Quadriplegic and recreation expert Chris Clasby knows how important outdoor recreation can be to people with disabilities. Wheelers can reap many health benefits from being active in nature, but mostly, it’s vitally important to a person’s self-worth. “Recreation and leisure activities are a really important expression of our identities,” says Clasby, program coordinator of Montana Access to Outdoor Recreation.
Recreation is especially important to those with a newly acquired disability. And though the medical model of rehabilitation is necessary, of course, it’s the social approach that helps people realize that despite a disability, there are ways to still enjoy life. Plus recreation helps the person with a disability and their family and friends get used to new, unfamiliar circumstances. “If they can together do the things that they’ve always done, it helps both parties adjust,” says Clasby.
He also points to research that shows those with disabilities who engage in recreation will be more successful in other areas of life, such as employment and independent living. “Someone can live a fuller and richer life through recreation and the peripheral benefits that come with it.”
Finally, living with a disability can at times be very stressful, so it’s important to occasionally stop and take time to do what you want to do. This not only is vital to physical health, but to mental and emotional health as well.
People with disabilities have more recreational opportunities and possibilities than ever before. Technology allows individuals with significant disabilities to hunt, fish and take photographs with ease. Outdoor recreation has its share of financial and physical challenges, but with a little assistance and perseverance, people can enrich their lives in so many ways.
Kayaking: A Lifelong Love Affair
Sandra Lambert, a 60-year-old wheelchair user from Florida, came to outdoor recreation later in life. In 1995, she began a love affair with the kayak, a love that is just as strong nearly 20 years later. She began canoeing after retirement as a way to access Florida’s lakes, rivers and salt marshes. It wasn’t long, though, until post-polio made canoeing harder.
A pivotal moment occurred when Lambert visited the Everglades. While she sat on the water’s edge, a flotilla of colorful kayaks glided by. It surprised her to see people leaning back in their kayaks and dangling their legs over the side. She was excited the kayaks were drifting along with little effort. “I thought ‘Heck, I can do that.’”
She began her research and soon headed out with a friend on a guided trip. The guide started Lambert out in a tandem kayak. “Or a divorce boat,” she says with a laugh. She grew tired of the arrangement and soon was in a solo kayak.
Paddling wasn’t complicated for her, and she instantly loved the renewed freedom of being out in the water. And it was fine with her that she couldn’t paddle fast.
Lambert found a supportive outdoor outfitter that listened to her needs. She tried several kayaks before purchasing a shorter tugboat style that fit her body. The shorter length allowed her to easily maneuver through twisting rivers and creeks.
Kayaking is often thought of as a fast-paced physical sport, but nothing could be further from the truth for Lambert and her companions. She says that, to her, kayaking is all about going slow and enjoying the natural surroundings.
Going slow is so important to Lambert and her friends that they keep an unofficial record of the slowest mile travelled by kayak. The record stands at 70 minutes and was set on Florida’s Econlockhatchee River. “A downstream river,” Lambert points out with glee.
Kayaking for recreation not only is an important social activity for Lambert, but it helps her with life’s pressures. “For me, a real essential part of my well-being is to somehow get myself out alone in that place that feels like the middle of nowhere,” she says.
Aging has complicated her lifestyle, but she has adapted. It has gotten harder for her to get from the kayak to her wheelchair, especially when tired. She can still do it but says she needs to get more creative. To minimize fatigue, she takes shorter trips during low tide and plans a couple days of rest afterward so she can recover. She also makes sure she has enough pain medicine to combat the aches and pains.
Lambert has made recent adaptations to her kayak. She switched out the seat for one with a higher back that gives more trunk support. A generous gift from her friends has also made a huge difference: They got together for her 50th birthday and gave her a pair of lightweight paddles, which has allowed Lambert to be much more efficient in the water.
An endeavor like kayaking can be a frightening undertaking, but Lambert has simple advice. She encourages people to do their research and try kayaking out in a controlled environment — like a guided tour. Once you are comfortable with the basics, she says, find a kayak that fits your body. She suggests that prospective kayakers contact disability recreation organizations if they want to try different pieces of adaptive equipment.
Camping: The Family Activity
Colorado attorney Carrie Ann Lucas lives a fast-paced life, but she makes sure her family can get away from life’s daily grind.
Lucas has central core disease, a disorder requiring the use of a ventilator. Despite physical challenges, she has adopted four children with various disabilities. Her daughters, Heather, 22, and Adrianne, 13, both use wheelchairs. Her other children, Asiza, 16, and Anthony, 11, have developmental disabilities.
Camping for the Lucas family began a decade ago when Carrie took her daughter Heather to camp at Wilderness on Wheels but felt it was too far removed from public camping areas. Lucas began Googling accessible camping and discovered yurts (round wood-framed tents) in Colorado state parks. Yurts are attractive because they provide electricity for medical equipment and beds, which are easy for transfers. The downside is that yurts cost around $60 a night.
Lucas recently purchased a large wall tent. The tent’s portability gives her a wider range of possible campsites. She typically looks for RV sites because they have power and concrete pads for setting the tent on. She uses the website Reserve America to make reservations.
Many state parks have accessible campsites, but the standard for accessibility can vary. “Generally it means there is a bathroom that’s accessible,” Lucas says. Accessibility issues are rare, but she has encountered barriers like heavy gravel.
The Lucas family doesn’t travel light. Lucas has a Dodge Sprinter van with an enclosed 5-by-8 foot trailer for hauling the large amount of necessary gear. On a typical camping trip, Lucas brings along tube feeding formula, respiratory supplies, a stockpile of hand sanitizer, a camp stove, a camp oven, multiple coolers, six large totes of camping gear, a wall tent and a Hoyer lift. She usually takes along two attendants to help set up camp and provide care during the trip. Caregivers usually stay right alongside in a tent.
Camping may seem to be a difficult activity for people with disabilities, but Lucas says you have to be willing to experiment. She recommends people start close to home and plan as well as possible. “The most important thing is to be flexible because unforeseen things will happen,” she says. “If it doesn’t work, you cut your trip short, but at least you tried.”
The effort needed to camp is worth it to Lucas because it gives her family quality time together without distraction. It’s also an affordable way to enjoy nature and see new places.
Mountain Biking: Road to Recovery
Topher Downham, a C6-7 quad, had an active outdoor life before breaking his neck in a diving accident. Downham bounced back from the setback and not only returned to the outdoors but made a career out of helping educating the citizens of Boulder, Colo., about the natural world.
The outdoors became an important part in his recovery — he fell in love with four-wheel downhill mountain biking because it was very similar to regular mountain biking. He discovered many accessible trails, and once he realized how helpful these places were to him, he wanted to show others where they could go hiking. This led Downham to write a book in collaboration with two agencies in Boulder. Boulder Accessible Trails and Natural Sites was published in 2000 and includes information not found in typical trail guides. In addition to the usual descriptions and maps, the guide lists the amount of shade on each trail. This information is extremely important to quads like Downham who are unable to sweat. The guide uses colors to mark the difficulty of each trail: Green trails are completely accessible, while red trails are meant for the highest-ability paras.
Downham began making YouTube videos of the trails because it’s more and more the format people use. He navigates the entire trail and points out places of interest. The videos are kept short to keep people interested, and they can be found on the website for Boulder’s Open Spaces and Mountain Parks, where Downham has worked since 2001 and currently serves as the agency’s outreach coordinator. His job is to educate people on the trails, flora and fauna, regulations and trail closures. An important part of his job is helping people with disabilities participate in outdoor opportunities, such as wildflower hikes and hikes along the sensory trail.
The purpose of the sensory trail is to give people a low vision experience: Visitors are blindfolded and guided along the trail, Braille signs along the trail describe important features, and tour guides have visitors feel different rocks and try to identify them by touch. People are encouraged to smell various plants and trees, such as the Ponderosa pine, which smells like butterscotch.
According to Downham, Boulder has numerous outdoor rec options, but that isn’t the case in some parts of the country. He encourages people in remote areas to reach out to others with disabilities. “I think with our technology now, with the Internet, it’s so easy to contact other people,” he says. “I think as a community we should try to help each other as much as we can.”
Photography: Seeing Nature Up Close
Scott Sands, 45, from Orlando, Fla., was bitten by the photography bug 30 years ago. His beginnings in photography came by coincidence. While a junior at the Henry Viscardi School, Sands needed to choose an elective, and photography was the only option. Sands, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, needed help with simple adaptations, so the instructor devised a metal camera mount and tied shoelaces to the focus ring of the lens. This allowed Sands to tug on the laces and bring the camera into focus. A manual cable release was used to activate the shutter.
After graduating from high school, Sands attended St. John’s University and put photography on the shelf. “Life grew more hectic during my college years, and I focused on journalism, girls and beer,” he says.
Camera technology changed greatly during his hiatus. Manually focusing the lens became optional, which was important because he had lost strength in his hands. Eventually an easier way to activate the shutter had to be found. Sands browsed several camera hacker websites and gathered information. He asked a friend with wiring experience to fuse together the two micro switches that separately controlled camera focus and shutter. He was then able to use the camera independently, and he uses the same setup today.
Sands has always loved nature and photographing the world around him. