Adaptive recreation programs offer a great opportunity to re-connect with an adaptive version of an activity you loved prior to your disability, or to try out an activity for the first time, and there has never been a better time than now. Innovation in adaptive recreation equipment has expanded exponentially recently — a Google search of adaptive recreation in your state is likely to pull up multiple hits. The benefits? Recreation puts us in the Zen state of being in the moment (usually in a healthy outdoor space), changes our perspective for the better, and allows us to share our experiences with other program participants to forge strong bonds and new friendships.
Here is a look at some adaptive recreation options — most of which are accessible to those with limited or no arm movement — along with some of the many programs that offer them.
“Kayaking is fantastic, like gliding on water. It’s silent and an easy way to explore places I never thought possible,” says Betty Merten, 60, of Madison, Wisconsin. “It’s also a great workout.” Merten, who has spina bifida, kayaks with Madison SCI — a United Spinal chapter with a unique program that provides use of adaptive kayaks and handcycles through county, state, and municipal parks around the Madison area. The chapter is working on expanding the program state-wide. Madison SCI also has a trailer for people that want to tow a kayak to one of the countless bodies of water in central Wisconsin.
“I’ve kayaked with Madison SCI five times. It gives me independence, being able to paddle where I want, when I want, and it’s a great way to interact with wildlife on the water,” says Tina McFadden, 52, of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. In her 27th year as a T12 para, she says, “I’d never kayaked before my injury and I really enjoy it.” McFadden’s first event was a Madison SCI group outing to the Wisconsin Dells — an area known for lakes and rivers that meander through scenic, glacially-formed sandstone formations. Kevin Karr, from the adaptive kayak equipment company Creating Ability, brought a wide variety of adaptive kayak gear, including seating adaptations, grips for people with no hand movement, levers to assist with limited hand movement, and double and triple-place kayaks for people with no movement at all.
“I loved kayaking before my MS progressed,” says Kerrie Giesen, 46, of Webster, New York. Giesen was re-introduced to kayaking through Rochester Accessible Adventures, a multi-sport program located in Rochester, New York. “What I love about kayaking at Accessible Adventures is they have a Hoyer lift, which takes away all of the hassles of needing to round up a bunch of people and teach them how to transfer me. The lift makes the transfer from my chair to the kayak seamless and easy. Also, with MS, I get numbness with my hands and it becomes difficult to hold the paddle, but they have a device that holds the paddle in the middle — holds it up — so I don’t have to worry about shoulder or arm fatigue.”
Learning to ride a bike is one of life’s milestones, one that feels akin to flying and represents freedom. Handcycling offers a chance to get re-acquainted with that feeling or experience it for the first time. It is also a great family sport or activity to share with nondisabled friends.
“Cycling was another activity I used to really enjoy quite often, until my MS progressed to the point where I could no longer do it. I never thought I’d be on a bike again,” says Giesen, who hadn’t ridden in seven years. “I went handcycling on an upright handcycle (where seat height and rider position is similar to a wheelchair), also with Rochester Accessible Adventures. Being on the handcycle was amazing, especially cycling on the Erie Canal path.” Giesen says the Accessible Adventure bike set-up — they have partnered with the Erie Canal Boat Company — is perfect because although she loves riding, she doesn’t want to spend the money for a handcycle and can rent one from Erie Canal whenever she feels like riding.
Lindsay Elegado, 39, from Charleston, South Carolina, found handcycling surprisingly enjoyable. “I had never cycled, and when I tried it, it was beautiful, I loved it,” says Elegado, who has a congenital neurological disease. She tried handcycling with Adaptive Expeditions, a multi-sport program located in Charleston. “I look forward to trying it again this summer. Plus, taking part in these programs is great because I meet new people with different disabilities, and it’s great to compare stories and laugh about situations that we get into.”
Another enthusiastic Adaptive Expeditions handcyclist is Maria Saxon, 37, from Hanahan, South Carolina. “Of all the adaptive sports I’ve tried, handcycling is my favorite,” she says. “I’d cycled since I was a kid, and it was great to be riding again.” Saxon, in her 23rd year as a T12 complete para, was introduced to the sport at an Adaptive Expeditions Handcycle Day where the organization provides a variety of bikes for people to try. In addition to new riders, quite a few wheelchair users who have their own handcycles turn out for the ride and festivities. “Handcycling makes me feel free, and at the same time it is the best workout I’ve found,” says Saxon. “I use muscles that I haven’t used in years, and it really gets my heart and lungs working. Plus it’s a lot of fun riding with other wheelchair users, getting to know them, and forming new friendships.”
