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They put sunscreen where?

by: Nancy Baye

Benefits of nude beaches include showing that people are more alike than different and this helps with body acceptance and self-esteem. Public nudity breaks down taboos of body shame – hey, it’s just your birthday suit! Naturists might improve your social life since they’re open and friendly—probably because they have nothing to hide behind. Forget tan lines and sand in your shorts. Health benefits include getting more Vitamin D with more skin exposure. Just don’t forget your sunscreen. 

There are hundreds of naturist beaches worldwide, and a prime U.S. model is at Haulover Beach Park in South Florida, established in 1991, by Shirley Mason while president of South Florida Free Beaches. Shirley is the founder and Executive Director of Beach Education Advocates for Culture, Health, Environment and Safety (B.E.A.C.H.E.S.). She began the non-profit/tax exempt organization to develop safe, clothing-optional beaches, and to preserve these environments. 

Shirley found it tough to watch her parents aging into disability and face physical challenges to enjoying the beaches. When she realized her husband and peers were heading towards the same challenges, she had to do something about it. 

B.E.A.C.H.E.S. remains committed to amicable, mutually beneficial partnerships with business, naturist beach advocacy groups, the public—and government. So why did Miami-Dade County give them so much grief when they wanted to make Haulover Beach more ADA accessible and user-friendly? 

The clothing optional area of Haulover beach started one year after The Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, had been instituted to stop discrimination based on varying abilities. Miami-Dade County did comply with ADA, in a sense, but were unaware that their measures didn’t work in real life. Take, for example, the disabled parking spots they added. A great start, but to get from these spots to the beach required crossing through tunnels under A1A, which meant going up two flights of steps. Not workable for anyone who uses a wheelchair, or other assistive device. In 1992, Shirley began talking to Miami Dade Parks and Open Spaces but they wouldn’t change the ADA parking to the beach side; they were concerned about messing up the aesthetic. 

When B.E.A.C.H.E.S. held an event to celebrate disabled veterans in the early 2000s, a representative from the Paralyzed Veterans of Florida evaluated the space and deemed it out of ADA compliance for their veterans and the disabled public to participate. He expressed shock that Parks hadn’t met minimum ADA requirements and felt it was time to sue the County. The Paralyzed Veterans filed the necessary paperwork in Washington DC to sue Miami-Dade County. That gave Parks the motivation to get into compliance.

Meanwhile, Shirley was writing grants and raising funds from supporters. This resulting in two electric beach wheelchairs and four manual (push) ones, accessible beach showers, tiki huts for shade, and Mobi-mats to enable traversing the sand. 

Upon inspection, Miami-Dade County had a problem with the electric chairs, finding their three speeds “too fast,” and asking for changes. This delayed their use, and they sat in a custom storage unit for over a year. After sitting in humid salty air, repairs were needed, and B.E.A.C.H.E.S. had to cover those costs. Worse yet, the county put the lifeguards in charge of the remaining push chairs; it wasn’t surprising when a chair was stolen. After less than a year of use, Miami-Dade removed the electric beach chairs to use at another park facility. A few manual beach wheelchairs remain and are available for free at the Ocean Rescue headquarters just south of the naturist beach. 

There are Mobi-mats at the main entrance, but, unfortunately, the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection won’t allow these mats to extend further onto the sand or into the water. This is likely due to worries about the sea turtles’ habitat. Ironically the B.E.A.C.H.E.S. Foundation’s volunteer Beach Ambassadors pride themselves on protection of the environment, including the protection of nesting turtles, environmentally protected plantings, and dunes. 

It took years of nagging Miami-Dade County Parks and Open Space, a threatened federal lawsuit for noncompliance of the ADA, and a 2011 commitment of support from the Commission on Disability Issues (CODI) to force changes. County Parks added a beautiful ramp from the tunnel to the nude beach (It remains the only ramp in two miles of the beach, but it’s a start). A few dozen disabled parking spaces have been added in the north parking lot plus a few beachside by the Lifeguard Headquarters. 

B.E.A.C.H.E.S. continues to work towards getting more Mobi-Chairs and Mobi-Mats, but realize they’ll need to be responsible for them, not the lifeguards. That demands more funds. To achieve their goals, they seek donations and grant writers (B.E.A.C.H.E.S. was granted its 501 (C) (3) non-profit status in 2000).   

Sadly, it’s been a long fight to make Haulover Beach more ADA accessible and user-friendly, but Shirley says, “ADA accessibly has always been central to our mission. Beaches are valuable beautiful and everyone deserves the right to enjoy them.” It’s dedicated volunteers like Shirley Mason and associates who work to inform policy makers that requirements need to be vetted and test driven, to ensure they work in the real world. And that’s the naked truth.