Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Power Chairs in the Outdoors

In nearly fifteen years as an adaptive recreation program coordinator, I've helped to make outdoor recreation more accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities. I've met many people who use power wheelchairs, some of whom have been able and willing to transfer out of their chairs to experience using a beach wheelchair on the beach, kayaking, rowing, sailing, ice sled skating, cycling, horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiling. In many cases, a person with a severe disability is able to be situated well enough with modifications for comfort, stability and function, to enjoy being on the water, snow, ice, a horse or some type of recreation equipment, whether they are active or inactive. Still there are many power chair users for whom this is simply not a comfortable or realistic option.

Outdoor recreation possibilities for this niche of people with more severe disabilities seem quite limited. Nonetheless some of the individuals I know do whatever they can to explore, try new activities and have fun. Some examples I've seen are spinning and sliding on the ice, fishing, birding, traveling along the smoother pavement of rail trails or waterfront promenades, the use of accessible trails in parks and attending outdoor fairs and events. Remote control devices, which typically require movement from just a couple of fingers, can open up enjoyment of outdoor environments as well. Remote control sailing, also known as model sailing, offers a gentle eye-pleasing experience and the chance to learn the basics of sailing and even compete.

Indoor recreation options are more prevalent, likely to be more wheelchair accessible and on public transportation. Visiting museums, attending concerts and performances, and going to the movies are viable options for those who can get out of the house. Using the internet for games and blogging offers opportunities for social engagement for those who can use a computer. Power soccer, a sport designed for power chair players, takes place on basketball courts and offers the opportunity for team play and competition.

If you use a power chair, or know someone who does, please submit a post here and share what you enjoy doing in the outdoors from the perspective of a power chair user. I'm gathering information in order to be able to better serve people with severe disabilities. Your needs, input, preferences and requirements would be most appreciated! Please do a quick click on the poll too!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In A Wheelchair, Up A Mountain

This fall I took a hike with Northeast Passage, a non-profit barrier-free recreation organization based in New Hampshire. Northeast Passage addresses the recreation needs of people with disabilities, especially those who have had spinal cord injuries. Affiliated with the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Northeast Passage celebrated it's 20th anniversary in 2009.

Jill Gravink and David Lee, our leaders for the dayhike on Blue Job Mountain, are both certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists. Jill is the founder of NEP and Dave has been on hand for at least 10 years. Both radiate an easy and expert confidence. Their can-do attitude ensures no one who wants to attain a summit or try a new sport is left behind. Other activities offered by NEP include handcycling, hiking, sled hockey, skiing and power soccer.

At the moderately remote trailhead on this breezy and clear early autumn day, we chatted and waited for the four pre-registered hikers for the day to arrive. While the parking lot filled fast, only two participants showed up. Debbie, from New Hampshire, was our focal person for the day, as she was using a manual wheelchair. Accompanied by an ambulatory friend from Massachusetts, this was their first time out with Northeast Passage. They were about to experience a perfect mountain for such an endeavor.

Three volunteers were present to assist as Jill and Dave discussed options with Debbie. Out of their pickup truck they pulled a rugged wheelchair called a Terra Trek, it's knobbly tires muddy from previous adventures, it's front castors missing. "They just get in the way," explained Jill, and the chair was used with just it's two main wheels for the entire hike.A rickshaw pole was quickly slid into one side of the front end of the chair, allowing Dave to hold up the chair while Debbie transferred in. A second pole was attached and without much more discussion, we were on our way through a low forest. Two volunteers pulled the chair, one at each pole. Dave handled the back of the chair, providing additional stability via a backbar he had added to the basic chair design for better leverage. Modification of existing equipment is one of Dave's specialties.

We were a noisy conversational bunch, trooping along a trail that traversed tree roots, a narrow (but not too narrow!) wooden bridge, and an increasing array of granite boulders. The summit was just a half a mile away, a bald dome of rock with views of the White Mountains to the north and a glimmer of ocean to the east. A light trip for any dedicated hiker, Blue Job offers a condensed rugged experience for those who require short distances or have less time. It is a great choice for families, even a wedding, which accounted for the full parking lot on this particular day.

Soon we were climbing, Dave and his helpers skillfully maneuvering the chair and it's occupant up and over obstacles. We kept up a steady pace, indeed, bringing up the rear as I was, I wondered how Debbie was enjoying the experience. As we emerged from the forest into a more level area, we paused net to a small pond amidst aspens to make an accommodation for her. Here I witnessed "innovation in action" as Jill dubbed it, a hallmark of Northeast Passage's style.
Dave worked a length of climbing webbing through the chair frame and fashioned loop handles on either side of Debbie's knees to provide her with handholds. This gave her better comfort and stability within the wheelchair during the bumpier stretches. Though it might appear to the casual observer that Debbie was being carried along the trail, in fact she was getting quite an abdominal workout as she continually balanced her body in the chair over tilting terrain.

The final ascent over rounded granite to the top offered longer spans of angled curving rock, making for a smoother ride. The view was opening up around us as we passed through fewer and shorter trees, a sea of blue mountains all around. The wind took over, blowing with consistent gusto, cooling the sun's warmth, making me glad for the layers of clothing I wore. We approached the highest rock, already peopled by two birdwatchers with scopes. Thankfully the wedding party picked a less windy area for their event. We stayed up top for 20 minutes or so, taking pictures and sorting out the surrounding mountains. Debbie was easily propped into a level position on the rocks, but the fierce wind prevented any kind of picnic. It was a fine day for hawks in migration and I was pleased to see a kestrel hurtle by in close view before we began our descent.

On the downward trip we met various members of the wedding making their way up for the view. Members of our own party swapped out support roles with the wheelchair. Moving ahead of the line to take photos, I could see Debbie frequently smiling as we retraced our path. She had tried a new experience and met a goal of attaining a summit in her wheelchair. No doubt this day would stand out in her memory for quite some time.

Back in the forest again, I fell into step with the third volunteer and soon learned much to my surprise, that he had recovered from a spinal cord injury that had left him quadriplegic almost a decade ago. Now he was as physically fit as ever it seemed, though he acknowledged that he still managed symptoms. Only recently had he become involved with Northeast Passage, though Dave had visited him in rehabilitation. He came to volunteer, without having even benefited from Northeast Passage's tremendous programs in the course of his recovery! I left Blue Job inspired by the dedication and unique journeys of individuals to make a difference for others and to bring anyone who wants to go to the top of the mountain.

For more information on Northeast Passage, visit them at http://www.nepassage.org/

Outdoor Recreation and Aging

The experience of one woman who reclaimed adventure in her later years -
I first met Cynthia when she was in her mid-seventies, at Nickerson State Park, where she was part of a camping program that had decided to cook breakfast on the beach. The water was gently washing the shoreline of the bay side of Cape Cod and the morning light was spectacular. Sea birds called overhead and calm water extended to the horizon in a glorious view. The program staff was struggling to get a temperamental camp stove lit and Cynthia was making no bones about it - she was hungry.

Cynthia is an avid outdoors woman despite severe arthritis. The camping program was her first since the disease changed her ability to recreate independently many years before. Here she received assistance as needed with tasks her swollen hands couldn’t finesse, kayaked on freshwater ponds, and rode a hand-propelled bike on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Her first experience with the Universal Access Program was a success, despite the cranky camp stove.

Over the next several years, Cynthia popped up all over Massachusetts. I saw her snowshoeing in Holyoke and near Concord. I hiked with her on Mt. Greylock and we canoed together in Sturbridge at Wells State Park. Over time Cynthia became well-known for her cheerful presence and good humor. It was always a thrill for her to get out of the house and have an outdoor adventure. After canoeing one day, I invited Cynthia to look a little deeper into her experience. "Cynthia, tell me what it is you are getting from the Universal Access Program that keeps you coming back for more and traveling all over the state?"

She looked at me and considered this for a minute or two, which seemed like a long time so I wondered if she had heard me. Then she looked up with an enormous smile and said "You know what? I just realized this. The Universal Access Program cured my depression!"

"I used to do all kinds of outdoors activities", she continued. "When I got arthritis it seemed like that life was over. I became very depressed. I could no longer do the things I loved. When I discovered this program and met all these nice people, after awhile I started feeling better. Now I don’t feel depressed anymore!"

The Universal Access Program is part of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is a nationally unique state park program that makes outdoor recreation accessible to people with disabilities in Massachusetts. Through site improvements and equipment placement that allows for independent access, as well as structured recreation programs year round, the DCR offers numerous choices for those who want to get outdoors. Program activities include kayaking, rowing, cross country skiing, ice skating, snowmobiling, horseback riding, birding, and bicycling. Many programs are free and some have minimal fees. Individuals, families, and groups have gained greater access to the outdoors through this program since 1995. Cynthia is among many who have discovered that they can do something they thought wasn’t possible or who have reclaimed a seemingly lost part of their life.

Like Cynthia, many participants come back for more, using the program to get outside regularly, exercise, and connect with nature and other people. Some even end up buying their own kayak, sitski, or adaptive bicycle to recreate on their own. The beauty of the Universal Access Program though, is that it offers leadership, skilled support, safety, and adaptive equipment that may not be affordable for everyone to purchase on their own. For those who become regulars of the program, opportunities abound to explore new places and new activities, and develop personal goals.

It was a hot summer day in Hadley when I stopped in on a weekly adaptive cycling program on the Norwottuck Rail Trail. There was Cynthia , sitting at an outdoor table, enjoying an ice cream cone. "Marcy, Marcy!," she called out. "I did it! I biked the whole rail trail! Sixteen miles!" It was a triumphant moment. Cynthia had been working toward that goal for year or so.

Since then, Cynthia biked the entire trail many times on a weekly basis each summer, and still comes out occasionally. Now in her mid-eighties, she uses ski poles to balance her walking on snowshoes in winter and trails in summer. While health challenges in our later years can diminish our sense of adventure and limit opportunities, re-defining adventure for ourselves can feed our soul. Reclaiming what we can and still being able to try new things is a powerful re-creation of ourselves. Celebrating and assisting the outdoor adventures of those ahead of us in years offers a beacon of inspiration and a sense of wholeness that can transcend limitation. Don't hesitate to research local options and test new waters!

To find out more about DCR’s Universal Access Program, call 413-545-5353 or go online at www.mass.gov/dcr/universal_access.

Birding with Jerry - A Blind Date

A glorious May morning after 10 days of rainy weather matched the calendar date I had made with a friend to go birding. We met at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, a long drive for me but the ideal meeting spot for Jerry, who is blind and lives nearby. Jerry arrived by taxi cab and after a brief discussion about the catbird singing near the parking lot, he took my arm and we ventured onto the sanctuary trails.

Leaves were popping out in the tall trees all around us, about halfway to full canopy, so I still had a chance to see many birds. Almost immediately as we headed down trail a scarlet tanager began to sing. We stopped to listen. "Have you heard the scarlet tanager before?" I asked Jerry. "Just on recordings’, he replied. "I think of it as a robin with a sore throat. It also has a ‘chip - bur’ call too, doesn’t it?"

"Yes," I answered, and within a few minutes, the distinctive chip-bur call began high overhead. As we continued our walk, we heard several scarlet tanagers singing and calling throughout the riverside forest. We also heard rose-breasted grosbeaks and robins. All three birds have similar songs and offered us the chance to compare and contrast. Jerry hadn’t heard the rose-breasted grosbeak live before either. "This one," he said, "I think of as a robin who has taken singing lessons." His references come straight out of Peterson’s field guide text, which provides handy ways to identify and remember some bird songs. As we stood and listened, a scarlet tanager flew down to eye level and dazzled me with a view of its electric red body and black wings. I had to remember to keep breathing.

Several other birds began to make themselves known. An ovenbird pumped out its "teacher teacher teacher" song. This was a warbler that Jerry had encountered before. As we passed near it, we stopped so Jerry could make a recording. He had brought a large microphone designed for capturing bird sounds which fit easily into his jacket. He also wore to microphones clipped to his cap, each one near an ear, for a more dimensional sound effect.

The sun filtered through the tree tops and we navigated a rocky stream crossing. Jerry held my arm just above the elbow and followed a half a step behind me, feeling how I was moving and following suit. I offered occasional comments on the level of rocks along the rocky passage, the mud puddles we were side stepping, and low hanging branches. It turned out to be quite easy to be Jerry’s sighted guide even on complicated terrain. Having been blind since birth, Jerry is adept at moving through his environment with guide dog, cane, or human support.
Orioles were calling throughout the forest too. Although we were hoping to hear a great crested flycatcher, we only heard orioles giving short phrases that sounded similar to the flycatcher’s voice. We stood still a few times, trying to decide who the real singer was, until the oriole would sing a longer phrase or move into view and reveal its identity.

Deciphering mystery singers on the spot can be difficult. Being able to find the singer visually and observe it singing is the ultimate clear identification. Relying on memory can be misleading. Some birds sing a consistent phrase or have a truly distinctive voice that can be remembered from year to year. Others have such a wide variety of vocalizations that it may take awhile to sort out and some songs may never move beyond mystery status.

An American redstart, a showy orange and black warbler, landed on a branch above and peered down at us. I let Jerry know the bird was there, but its silence gave him no way to perceive it. We continued along the trail a short way and were riveted by a mystery bird that was singing from one hidden spot high up in the half leafed trees. No matter how I repositioned myself along the trail I could not find the bird in my binoculars. The song varied a lot but we both agreed it had to be a warbler. One phrase was an ascending burry emphatic trill, another was a choppy series of notes with the same tone. Was it a blackburnian warbler, cerulean warbler, or the American redstart? In migration many birds are possible even outside of their breeding habitat. Jerry recorded the singer to compare to recordings on CD at home and we continued uphill to some power lines. Here we had the satisfaction of hearing the blessedly consistent and easy-to-identify trill of the prairie warbler, a new bird for Jerry.

All around us on this May morning birds were singing and calling. Wood thrushes, American goldfinches, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, tufted titmice, grackles, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds could also be heard. After awhile the brain rebels against focusing intently on so much audio input. "I know we heard that earlier. What was that?" I asked Jerry."I don’t know," he admitted. "All these songs are suddenly cancelling each other out." "Yeah," I answered, "I think we’ve reached overload." "I’m glad I’m not the only one!" laughed Jerry, as we headed back to the visitor center.

Jerry can often be found at the Broad Meadow Brook visitor center on Saturday mornings. He birds from the deck and talks with visitors, sometimes confirming identifications through their eyesight. He welcomes the chance to walk with others on the trails of the sanctuary, whether you are an experienced birder-by-ear or want to get started. Jerry posts recordings on line at

A few days after our walk, Jerry emailed me with his identification of our mystery singer. In his email he attached a brief recording from our outing plus a clip from a bird song CD. There was no doubt about it. We had heard a northern parula warbler singing a joyous solo on that spectacular day.

Location: Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, 414 Massasoit Ave, Worcester, MA
508-753-6087 http://www.massaudubon.org/ bmbrook@massaudubon.org

Fees: Massachusetts Audubon members, free; non-members $4 adults, $3 children/seniors.
Wheelchair accessibility: Visitor Center is wheelchair accessible. Trails from the visitor center head downhill and are challenging and not advised without support. The North Link trail nearby is wheelchair accessible and offers views of the brook. A bird blind near the visitor center is in progress towards complete accessibility and plans are in the works to make more of the trail system accessible.