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9 Stunning Photos Of Differently Abled Women Taking Back The Beach

Photographed by Emily Berl
Women who have disabilities can be anything from army lieutenants and Broadway performers to track and field stars and leading scientists — and they sure as hell can enjoy beaches and pools.

Despite often facing additional logistical challenges, women who are differently abled "take back the beach" in their own way, whether that means making their way through the sand in a wheelchair, overcoming insecurities around removing prosthetic limbs in public, or simply asking for help when they need it.

And since we don't see enough of these women in ads or on the pages of magazines, we decided to spend a day at the beach and the pool with four differently abled women and find out what their experiences are really like. Of course, these four stories don't represent every single differently abled woman out there, but they're definitely a start.

Bottom line: These women are awesome. But don't just take our word for it — scroll down, read their stories, and see the stunning images for yourself.
Photographed by Emily Berl
Danielle Perez
Age: 31
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Job: Comedian

How and when did you become differently abled?
"When I was 20, I was living in San Francisco, and I was hit by a Muni streetcar. As I was crossing the street, it tripped the light, hit me, and I flew and hit the ground; because it takes a while to brake, it still ran over me and the wheels stopped on top of my legs. I'm not paralyzed; the only thing really that happened was I lost my legs and my pelvis shattered. Now, I'm an amputee below the knee."

How has your beach experience change since becoming differently abled?
"I used to love going to the beach. I'm Dominican, so when I was little, I'd go to the Dominican Republic a lot, and that’s the Caribbean — beautiful water, ocean, beach. I was like a fish; I was always in the water. Like, when you stand in the wet sand where the waves are crashing in and you can feel it on your feet, like the water going over them and then pulling back into the ocean. I miss standing and doing that, because when you're like on your knees in the beach, it becomes a lot more difficult. It knocks you down a lot easier.

"Now, the beach is a huge pain in the butt. Because I use a wheelchair, there's really like no graceful way for me to get through the sand, unless I have two big guys carrying my wheelchair. It's just a struggle and it's hot and it's gross. I live a very independent life and I have no problem getting around, but the beach is obviously one of those few places that I really dread going to, because I'm gonna have to ask people to help me. I know that people are nice and my friends would never make me feel bad about helping me, but I like being independent and I like being able to do things on my own."
Do you ever feel self-conscious at the beach?
"I'm not really concerned about what other people think or what they're looking at or the questions that they have. I'm there to enjoy the company of my friends. They know what I look like and they know my situation; that’s not a concern for me at all. I think I made a conscious decision when I lost my legs that I just was going to ignore people looking at me strange. There's already so much energy that it takes to get through the day that I don’t want to waste any of it thinking about what other people are thinking of me."

What are your favourite things to do at the beach?
"I just like to hang out, read, lay down, and lounge. I have my big hat. I'm there more to look cute and have fun. I remember the first time I went to the beach and actually got in the water after my accident. I got in the water and I was like gross and disgusting and covered in sand and getting knocked down, but it was nice. I was having fun and it was kind of a special moment. But I don't like getting so dirty in the water and the sand.

"This past year, I've had an interesting awakening with my disability where I've started to know more disabled people. I feel like it's okay that I don’t really want to go to the beach and be super inconvenienced by that. When I was younger, I'd push through just to be there so I could be just like everyone else. Like, okay, that’s fine, but you don’t get a medal for that. It's like, I know I can do it, but do I want to do it? So, now I like pools a lot, because I can enjoy things about the beach at pools without doing any of that. If I go to pools, I can be in the water the whole time. There's no issue about sand. I will ride up to the edge of the pool and I jump in. Then, I'm able to swim around and be free. I can enjoy that and really spend my time at the pool experiencing it, instead of, like, watching other people have fun."
Kristen Parisi
Age: 31
Location: New York, NY
Job: Public relations executive

How and when did you become differently abled?
"I was in a head-on car collision at the age of 5. It was two days after Christmas and I was paralyzed from the waist down."

How has your beach experience change since becoming differently abled?
"As a kid, I would go to Myrtle Beach [in South Carolina] every summer, and I very distinctly remember boogie boarding and all of that there. But now, you pretty much lose your independence the second that sand becomes part of the equation. You have to rely on the people around you, because in your regular chair, it's really hard to get through the sand. It's near impossible. A lot of beaches have these beach wheelchairs that you can rent, but they're so ugly and you can't push them yourself, so somebody else has to push you. So, you go from already standing out to, like, really standing out. And it's just such an embarrassing thing. I try and avoid those at all costs. I'll generally either have my friends just suck it up and push me through the sand, or I've had boyfriends just pick me up and carry me — I would rather look adorable and be carried by a cute guy than be pushed in a big, bulky beach chair.

"I also hate sitting — like I won't sit in my chair on the beach. Who wants to sit in a chair when you can be laying on the sand on a blanket reading? So, I think, in that way, my experience is kind of normal, because I'll do that just the way my friends will. But then, if I want to go in the water, I'm gonna need help to get there. But once I'm in the water, I'm fine."
Do you ever feel self-conscious at the beach?
"When I was in college, I would go to the beach in jeans and a tank top, because I was so afraid to let strangers see my legs. Because of my disability, I don’t have the best circulation in my legs, so they're always kind of a light purplish colour. It took a long time for me to take off my jeans at the beach.

"Everybody has their own insecurities, especially women. And just because I'm in a chair, that doesn’t make me any different. Knowing that I'm not alone makes me a little bit more okay with it. I don't know why women put this pressure on ourselves to be perfect. We think that if we don't look like what's shown to us as 'beautiful' or 'normal,' that society won't accept us, won't be able to love us. These are legitimate fears and thoughts I have when I look in the mirror and when I do see myself in a bathing suit. But at the end of the day, why waste your life worried about what people think when you could be enjoying yourself? Now, I've gotten a lot more comfortable and I'll wear my one-piece bathing suit. So, I think I've started to reach a different level of maturity and accept who I am."

What are your favourite things to do at the beach?
"I like to swim as long as the water is really warm. But generally, I just love being outside and like sitting on the beach with a beer, a book, and a group of friends. I feel like there's nothing better than that."
Lacey Henderson
Age: 26
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Job: Professional long jumper for the U.S. Paralympics

How and when did you become differently abled?
"I had cancer when I was 9. It was called synovial sarcoma. I was put on a bunch of experimental chemotherapy treatment type of things and nothing was working, so in 1999, I had my amputation and I've been in remission ever since.

"I come from an athletic family. My dad went to Olympic trials for pole vault and was a two-time decathlete national champ, so I didn’t really stand a chance, honestly. I have a brother who is a year older than me, so I grew up playing around with him. I don't know if my family was really awesome or really mean, but they were like, 'You've got to keep up with your friends and your brother. You'll figure out a way.'"

How has your beach experience change since becoming differently abled?
"I didn’t go to the beach a lot, since I grew up in Colorado. And prosthetic legs don’t really go in the water, so it was always just kind of an alienating feeling being like, Well, you know I have to take my leg off now. I think the more I became self-aware, the more it was really hard to be able to take my leg off, especially around boys.

"Being an amputee at the beach in general is just a struggle. Like, sand is harder because you don’t have any ankle movement — you're kicking sand and trying to walk through it. I used to be really prideful and didn't want any sort of help, but I've gotten much better about asking my friends for help. If somebody offers an arm or wants to carry me, I'll take it now. I'm not too proud, because I don’t feel like crawling in the sand and getting sand up my ass."
Do you ever feel self-conscious at the beach?
"It's a weird thing to say, but I think I had cancer at a pretty good time of my life, because it was right before puberty. And when I got sick, I got really sick. I was having organ failure and kind of crazy stuff. So, I was lucky, I guess you could say. I was lucky enough to grow up with a different mindset. The bigger question for me wasn’t what my body looked like or how it appeared. The bigger question was how it was functioning and maintaining its health. So, I was able to have that be the main focus, which I think is a hidden blessing."

What are your favorite things to do at the beach?
"I love the water, so I do like getting in and swimming, but I'm no Michael Phelps. Mostly, I lay out and work on my tan and my tan lines. I'll read a little bit, then I'll go in the water, do a little splishy-splashy, hang out, talk to my girlfriends, get back in the sun when I'm not super hot, and repeat. That’s my cycle."
Age: 26
Location: Brooklyn, NY (originally from Haiti)
Job: Fellowship/program manager at the office of the mayor of New York City

How and when did you become differently abled?
"In 2005, I was diagnosed with a severe form of bone cancer. And due to that, I ended up getting my right leg amputated."

How has your beach experience changed since becoming differently abled?
"In general, it's harder to walk on sand. I also walk with two crutches and they tend to get buried in the sand; then I have to use my upper body strength to get through that. But when that part is over and I find a spot on the beach, I just have to take off my prosthetic to enjoy myself. I have an entire leg prosthetic, since I'm missing part of my hipbone. I guess it's always weird and embarrassing to take off a prosthetic and just lie it next to my towel on the beach. One of the things that gets to me is the people staring. I enjoy the water, because that’s when I feel the most free and I don’t have any sort of ability restrictions. I'm just as fast as anybody else swimming next to me."
Do you ever feel self-conscious at the beach?
"Before this whole ordeal, I used to go to the beach and the swimming pool, but I still remember having body insecurity. After my surgery, the way I looked at myself was even worse, because I tried to hide my body as much as possible. And in summer, I would see everyone walking around all perfect and 'normal' — a word I've stopped using altogether — and I would look at other people's bodies and be almost ashamed of mine.

"I still enjoy going to the beach, but as soon as I get there, I hesitate to take out my prosthetic and take off my clothes to reveal my bathing suit. I guess I forced myself to be comfortable, because for the past year or so, I've been a body-positive advocate. I'm trying to get other people comfortable in their bodies, no matter what they're going through. And I just feel like the beach is always a moment for me to walk the walk and practice what I'm preaching.

"It's funny because I hear people who have all their limbs intact and no scars complain about the same things. I want to tell women to focus on how you perceive yourself. If you think you're beautiful enough to be at the beach and to be yourself and be comfortable, then do that. Don’t think about anyone else. Because at the end of the day, it's really about comfort. If you're comfortable and you feel beautiful, then nothing can stop you. You can feel confident in a bathing suit or whatever else you're wearing."

What are your favourite things to do at the beach?
"A great beach day for me is definitely going with some friends, sleeping, and bringing lots of food, and just playing cards and enjoying the day."

*Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Check out a video from Danielle's shoot: