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Jekyll Island called out over sand-covered wheelchair mats

A wheelchair rider stuck in beach sand isn’t the image state leaders want for the island known as Georgia’s jewel.

So they’re trying to placate a Marietta woman who filed a federal complaint accusing Jekyll Island – adored by conventioneers, golfers and sea turtle lovers – of discriminating against disabled people.

Janis “Widget” Richards, a former special education teacher who has a son with Down syndrome, took two trips to Jekyll this summer and photographed wheelchair mats covered in soft sand and stopping well short of the traversable surface near the water.

"I learned that there is NO beach wheelchair access getting to the beach," she wrote in her complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice under the Americans with Disabilities Act. "There is NOT one hotel on the island that has wheelchair access to the beach."

Richards said she became irked when she overheard an elderly woman tell a Days Inn desk clerk she needed to check out early because her wheelchair-bound husband couldn’t get to the beach. Richards plans to return in September for the Shrimp & Grits Festival with her mother-in-law, who uses a wheelchair and a walker.

Along with lodging her complaint, Richards has been sounding off to every politician or official who will listen, including the offices of state Attorney General Sam Olens, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and state Rep. Matt Dollar. She’s sent email after email after email, circulating her photos.

At first, Jekyll Island Authority Executive Director Jones Hooks referred her to the authority’s attorney, since she has involved the feds. But then Gov. Nathan Deal told him to respond to her concerns, according to a letter Hooks sent to her. Videos taken earlier this week show the mats have been lengthened and routed around sand dunes.

Authority spokeswoman Meggan Hood said that along with accommodating the disabled, Jekyll also has to contend with coastal weather, shifting tides and the needs of nesting turtles and shorebirds.

The authority provides balloon-tire wheelchairs, capable of rolling over soft sand, to anyone who needs one. The Mobi-Mats, laid out at three entry points along the beach, are maintained weekly, she said.

Still, Hood acknowledged that Richards' complaints have already prompted changes. The state Department of Natural Resources must approve the reconfigured mats, though.

Hood explained the predicament in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Our current beach accesses are not out of compliance with the ADA regulations, but we are always willing to discuss and plan for enhancements. We appreciate Ms. Richards’ passion, yet she does not understand or appreciate how complicated the process is for changing access points on our beaches or the time involved in doing so. The primary issue being that DNR must permit any activity in this area. DNR is concerned with the Shore Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Extending mobi-mats to the water isn’t practical given our intense tide shifts, and isn’t possible based on our current DNR permits.

Richards said lots of beaches deal with such issues, but others do far better accommodating wheelchairs. Jekyll needs to look at beach access from its hotels, too, she said.

“The thing that angers me is, if they’re in compliance, why the hell are they changing things?” Richards said. “The bottom line is, nobody’s been doing their job.”

Here is the two-page letter Richards received from Hooks on Tuesday:


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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.