Like many participants in multi-sport organizations, Saxon has also tried other adaptive sports through Adaptive Expeditions, including kayaking, sailing and surfing. “I never really did sports when I was younger,” says Saxon. “I’m a school teacher and found out about Adaptive Expeditions through an archery clinic. I took the clinic and had a great time, and it led me to try all of these new sports in the past few years.”
For getting out into the wilderness under your own power, nothing beats an off-road handcycle. The combination of rear-wheel drive and multiple gears enables a rider with the skills and muscle power to go almost anywhere nondisabled mountain-bike riders ride.
“I was a mountain biker before my injury, and it felt great to be back in the woods, on the trail, mountain biking again,” says Paula McNeill, 51, from Rutland, Vermont. McNeill, in her seventh year as a T8 complete para, was re-introduced to the sport at Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, a multi-sport program located in Killington, Vermont. She tried two different off-road handcycles, both manufactured by Reactive Adaptations. First McNeill tried the Bomber, a rear-wheel drive, rear-suspension model ridden in a prone position with legs tucked underneath the rider. Steering is accomplished with handlebars when gliding downhill and by shifting your weight on a chest-support while pedaling. Next she tried the Nuke, a recumbent, rear-wheel drive, rear-suspension handcycle, where you sit upright with your legs suspended in front of you.
“I liked the Nuke best, it was more comfortable for me, plus I’m more interested in riding dirt roads and rough trails than single-track trails,” says McNeill. “It was fun and a great workout, working hard to pedal to the top of the mountain, and even more fun enjoying a fast downhill run through the woods. It’s a sport I will be back into for sure. I also kayaked before my injury and started kayaking with Vermont Adaptive as well.”
The Bomber was the handcycle of choice for Greg Durso, 32, of Stony Brook, New York, who also got re-acquainted with the sport through Vermont Adaptive. “I was really into mountain biking before I became a T4 complete paraplegic,” says Durso.
“As soon as I started off on the trails, I was blown away, thinking ‘I’m back, I’m mountain biking!’ I can’t believe this thing actually exists. Here I am eight years after my injury and I’m mountain biking! One of my first thoughts was I want one immediately, but how am I going to come up with the $7,500 to buy it? Last summer I rode three different days, and I’m planning on coming out and riding a lot more this summer.”
Before being paralyzed at the C5-6 level in 2009, Kirk Williams, of Boulder, Colorado, was a semi-professional mountain bike racer. He got back into trail riding doing downhill mountain chairs at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado. At Winter Park, Williams met Jake O’Connor, owner, designer and manufacturer of Reactive Adaptations. O’Connor said he was working on a recumbent mountain bike and wanted it to be usable for quads. Williams gave his input as O’Connor spent years developing what would evolve into the Nuke, a recumbent upright handcycle that could be ridden by anybody and easily adapted for quads.
“Jake worked with me and designed a version of the Nuke that I can ride by adding a power unit, the BionX,” ” says Williams. The system consists of a lithium-ion battery and a power hub on the drive wheel. The rider can dial in the amount of power assist they want from zero (straight pedaling) to a 250 percent power assist. This is a great asset for handcyclists with aging shoulders, riders who are working on getting in shape but want to keep up with other cyclists from day one, and riders with limited arm movement and grip.
For Williams, O’Connor adapted a quad grip with a twist throttle to control the BionX motor, and another quad grip twist enables him to apply the brake. O’Connor designed it so the quad grips can easily be put on and taken off, so programs can switch them out for a para or quad. “It’s great!” says Williams. “I can ride it and climb up serious mountain bike terrain. You can set the amount of power assist you want, from no assist, to minimal assist, to full power where you aren’t working at all. I’m so stoked on this bike, I can’t describe it. Mountain biking is my passion again, thanks to the Nuke.”
Williams raised the money to buy his Nuke partly on his own, but also got grants from the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Kelly Brush Foundation [See resources].
Adventure Travel and Camping
Nothing refreshes the soul and re-adjusts one’s attitude like being outside, except perhaps adventure travel. When you combine the two, it creates a paradigm-lifting, positive energy-enhancing experience.
For Thea Rosa, 49, of Citrus Heights, California, in her 13th year as a T12 para, an adventure camping experience in 2011 inspired her to launch her handcycle racing career. Shortly after she bought a used handcycle, she heard about Rock ’n Roll Yosemite adaptive cycling camp, held each year in early May and hosted by the City of Sacramento Department of Parks and Recreation, Access Leisure section, through its Paralympic Sport Sacramento club program.
“Before my injury I was really into camping, and I found the program to be a perfect balance. The tent cabins give you the outdoor feel of camping but have ADA-height accessible beds, and there are public bathrooms and showers complete with shower chairs. I had a bike, I was back into camping, got to try adaptive rock climbing, and I was amazed at how accessible Yosemite is. It was a great re-introduction to camping, and even better was hanging out with other wheelchair users and others with disabilities, sharing stories and tips and laughing about disability-related things that can be frustrating in day-to-day life.”
Another great option for adventure travel and sleeping under the stars is Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based program that offers adventure trips — from exploring national parks to adventure travel in far-off corners of the world. The trips are based on universal design and incorporate nondisabled clients with people with disabilities. Wilderness Inquiry works with each person to see if they need assistance, adaptations or help with daily activities around camp, and will provide a personal care attendant if needed. “Because every trip and every client is unique, our attitude is ‘if we can make it happen, let’s make it happen,’” says Jeff Kemnitz, the program’s outreach director.
Mark Smith, 43, of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, estimates he has done about 30 trips with Wilderness Inquiry. “One of my favorites was kayaking and camping for six days in Prince William Sound, Alaska,” says Smith, a para who also has a TBI and is vision impaired. “On the Alaska trip we saw glaciers calving and had to navigate through fields of ice.” His favorite local adventure is doing canoe paddle trips and camping in the islands of the Boundary Waters of Lake Superior.
“Wilderness Inquiry trips are a mix of family and friends, as well as other people who are nondisabled. On most trips I don’t know other people until I get on the trip, and it’s always a great way to meet new people and form new friendships — that’s the best part of these adventures, meeting new people and getting to know them.”
Kory Macy, 40, from Madison, Wisconsin, has also been on many Wilderness Inquiry adventures. “I like their trips so much I got my husband John, who is 39 and had never done any kind of adventure trips before he met me, to try one, and now he joins me all the time,” says Macy. “They are great at thinking out of the box to make things accessible. My initial experience with this was on a Wilderness Inquiry trip to Kenya in 2009 when my condition, spinocerebellar ataxia, had progressed to where I was using a wheelchair full time.” The trip was a safari, complete with lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, and hippos in the wild, and meeting local tribes-people, and camping out in their village. “To be able to join on hikes during the safari, the Wilderness Inquiry folks fashioned rickshaw-type poles that attached to each side of my wheelchair so it could be easily pulled and keep up with the group.”
Other Wilderness Inquiry trips Macy has been on include Yellowstone National Park and a three-day canoe trip on the St. Croix River, camping out each night. “I love being outdoors, camping and sleeping in a tent or under the stars if it’s a nice evening. Wilderness Inquiry is thinking about accessibility from before you register, starting with an extensive questionnaire and following up about a week before your trip with a phone interview to make sure they have accessibility issues covered. I’ve turned other people on to them, and they have also had positive experiences. ”
Sailing combines love of the water with harnessing the power of the wind, a unique synergy that a lot of people get hooked on.
“One of the things I love about sailing is it is a great equalizer,” says Kathi Pugh, 58, from Berkeley, California. “It doesn’t matter if you are competitive or recreational. A high level quadriplegic can do it just as well as a paraplegic or nondisabled sailor. It’s about who is the best sailor, not who has more muscle control.” Pugh, in her 38th year as a C5-6 quad, grew up sailing every chance she got with her dad. After her injury, she focused on her studies, passed the bar and was working as a lawyer for the largest law firm in the state. “My office window overlooked San Francisco Bay. On a beautiful day I’d look out and see all these boats sailing and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got a great job but all I do is work, work, work. I’ve got to figure something fun to do because I’m miserable.’” So she signed up to try sailing with the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors — BAADS — with its docks in San Francisco Bay, arguably the world’s most versatile sailing area.
