to public places in Italy for people with mobility impairments is highly disciplined by a law meant to eliminate architectural barriers: it is a very complete law and dates back to 1989, which means that every new building or commercial activity has to comply with the regulations which include, for example, the mandatory presence of a disabled toilet in all public establishments, with specific size and equipment requirements. Older buildings and existing activities have also had to follow the rules. However, common practices like parking cars irregularly in front of curb cuts, a lack of regular maintenance of elevators and other equipment meant for disabled people, the abuse of accessible toilets for a multitude of “alternative” scopes (from hosting the manager’s office to storage facilities) or lack of regular cleaning, make life for people with mobility issues, most notably those who use a wheelchair full-time, harder – and more frustrating.
With a public health system that is not always disabled-friendly, a general lack of publicly available information for disabled people and their families on the rights, services and opportunities that would make their life easier, it is no surprise that the resistance strategy has been to create all over the country a number of family-based associations, which support people in dealing with public administrations, organize activities and share information about disability rights. Italy counts also a wide number of major disability associations with large number of members and services and nationwide coverage and lobbying force. However, the most exciting news when it comes to getting into the water is coming from very small but fierce non-profit groups.
Citizens take things into their own hands
It is thanks to associations like the ones we describe in this article that access to the beach and the sea is becoming a real possibility also for people with severe disabilities, and that the level of the equipment and assistance is so high: the beaches we describe in this article have not only wheelchair access and special beach chairs. These places have specific equipment and sockets set up for beachgoers who use ventilators or have tracheostomy, and also offer assistance through volunteers to take people for a bath in the sea, by themselves or with their friends and family. Being created by people with disabilities, these baths and beaches are extremely well thought and prepared for all needs.
These associations are generally non-profits, and access to the beach and the assistance are free: this is one perk of the system, which means free access to totally equipped beaches in some of the most beautiful coasts in Italy, and the company and support of local volunteers, complete with the organization of events and animation during the day and in the evenings, adapted sports and unbeatable food and drinks. Support does not end at the waterfront: these beaches offer support also for bathing in the sea, and this is also for people with tracheostomy. The interviewed beachgoers often say that taking a plunge in the sea is something they thought was not possible anymore for them, and the experience is one they definitively want to repeat, over and over again.
From South to North
“Io posso” means “I can”, and it is Gaetano Fuso’s motto: the driving force that led this 42 year old from Calimera (Lecce) who was diagnosed with ALS in 2014 and is using a wheelchair and ventilator, to set up what is now the beach Terrazza “Tutti al mare”, the terrace “Everyone at the beach”.
Gaetano, his wife Giorgia and his two daughters, like every single individual living in Salento, are sea lovers. Probably because the coast, deep down at the end of the heel of the Italian boot, in the province of Lecce, is stunning, and offers a number of attractions: from sandy beaches to rocks, coves with prehistoric frescoed caves, medieval observation towers all along the coast, and archeological ruins (from Roman and pre-historic times). The green of the olive orchards, the red earth, the blue sea, make for a visual and sensory experience that is difficult to forget. One recent definition of Salento is the “Italian tropics”, which is perhaps an understatement. After his diagnose and due to the need to have his medical equipment to support him at all times, Gaetano, Giorgia and a number of friends and family members got together to set up a highly equipped beach that would allow people with severe disabilities not only to enjoy the beach, but also to take a plunge in the sea.
This is now possible in San Foca (Melendugno – Lecce), thanks to a network of volunteers, nurses, lifeguards and the support of the local police forces, and it does not end at sunset. The Terrazza team organizes a number of activities, music, debates and games, and recently an evening all dedicated to travel for people with mobility impairments because, as Francesco Aprile, one of the main actors of the terrazza says, it is important to inspire the beachgoers to “go a step further” and travel also outside of their immediate surroundings.
The beach chosen by the team of Io Posso is in a special area, from a natural and ecologic point of view, and that part of the coast has received national certifications for the quality of the water and the landscape (the international “Blue Flag” recognition and the highest number of “Sails” awarded by the Italian environmental association Legambiente).
The team of Io Posso is becoming a major inspiration for other associations around Italy, who are following their example and with their support and consultancy, are setting up similar structures.
