This summer in Europe, beachgoers with mobility issues will have more opportunities to swim in the Mediterranean without having to worry about traversing the sand. Starting in May, more than 200 Seatrac chairs will be installed at beaches to help vacationers access the sea in Greece and a few neighboring countries, including Italy and Cyprus.
At each site, a wooden walkway leads to a solar-powered chair set on a single track. Users transfer themselves into the recliner and "drive" into the water via a remote-control device that is available at the beach or delivered to their hotel with advance notice.
Once in the sea, they can lift themselves out of the chair for a swim and then return to the chair for the trip back to the docking station.
The contraption lets them bypass the sand, which can be a hazard for people who use wheelchairs, canes or walkers, or are wobbly on their feet. It also allows them to enjoy the sea on their own volition - no extra hands required.
The "Seatrac does not provide only independent access to the sea. It provides dignity and independence to people with mobility issues that want to enjoy swimming," said Ignatios Fotiou, one of the Greek inventors of the innovative beach device. "They can choose where to go and ask their friends to join them, not the other way around."
In 2012, a company called TOBEA unveiled nine of the mobile chairs at several beaches in Greece. Last year, the company installed 180 devices in Greece, plus several in Cyprus, Italy and Latvia. This summer, it plans to operate more than 220 of them during high beach season, roughly May through October.
"In 2022, we had more than 40,000 uses," said Fotiou, the chief executive of TOBEA in Greece, of the gratis experience. "This is the direct impact - the thousands of smiles of people who can go swimming independently."
Fotiou said the company plans to expand within Europe and beyond. Officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Spain and Croatia have expressed interest.
"I am working with the U.S.V.I. government in purchasing three Seatrac Movers, which we hope will happen early this summer," said Don Peters, a paraplegic Army veteran based in St. Croix. "It will be a good tourist draw for wheelchair passengers on cruise lines."
Brian Bergman, president of TOBEA-West, said beachgoers in the United States will operate an enhanced version of the original Seatrac model. The Seatrac Mover will feature such accessories as an attached joystick instead of a remote control and multiple cameras affixed to the chair to help with visibility and discourage vandalism.
"Seatrac could benefit the more than 3 million wheelchair users and millions more who suffer from other mobility issues, the most prevalent disability in our country," said Bergman, who was inspired by his late sister-in-law, an avid swimmer with multiple sclerosis.
In Greece, the program was co-funded by the European Union's European Regional Development Fund and national government agencies. Municipalities and beach operators purchase the majority of the equipment. A handful of seaside resorts and bars have also added the amenity.
"An increasing number of beaches around Greece are becoming accessible for visitors with mobility difficulties. Although there are frequently customized requirements for people with disabilities, there are also various accessibility solutions to meet their needs," said Jenny Leivadarou, an inclusion consultant and wheelchair user based in Greece. "The chairs are well-tested and have successfully contributed toward this cause."
No more feeling like 'a sack of potatoes'
Seatrac grew out of conversation between Fotiou, an aerospace engineer, and a Greek friend who uses a wheelchair and said they disliked being carried into the water like "a sack of potatoes." To this point, Seatrac frees the beachgoer from having to rely on friends for a lift.
"I like that wheelchair users can use [Seatrac] independently without needing assistance," said Kristin Secor, who created the World on Wheels blog and watched a video demonstration of the chair from her New York home. "It looks like transferring from one's wheelchair to the device is relatively easy."
When Secor, who was born with muscular dystrophy, visited Greece in 2010, she relied on a cane for support. At a beach in Mykonos, she struggled to maintain her balance on the loose sand and in the waves. She now uses a wheelchair and ventilator, and her needs and abilities are different from a decade ago. Because she lacks upper body strength, she said she might not have enough power to lift herself in and out of the water from the chair. However, she said she can still splash around without fully submerging.
"Maybe I could partially go in or dangle my legs in the water," she said. "That might be a nice option."
A full-accessibility beach experience
In addition to the Seatrac chairs, TOBEA has provided additional amenities for beachgoers with mobility challenges, such as accessible changing rooms, showers and bathrooms; walkways amenable to wheelchairs; and a shaded lounge area. A directory shows which beaches are equipped with those perks.
"Seatrac is not just a device," Fotiou said. "It is a holistic solution."
To help people plan their beach outing, the company created an interactive map and beach directory with nearly 200 listings. Each profile includes the available amenities, such as parking and showers; photos and a live video feed that will help guests determine whether, based on wave size and wind gust, it's a good beach day.
"I have seen them in Corfu and Syros. The chairs are definitely helpful," said Aliki Chamosfakidou, managing director of Dolphin Hellas, an Athens-based travel agency. "They make people feel more welcome and they can enjoy their stay more."