The first time Pugh went out with BAADS she thought it would be on a dinghy riding puffs of breeze around the little harbor. Instead she was secured to a gimbaled seat on a 27-foot sailboat and sailed across the bay around Angel Island. “It was choppy and blowing like stink, and I loved every second of it — my life was forever changed,” she recalls. “I was back in the sport I never thought I’d see again — jumped in with both feet. I took sailing lessons and got certified through the American Sailing Association and ended up becoming vice commodore, then commodore of BAADS.”
These days BAADS has a 30-foot sailboat with a gimbaled seat, and the helm can be controlled by wheel or joystick, as well as a fleet of 25 single and double-person dinghies that can be operated by tiller or joystick. Moving the joystick left and right moves the rudder to port (left) and starboard (right); moving it forward lets the sails out; pulling the joystick back tightens the sails; and a switch enables independent operation of the jib and mainsail. “It’s a great sport to participate in with friends, family and kids, as recreation or competition,” says Pugh.
Another San Francisco attorney, Cristina Rubke, 38, has been sailing with BAADS for nine years. Rubke, who has arthogryposis multiplex congenita (her nerves in her arms and legs no longer function), found out about BAADS during a chance meeting at a café. “A group of ‘old salty guys’ told me, ‘You should come sailing with us,’” she says. Sizing up her power chair and chin control setup, they made an offer she couldn’t refuse: “We can rig up a chin-control joystick so you can sail the boat.” Rubke responded, “Yeah, uh-huh. I’m pretty sure you’re just saying that because you want me to join your silly club, but I’ll join because the yacht club parties sound like a lot of fun and it turns out I live two blocks from BAADS headquarters.”
Sure enough, the folks at BAADS rigged a chest-mounted chin control for her. “I started to get it and was hooked. I wear a harness with the chin control, and I control everything, including the switch to separately trim the jib or the mainsail, all with my chin.”
Soon after joining BAADS in 2008, Rubke learned how to race. In 2011 she entered her first international race in Canada, the Mobility Cup, racing single-person Access Liberty boats on Lake Ontario. “I’ve done a lot of racing, and a lot of travel for races, including Switzerland, Germany and New York. In addition to freedom and camaraderie, sailboat racing has been my reason for international travel.”
Just Do It
Although it is an old tagline for a famous shoe company, those words ring true. If money is a problem, be sure to ask. Many programs are free, and many more offer discounts or scholarships.
And don’t forget your National Parks Pass, now called the Access Pass, a free, lifetime pass available to people who have a permanent disability. It provides free entry to national parks and a 50 percent discount on many park facilities, such as camping. Most states also offer a state park pass with similar discounts. Check with your state parks department — and have a great summer!
• Access Ability Wisconsin, AccessAbilityWI.org
• Achieve Tahoe, achievetahoe.org
• Action Trackchair, actiontrackchair.com
• Adaptive Adventures, adaptiveadventures.org
• Adaptive Expeditions, adaptiveexpeditions.org
• Adaptive Outdoorsman [Fishing Gear], adaptiveoutdoorsman.com/handicapfishing.html
• Adaptive Aquatics, nchpad.org/Directories/Organizations/2883/Adaptive~Aquatics
• Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors, baads.org
• Bay Area Outreach Program, borp.org
• Bionix power assist for handcycles, ridebionx.com/products/ebike/ebike-systems/
• City of Sacramento Access Leisure, cityofsacramento.org/ParksandRec/Recreation/Special-Needs
• Challenged Athletes Foundation, challengedathletes.org
• Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, crabsailing.org
• CreatingAbility, creatingability.com
• Disabled Sports USA, disabledsportsusa.org
• Erie Canal Boat Company, eriecanalboatcompany.com
• Environmental Traveling Companions, etctrips.org
• Jay Protector, sunrisemedical.com//seating-positioning/jay/cushions/protector
• Kelly Brush Foundation, kellybrushfoundation.org
• Madison SCI, madisonsci.org
• National Audubon Society, audubon.org
• National Parks Access Pass, store.usgs.gov/pass/access_pass_application.pdf
• National Sports Center for the Disabled, nscd.org
• NEW MOBILITY, “Adaptive Outdoor Adventure Sports,” newmobility.com/2015/08/adaptive-sports
• Ornithological Societies of North America, osnabirds.org
• ReActive Adaptations, reactiveadaptations.com
• Rochester Accessible Adventures, rochesteraccessibleadventures.org
• Rock ’n Roll Adaptive Cycling Camp in Yosemite, newmobility.com/2016/10/adaptive-cycling-yosemite/
• Sail To Prevail, National Disabled Sailing Program, sailtoprevail.org
• Telluride Adaptive Sports Program, tellurideadaptivesports.org
• Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, vermontadaptive.org
• Vicair AllRounder, comfortcompany.com/product/Comfort%20Rehab/Wheelchair%20Cushions/AllRounder
• Water Skiers With Disabilities Association, usawaterski.org
• Wheeling California Coast, wheelingcalscoast.org
• Wilderness Inquiry, wildernessinquiry.org
Making the Most of the Outdoors in Madison
Riveting recreation doesn’t have to involve strenuous exercise. No one understands that better than Monica Kamal, the founder of United Spinal’s Wisconsin chapter, Madison SCI, and Access Ability Wisconsin, another Madison-based organization dedicated to providing outdoor mobility to enable wheelchair users to enjoy the state’s beautiful public lands.
One of Access Ability Wisconsin’s signature programs accomplishes this by offering four Action Trackchairs — battery powered, all-terrain chairs mounted on tank-style treads — that can be checked out for free. Included is a trailer to tow the Trackchair, which can be used for anything from hiking, fishing, hunting or camping to bird watching. Kamal, in her 16th year as a T4 complete para, says AAW’s goal is to continue growing the fleet of Trackchairs and expand the number of places in the state where they are offered. The Trackchairs allow users to get out and explore without some of the limitations of traditional chairs.
“I’ve used the Trackchair for camping, and there is nothing like it for getting out in the woods,” says Gary Stott, 62, from Oregon, Wisconsin, a C3-4 incomplete quad for seven years. “It is really quiet and a great way to get around the campsite, over trails and out in the bush.”
For those looking to take their explorations to the next level, Kamal has put together a birdwatching program. The goal is to locate and identify and observe different types of birds, which is especially rewarding when you find a rare or unusual — for your area — species. It can be in a social group or a way to be alone in nature.
Kamal’s advice for starting birdwatching is to contact your local Audubon Society and local Ornithological Society for information and advice. It turns out the best birdwatching times are at sunrise and sunset, something that doesn’t always fit into body-management schedules for wheelchair users. “Because of this, I worked with the chapter president of the Ornithological Society in this area,” says Kamal. “He came to a Madison SCI meeting and did a presentation on birdwatching and offered to lead a group in the later afternoon rather than evening,” says Kamal. Turk even provided binoculars on a late afternoon birdwatching outing. “It was a success,” says Kamal. “We had wheelers, and one member came with her family and kids. We did it in September when there was a lot of migration going on and you could spot some rare species. We plan to do more of this.”
Madison SCI member Tina McFadden is also an avid birdwatcher. “I live in a wooded area and we have many bird feeders in our yard,” she says. “My kitchen looks over the backyard bird feeders. The challenge is identifying different species and trying to find new species to add to your list. So far I’ve seen three different types of orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and woodpeckers — both northern flickers and downy woodpeckers — as well as various kinds of hummingbirds. I have a bird book and I try and identify what I can. This is where it would be great to go out with the Trackchair and a trained bird guide so you could point out and positively identify each type of bird.”
Even without a Trackchair, Madison has plenty to offer outdoor enthusiasts.
“The Madison area also has great hiking,” says Madison-resident Betty Merten. “I go on walks (wheels) on the many walking paths and bike paths around the city. They are beautiful. It’s a great way to get exercise, and see nature’s many moods — from emerald green grass and white and pink flower blooms in the spring to late summer evening fireflies, and the riot of color performed by autumn’s leaves. I usually go with a friend or two. Sometimes they are wheelchair users, sometimes they are walkers, and we explore areas of the city that I never even knew existed.”