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A young wheelchair user wants more local businesses to think of disability access, starting with a beach-friendly route to the ocean

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When chronic illness demanded Shell Beach teenager Mia Armstrong become a wheelchair user, she found herself perplexed by once-mundane activities as soon as her parents brought her home from the hospital.

"The first wheelchair I was given was quite large and bulky. None of the door frames I could fit through because it's such an old house. There were a lot of tight little halls and turns that made it hard to get around even my own house," Armstrong said.

A NEW WAVE Mia Armstrong, a Shell Beach teenager and full-time wheelchair user, is a frequent Pismo Beach visitor who wants to introduce SLO County's piers to Mobi Mats. - SCREENSHOT FROM MIA ARMSTRONG'S INSTAGRAM PAGE
  • Screenshot From Mia Armstrong's Instagram Page
  • A NEW WAVE Mia Armstrong, a Shell Beach teenager and full-time wheelchair user, is a frequent Pismo Beach visitor who wants to introduce SLO County's piers to Mobi Mats.

Home wasn't the only cramped space for Armstrong. Shell Beach, with its numerous flights of stairs, many outdated buildings, and the general hilly terrain proved to be quite challenging for the 18-year-old. Even several restaurants and cafés limited their handicapped parking spots to expand outdoor seating in the midst of COVID-19.

"You can't always blame it on the businesses for not having an elevator into their location, but that's a bit of a challenge where we live," she said.

Armstrong said that was why wheelchair navigation became both a physical and personal journey for her. It prompted her to start an Instagram page called @miasdisabili.tea in mid-October, five months into being a full-time wheelchair user. It's a space where she highlights businesses with accessible resources and also provides tips for improving inclusivity.

"I'm trying to make it fun and young. I'm trying to show that being disabled is not the worst thing in the world," the Cuesta College biomedicine major said.

While she spends a lot of time catching up on homework at Steaming Bean—a café she appreciates because of its access ramp and elevator—Armstrong said she's an avid beach lover. But even though she can get herself onto the sand through self-navigation and with the help of her boyfriend, moving to the water from that point is nearly impossible without being carried. Most wheelchairs, even custom-made ones like Armstrong's, aren't built to run on sand.

Armstrong said that often resources for wheelchair users are geared toward senior citizens, making young people with disabilities feel left out. But she has a possible solution in mind—encouraging Pismo Beach to adopt a device called the Mobi Mat that can connect its pier to the oceanfront.

"It's eco-friendly and doesn't damage beach life. It's not permanent; it wouldn't be a construction project. It's pretty much like a gymnastics roll-up mat that you just roll across the beach. It would allow people from down the ramp ... and over to the water. I just want to get to the water without someone having to carry me that day," she said.

The idea came from collaborating with a strategy company called Women Making Waves (WMW) after Armstrong approached its founder about including resources for people with disabilities at its events.

"Mia and I started researching it after we heard about [areas like] Huntington Beach using Mobi Mats," WMW and Connected Communities Founder Tyler Skinner said.

Tyler's husband, Bill Skinner, is the former city manager of Coalinga, in Fresno County. She said his professional background in local government allowed him to advise Armstrong on whom to pitch her idea to.

"This is a great project for 2022—to create community synergy, to create access to the beach for everyone [who] comes to visit our beautiful coastline," Bill said.

Bill's suggestion: pitch Mobi Mats to Pismo Beach City Council and to the Avila Harbor Commission, which Armstrong said she will do in the upcoming weeks.

Tyler said that by collaborating with these public agencies and by encouraging them to include hotels in accessibility projects, the coalition could achieve Public-Private Partnership status, also known as P3.

In fact, Pismo Beach officials told New Times that this kind of union is already active.

"We have beach-accessible wheelchairs at no cost because of our partnership with Sandcastle Inn. [People] can obtain it from the hotel. It was done in order to limit access restriction," Assistant City Manager Jorge Garcia said.

Garcia added that the City Council also amended a municipal code, which prohibited all motorized vehicles on beaches, to exempt motorized wheelchairs from the restriction. Inspired by a Cal Poly prototype test of a wheelchair that can operate on sand, the changed rule went into effect in October.

Garcia mentioned that Pismo Beach encourages people to approach city staff with new ideas for evaluation.

"Communities can be innovative, and we're allowing for that innovation [to come into] areas that previously only able-bodied individuals [could] access. We welcome input so all people can feel welcome in Pismo Beach," he said.

Moreover, from Dec. 4 through 12, the city will host the Pismo Beach ISA World Para Surfing Championship where para surfers from around the world will compete in a Paralympic-style competition.

Armstrong, too, is passionate about surfing. She hopes for the inclusion of Mobi Mats soon so she can enjoy the sport more often with her boyfriend. A Pismo Beach lifeguard, Armstrong's boyfriend has access to a rescue board with handles on both sides. He paddles it out into the ocean as a makeshift surfboard while she holds onto him.

"Not everyone has a lifeguard boyfriend to carry them out to the beach every day," Armstrong laughed. "That's why we need this mat." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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