A List of Events, Activities and Resources for Those with Special Needs and Abilities

By: Emily Nipps

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Florida’s transportation, theme parks, boating, beaches, day excursions and special events have become more inviting to those with various needs and abilities.

When David New moved to Miami Beach in 2005, he found it to have great potential to be “the most accessible place in the world.”

The Philadelphia-born entrepreneur and activist, who’d lost his eyesight to a rare disease years earlier, loved the weather, the beaches and the general walkability of the community.

But he felt the city could do more. So he joined the Miami Beach Disability Access Committee and, a few years later, he created Ability Explosion, a series of events held in October and designed to foster more acceptance and accessibility toward all disabilities.

The area now hosts a “dining in the dark” multi-restaurant event, a technology expo, an inspirational business lunch, a 5K for those with disabilities and other projects to create more of an awareness factor to the beach community. The event has grown over the years and is constantly evolving, New said.

“We’ve had people come from all over the world to attend,” New said. “It’s really a great setting to create that awareness, because it’s an international hotspot, and most people are here to have a good time.”

Thanks to people like New and others who have brought a special type of awareness to the landscape of sun and fun, Florida has become more and more accessible to its disabled visitors over the past decade. And as a result, transportation, theme parks, boating, beaches, day excursions and special events have become more inviting to those with various needs and abilities.   

Excursions and adventures

Whether visitors are looking to fish, snorkel, paddle in a kayak or just relax in the islands of Key Largo, Capt. Michael “Mick” Nealy will figure out a way to make it happen. The longtime captain fit a 28-foot pontoon boat with a special lift and goes out of his way to accommodate special requests on his Tranquil Adventures fishing charters and eco-tours.

“I like to customize the trip for each family or individual, because so many have such different abilities,” Nealy said. “Usually if they go with me a couple of times, they start to figure out all the different things they can do and try.”

Nealy, whose bout with polio at age 2 left him with mobility challenges his whole life, knows all the best spots to explore and stays in calm waters to avoid any jostling on the boat. He’ll often take guests to a waterside tiki bar that can be reached via ramp, or help rig someone with limited use of arms with a special fly fishing rod.

For the more serious fishing pros, Florida Disabled Anglers holds six bass fishing tournaments every year. Disabled anglers are paired with boat captains and they compete against other disabled anglers on lakes throughout central Florida. Membership in FDA is free and the $30 entry fee into the tournaments is open to anyone.

Those who prefer to be with the fish might enjoy Island Dolphin Care, a “dolphin therapy” adventure designed for children with special needs and wounded veterans. Programs range from half-day educational tours to five-day camps, and they are intended to help children, adults and families with developmental and physical disabilities, emotional challenges and illnesses find solace and stimulation through interaction with dolphins, known for their gentleness and intelligence.

In Naples, the Alzheimer’s Support Network offers a free program, sponsored by CREW Land and Water Trust, providing early-onset Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers a monthly guided tour through Bird Rookery Swamp. The hour-and-a-half stroll along a mile of hard crushed-shell trail and boardwalk is narrated by a guide who points out wildlife and plants and tells stories about the history of the area. The guide also encourages the walkers to notice sights, sounds and smells, and everyone takes home an artifact or memento of the day.

Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has an ADA-compliant horticulture feature, the one-acre Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden. The garden has a treetop canopy walk, rope bridges, a waterfall and lagoon and other hands-on features, and a special lift helps give wheelchair-bound visitors a taste of treetop living.

Because there are so few cliffs and hills in Florida, it’s an ideal state for wheelchair hiking through wildlife-rich wooded areas. Florida Hikes, an excellent and comprehensive hiking website, provides a great overview of wheelchair-friendly trails.

For a different kind of connection to nature – outer space – Kennedy Space Center is especially accommodating to disabled visitors and has a number of services and experiences catered toward those in wheelchairs or for the sight and hearing impaired. The IMAX Theaters have wheelchair lifts for those who want to sit in upper levels, and ushers can provide special closed captioning reflective panels or descriptive audio devices to those who need them. American Sign Language interpreters can be reserved for the tours if reserved ahead of time.

The center also has a simulated Shuttle Launch Experience ride equipped with a pivoting grab bar that allows disabled guests to transfer directly from a wheelchair to a harnessed seat with an extended seat pan. There’s also an observation room for those who opt out of the ride but still want to experience the launch and watch their friends or family members inside the cabin.

Special Events

One of the biggest Florida events of the year for children and adults with physical or intellectual challenges is the springtime (usually in March) Boating and Beach Bash for People with Disabilities. Boca Raton’s beautiful Spanish River Park and Intercoastal Waterway set a peaceful backdrop to a flotilla of private yachts, which families may ride for free. The event organizers also provide a free BBQ lunch, a therapy animal area, a fun kids’ zone, and bands featuring musicians with disabilities play all day.

Every autumn, a DisAbilities Expo is held at Ft. Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University, where people come from all over to learn about new services and products, watch a fashion runway show featuring models with disabilities, cheer along to disabled athletics showcase games and other activities, It’s a great way to learn about the latest in technology, meet others with inspiring stories and get more involved in local and national advocacy groups.

And in Tallahassee, the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association holds the free, three-day Sunshine State SportsAbility event each spring, highlighting active and outdoor living for those with disabilities. Kids and adults can watch and participate in “miracle baseball,” adaptive golf, interactive fishing simulator games, martial arts and other therapeutic recreational sports. There’s also an “outdoor day,” where people are encouraged to try new activities such as sit-down water skiing, hand-pedaled biking, archery, horseback riding and sailing.

Getting around on both street and sand

Florida’s generally flat terrain is ideal for those with disabilities, because many depend on walking or riding motorized scooters or wheelchairs to get around and the less hills and bumps, the better. But several of the bigger cities, such as Orlando, Tampa and Miami, require the use of a shuttle or car to fully explore their attractions, and finding one that is fully equipped to handle special needs can be a challenge.

In Orlando, for example, Mears Transportation is known for being especially accommodating to families traveling with wheelchairs or special needs. And Key West’s Five 6’s Taxi has “para-transit taxi” vans that can accommodate manual and electric wheelchairs along with passengers. While not all shuttle or cab companies can provide this kind of service, most are aware of the ones in town that do and are happy to share this info with out-of-town guests.

While many Florida attractions comply with ADA guidelines, no trip to the coastline would be complete without a stroll along the sandy beaches, which poses obvious challenges for those on wheels. These days, however, lots of coastal communities throughout the state have become accustomed to serving special needs at sea.

At Port Canaveral, guests at Jetty Park can borrow one of their two special beach wheelchairs to access both the pier and sandy shoreline. Clearwater Beach has a couple of first-come, first-served chairs as well, as do a lot of Florida beaches.

There are no formal ADA guidelines for marinas, but the City of Marathon equipped the Boot Key Harbor City Marina with floating docks and other additions that ease wheelchair access in its dinghy docks, boardwalks and parking facilities.

Most Florida State Parks are mindful of those with special accessibility needs or other accommodations. To see a list of parks with accessible trails, fishing piers, beach wheelchairs and boat tours, go to: http://www.floridastateparks.org/accessforall/accessiblefacilities.cfm.

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