“Beaches should be accessible to everyone, children, adults, and the elderly,” said Nemat Fouad, who was pushing the wheelchair of her husband, Shehata Mohamed Shehata, to a beach in Alexandria so that he could have his first swim in 30 years.
Shehata has been paralysed for over 20 years, but this does not mean he wants to be imprisoned in his 50-square-foot apartment, especially in Egypt’s hot summer. When he heard about the opening of the first beach in Egypt for people with disabilities in Alexandria recently, the 70-year-old grandfather came along with his family members from the Abu Qir district to have his first swim in the Mediterranean Sea in 30 years.
“You cannot imagine his happiness. You cannot imagine how much fulfillment he feels. We rarely go to any beaches due to his disability. To come here to this special beach with free tickets to access a golden beach equipped with wheelchairs and good ramps for them makes people and families like us very happy,” added Shehata’s dedicated wife who was also enjoying the sunbathing.
The idea of having a special beach for people with disabilities in the city has been circulating for years in Alexandria. However, in the past there has often been a lack of determination or funds. But for Sanaa Aglan, president of Rotary Club Alexandria Pharos, the project was a dream that could be achieved in less than six months.
“I started my Rotarian year with many projects for people with disabilities that I wanted to accomplish, like establishing ramps, slopes, and slipways in colleges in Alexandria. I wanted people to have step-free access to all sorts of facilities,” Aglan said. But these projects sadly faced bureaucratic difficulties, so what about a beach for people with disabilities, she wondered.
When she suggested the idea to the committee for beaches in Alexandria and the Alexandria governorate, they were very enthusiastic and facilitated a workforce to start working on the beach in collaboration with the Rotary Club. In less than six months, the long and beautiful beach in the Mandara district of Alexandria was ready to be opened and used by beachgoers.
“In addition to what a normal beach would have, we tried to make this beach accessible to all people with disabilities,” Aglan said.
In collaboration with the Alexandria governorate, the club equipped the beach with disabled toilet facilities, beach-accessible wheelchairs for hire, ramps and slopes and an emergency unit equipped with all the necessary medical care.
The beach was inaugurated by Alexandria Governor Mohamed Al-Sherif in June in conjunction with the anniversary of the 30 June Revolution. It is part of efforts made by the Alexandria governorate to provide the best services for people with different disabilities.
“We came all the way from Minya governorate in Upper Egypt to see our children enjoy the beach,” said Father Abdel-Messih Lamei, priest of the Virgin Mary Church in Minya.
“We came all the way to Alexandria to entertain and serve these children who are from the poorest villages in Minya. It is a shame that some families do not accept kids with differences. Sometimes, they even keep them at home, not knowing how to deal with them. The church is trying to create better opportunities for them and to include them in these,” he added.
In his long trip from Minya to Alexandria, Father Lamei took more than 30 children with different disabilities to spend a week in Alexandria and enjoy its special beach that is designed specifically for them.
“I love the way the beach is organised. People are very friendly in helping to meet our needs,” he said. “We just need to raise more awareness for the better inclusion of these kids into our society and to create more activities and places for them.”
The children, many of whom were from the Badrman and Dermawass villages in Minya, were extremely happy to spend their holidays at a beach equipped with facilities for them.
“I am enjoying this beach as everyone is very helpful. I feel safe here,” said 28-year-old Safwat Adel, who though not a child has a mental disability. “I like the beach because the water is calm and there is no wild wind or high waves,” he added.
The beach is specially designated for people who are blind or visually impaired. For some children and teenagers, it was their first time to touch and feel the beach and the sea.
“It is my first time to do many things today – my first time to go to the beach, my first time to swim in the sea, my first time to feel the sand,” said Ahmed Mohamed, 12, a visually impaired sixth-grade student.
“I was never allowed to go to the beach or swim in the sea before as my parents were afraid I might drown,” Mohamed told Al-Ahram Weekly.
At the Alexandria beach, there are lifeguards and an entryway surrounded by cork buoys to the sea that allows the blind and visually impaired to swim freely in a restricted area and in a safe depth of water.
Under the close supervision of the lifeguard team swimming with the blind and coaching them on how to swim and use their hands and legs, Ahmed along with his peers enjoyed swimming in this area made especially for them.
Gamal Rashad, head of the central administration for tourism and resorts in the Alexandria governorate, said that the beach gave people with different disabilities the chance to swim like any other people.
There was no need for the protection of family members or companions. “We provide assistance for everyone to enjoy the beach like any other people would,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.