Dario, a resident of the delightful little town of Faenza, was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, but didn’t want to give up on life and on the sea: after he met Gaetano and the Terrazza team, he and his family and friends got down to work. This July, further up north on the same Adriatic sea coast, in Punta Marina (province of Ravenna) they launched “Insieme a te”, “Together with you”, an accessible fully equipped beach that is managed by them through their association. They are equipped for people with severe disabilities and their services, included staff and carers, are free and managed through trained volunteers.From East to West: in breathtakingly beautiful Liguria, a few kilometers from Genoa, the accessible beaches equipped for severe disabilities are 6.
The beaches are organized and maintained by the association “Noi Handiamo”, a word play with the words for “We go” and “handicap”. The association is entirely based on the work of volunteers – many of which have disabilities – and was launched in 2014 to create accessible beaches in their area. Their work has moved smaller and larger mountains: from private companies and local tourism operators to municipal and regional administrations, the team of Noi Handiamo has worked to establish partnerships and collaborations to make the area of Sestri Levante more accessible and disabled-friendly. Their equipment consists of special beach beds that are higher than standard ones, to allow people to transfer easily, and they have chairs to move around the beach and to take a bath in the sea. Each beach is described very well in detail and there are maps too. The association is currently working on a project to make a wheelchair accessible boat.
And the islands too
Sicily and Sardinia, two incredibly popular holiday destinations for Italians and foreigners alike, offer wonderful beaches and equipped ones too: not to mention adapted diving activities and the ever present wonderful food and drinks (just in case you were not convinced yet).
San Vito Lo Capo in Sicily is an area well known both for the beaches and the natural park “Riserva dello zingaro”, which was the first natural park created in the region. It is here that in 2000 the association Disabili No Limits started promoting adapted water sports and diving for people with mobility and cognitive impairments, and in 2010 the Zero barriers beach project was launched. The beach is free and no reservation is needed, it is equipped with special beach beds, beach chairs for wheeling around the beach and in the water and you can practice a number of adapted water sports (also paradiving) with specialized instructors.
Hop on to the “next island”, specifically to Sant’Antioco in the South Western part of Sardinia, in the former mining province of Carbonia Iglesias, who not incidentally takes its name from the coal (“carbone”) that was intensively mined here until the seventies. Sant’Antioco is an island, but you can drive there from the mainland using a road built on an artificial isthmus, and next to it is the small island of Carloforte. Both islands are extremely beautiful and wild areas, rich both from a naturalistic point of view, with a wide choice of fauna (and sea water with thermal sources below), and from an historical one, with archeological remains. To complement the charm, there are salt marshes around the island, as salt harvesting is one of the three main economic activities, after agriculture and fishing. To add to the charm: in the island lives a lady who is one of the last people in the world that can harvest and weave the byssus, a precious fiber extracted from a specific kind of mollusk, the pen shell.
In this beautiful and also magical land, the association “Le rondini” (“the swallows”) was created in 2014 by various families of the province, to support the disabled individuals and their relatives and re-create a sense of belonging and community. The “Isola del cuore”, the “Island of the heart”, is their beach project: they also set it up with the support and help of the “Io posso” team, and it is equipped with ventilators and medical staff on site, people can enjoy sand, water and the company of the volunteers that hang out there.
The beach has four equipped places, of which two are set up for people who need ventilators, and the whole beach is fully equipped for mobility needs and comprises an emergency room too.
Help out and start packing
“Piccolo é bello”, “small is beautiful”, goes the saying, and in this case small associations are truly creating something beautiful. Born to support and include the disabled members of their local communities, they are creating little havens for a wider public of disabled travellers from around the world, a growing public that is just dying to visit and enjoy these incredible parts of Italy.
Most of these organizations give free services but welcome donations, so if you wish to support them please do: you just have to check out their websites for the account numbers – the contacts are below.
If you want to visit, do your research first: in some cases it is necessary to book, in some access is free: in the list below you will find the instructions, and you can contact most of them also through Social Media (Facebook chat, for example, is widely available). As they are managed by volunteers, the possibility to communicate in languages others than Italian is variable, but be assured that these are jolly teams of very sociable Italians, therefore communication is an issue that will be easily solved, with some (improvised) sign language.
Contacts and addresses
Associazione “Le rondini new”
Beach “L’Isola nel cuore”
Google map with all the beaches in this article: https://goo.gl/maps/BqS5NHsxgpK2
Photo credits: all photos are published in the Facebook pages of the beaches and organisations mentioned. If you wish a photo to be removed, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org