Rolling out the mat to make Pinellas beaches accessible

On clear days, crowds flock to Pinellas County beaches to see the sunset.

But for people in wheelchairs, the elderly and those with disabilities that hamper their mobility, it’s difficult to impossible to traverse the sand and enjoy the view. Over the last few years, a local nonprofit has funded a solution to make Pinellas’ picturesque beaches more accessible to everyone.

The Clearwater-based Forward Foundation has donated nonslip mobility mats for beaches up and down the Pinellas shoreline. Thanks in large part to the nonprofit's efforts, there are now 15 mats on Pinellas beaches and five in Pasco County, with five more planned in Pinellas.

The most recent mat installed is the longest, stretching 372 feet onto the sand at Pinellas County's Sand Key Park in Clearwater. Blue with white stripes, the Mobi-Mat is manufactured by the company Deschamps Mats Systems Inc. from eco-friendly materials, including recycled polyester. The mats are semi-rigid, nonslip and resistant to salt water, mildew and UV rays. 

The Forward Foundation, its sister nonprofit group Help Us Gather (HUG), the Disability Achievement Center and Pinellas County officials marked the installation of the new mobility mat with a late afternoon celebration on May 19th at Sand Key.

“We are all about accessibility, inclusion and equity and this shows that Pinellas County is for all of that,” Jeffrey Lorick, the director of the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights and the county’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, says at the event. 

In her comments, Robin Lally, the president of the Forward Foundation and HUG, recalls walking the beach at Sand Key with Jody Armstrong, the chair of the Pinellas County Council for Persons with Disabilities, and advocate Michael Ciafone.

“It seemed like a dream to get a mat on this beautiful beach,” Lally says.

At the event, Jody Armstrong, who is also director of outreach for the Disability Achievement Center, says the effort to put as many mats as possible on Pinellas beaches started  4 ½ to 5 years ago with the establishment of the Pinellas County Council for Persons with Disabilities. At the first meeting, Treasure Island touted a mobility mat on their beach. Armstrong and Ciafone started making the rounds to urge officials from other Pinellas beach communities to put mobility mats on their beach. Armstrong said those officials liked the idea but then asked where’s the money to make it happen. Eventually, the advocates reached out to Robin Lally and her husband Michael Lally, who together run the Forward Foundation.

Persistence has been key to the effort. Armstrong says the local governments had to go through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for permitting and other required approvals. Engineering drawings were also required. Clearwater’s Northside Engineering stepped up to handle that pro bono. It’s part of a grassroots community effort that shows no signs of slowing down.

"Our goal is to make Pinellas County the most accessible county in the state of Florida,” Armstrong says. “We deserve it. We have the best beaches.”

For more information, including a map and list of Tampa Bay beaches with mobility mats, go to Help Us Gather.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.