‘Improvements’ at Willoughby beach get F from disabled college professor

Longtime summer resident demands real improvement

‘Improvements’ at a popular Northeast Kingdom beach make access difficult for wheelchair access. Photos by author

By Cheryl Howland

I am writing to add my voice to the many voices of people who have expressed deep dismay and anger over the so-called “improvements” made to the beaches on the south end of Willoughby Lake in Westmore. 

I have been coming to the Northeast Kingdom all my life. My wife’s family has a house in East Burke on land that has been in the family for more than 200 years. My sister-in law has lived in Sutton for over forty years. I have been going to swim and kayak on Willoughby for over 30 years and when I saw these horrible “improvements”, I frankly cried. In talking with family and listening to others in the area, I know I am not alone in my reaction. 

For the past 13 years I have used a wheelchair. This is due to a chronic disabling medical condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a collagen deficiency that impacts many bodily systems. I do not enjoy this set of circumstances but I am grateful for the wheelchair and its ability to keep me from dangerous falls. 

Since using a wheelchair, I have always been able to access this beach with little or no trouble by backing our car down as far as we could and then using my wheelchair or walker to get a short distance to the beach. Until now. 

Your “improvements” have made it so that I can no longer safely access this wonderful place either for swimming or for launching our kayak for fishing. People with disabilities and elders or anyone with mobility challenges can no longer gain safe access to this place of joy and wonder. 

You may think that you complied with the technical requirements of the Americans with Disabilities act of 1991, signed by President George H. W. Bush, but you most certainly did not comply with the actual reality of “access”. The 10-12% of the population that requires access are essentially now blocked from that space. 

While I am now retired, I spent a large part of my professional career at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as an Assistant Director of Disability Services whose role it was to apply the legal mandates of the IDEA and the ADA for the thousand or so UMass students whose disability(ies) required that the University provide reasonable accommodations. Were I to grade your work, as I did in the courses I taught, you would receive a resounding “F”. 

Your failure to comply with both the spirit and the letter these federal mandates is extreme. The following is a list of your acute failures to accommodate people with disabilities and mobility needs, to wit: • First and foremost, you have created a situation where it is nearly impossible for someone with disability to independently access the beach. Before, it was difficult, but possible. Now, the drop off area necessitates assistance from another which undermines the independence of individuals with disabilities.

• The drop off area is made of concrete which creates a much greater chance of serious injury in a fall than did sand for all people, not just those with a handicap but children and anyone who trips, increasing the chances of a lawsuit hazard. 

• Issues with the ramp: At the end of the ramp, rocks prevent access to the beach area. These rocks, I have been told, have in fact been added to restrict access to the beach. It is a poorly designed area that is a fall hazard in the extreme. There is no place to leave a walker or wheelchair at the end of the ramp, thus use by any one person would block usage by others. Electric wheelchairs could get down the ramp but are met with sand. Again, there is no way to access the beach. The ramp angle is steep, creating a trip hazard for people using a walker who are unsteady on their feet. In order to get to the beach, one would need to get into a boat at the water, paddle to the beach, and then get out of the boat again…way more steps to get to the beach than before which increases chances of falls and potential lawsuits. 

• Issues with the stairs: There are no railings on the stairs going down to the beach and the stairs are made from uneven rocks and present a serious trip hazard to elderly and mobility impaired individuals.

• Issues with trails to the beach: 

  • The path to the beach near the ramp is accessible with a walker or a wheelchair for a ways, but the path ends in roots and small trees cut above grade, and then some stones, rendering it inaccessible as well as creating a serious trip and fall hazard. 
  • There is a nice accessible path from the parking area to the accessible bathroom. However, what appears to be an accessible trail to the beach ends at a rock-covered drop to the beach. Given that it is not an accessible trail, a sign should indicate this so newcomers can be aware of the dangers as well as the futility of using that trail. 

• Issues with parking: 

  • There are a number of parking places that are marked as handicapped accessible and they are acceptable. However, there is no easy or safe way to get from the parking lot to the beach. 
  • One would have to first transverse the busy and dangerous parking area to get to the main road; there is no designated path to get to the main road. 
  • If one successfully navigated the parking area, then one would need to roll or walk down the hill along the side of the busy road with no safe way to do that. Able people might be able to jump out of the way of a car if needed, but those using a walker or wheelchair would have no safe escape. There is no protection from the road, not even a marked lane. Rolling back up the hill carries the same risks, with the added issue that one would not see potentially dangerous cars coming up from behind. And it is a long way for someone who is elderly, or who uses a wheelchair or walker. 

In summary, persons with disabilities and elders with mobility challenges are stopped or blocked by barriers to equal use and access at every possible entryway. This letter will be sent to many individuals and stakeholders in this matter from whom I expect responses. Included in the responses, I expect: 1. An answer to the many problematic barriers to access as outlined in this letter. 2. A plan to immediately put in place changes to the overall “improvements” that will be truly accommodating to ALL PERSONS and specifically those with mobility based disabilities. 

The author is a Leverett, MA resident This letter also was sent to the Westmore Town Clerk. 

Categories: Commentary, Outdoors

10 replies »

  1. What a disgusting mess! I’m sure who approved the design should be fired! I’m sure some Federal Funds were involved too!!!

  2. I’m disabled, but not in a wheelchair. I also found that South Beach was more inaccessible this summer after their “improvements.” Additionally, their loos were overflowing, which made me sick to my stomach besides not being able to safely use them for fear of catching some disease. And, BTW, having put down my beach bag to attempt going into the loos, I wound up picking up a cockroach which I had to get rid of in my car. Never going back there again.

  3. This is literally a crying shame. As a poet, I am very familiar with the life and works of Lord Byron, who was lame but an expert swimmer: It was only in the water that he could fully experience his athletic prowess and find healing and peace. I thought that the monies used on this “improvement” should be utilized, instead, to build a needed barrier to the car-sized boulders that roll down the cliff, sometimes onto the roadway, but occasionally with enough force to bounce them into the lake.

    I haven’t been to this beach since the installation of said “improvements,” largely due to my fear for life and limb (and car) from falling rocks, a danger that could be accelerated by our recent heavy rains. In 1863, a massive earthquake collapsed the road-side of the lake; perhaps a similar event might swallow up said “improvements,” which were actually scaled down from the original, more extensive plan.

    At any rate: Thank you for taking the time to point all of this out to the town government in Westmore. Here is a poem I wrote to protest said “improvements,” which I considered to be an ill wind from the very start. It was published in the Newport Daily Express and the Barton Chronicle in 2019.

    The Lake

    By Ellin Anderson

    The wind was still, the day was hot,
    The sun did so align
    With Sirius, though we were not
    Far into Cancer’s sign,

    He tried to roast us like a crab
    Pressed hard while in his reach,
    So all who could formed lines to grab
    Some respite at the beach.

    In steady waves, we walked or drove
    Down roadways set to bake,
    And parked, or marked our spots and dove
    Into the limpid lake

    Whose cliffs were steep, on depths so deep
    They delved into the earth
    For distances a soul might leap
    In flying to new birth.

    Upon the shore, still more and more
    Arrived, and pressed to wade
    Within the vast blue corridor
    The fjordlike passage made.

    No sound was heard, no whispered words
    Were spoken; not a breeze
    Disturbed the woods whose summer birds
    Sat silent in the trees.

    And then it happened: as we know,
    Such magic can occur.
    When all stood crowding, row on row
    Like stands of sparkling fir,

    A gentle wind came from the south,
    And said in solemn tone
    As from a spirit’s mouth:
    “Leave this lake’s innocence alone.”

    With humble reverence, we took
    Away, and kept in mind
    That sacred waters tend to look
    Like any other kind.

    Thus shaken from our sleeping,
    We will not condone the theft
    Of what’s been in our keeping
    Since the mighty glaciers left.

  4. So much for “diversity” I suppose. Those who cannot access this public area which others can, need not “apply”. In a society where unborn babies, the ill, and the elderly are provided the “opportunity” to end their existence because their very God-given existence is no longer convenient or conforms to a particular standard – simply attempting to navigate one’s life within such a cruel & inhumane society becomes more & more challenging. In the end though, the last will be first and the first, last.

  5. Those stairs look like a nightmare! I have seen ancient ruins in better shape! So uneven, and can you imagine falling on them? Sadly, I see this kind of thing replicated all across the state, often on state projects, where access is made more and more difficult not only for those who have a disabled placard, but also for those who might have a bad knee, the elderly, and those with small children.

  6. The good prof this fiasco is the I used to go to the “fun” part of Willoughby (wink wink) but now that I’m disabled and can’t get there the fish 🐟 have never been happier!

  7. Just one fact that has been forgotten in the discussion. There is another beautiful public beach at the North end of the lake, which is accessible.

  8. A fine example of Vermont goverment eptitude using taxpayer money to create more of a mess than to fix one. Perhaps Senator MacDonald can legislate donkey carts to shuttle folks to and fro the beach access or further promote the assisted suicide program for those who can’t manage or are dissatisfied with their good deeds – that is the goal is it not?

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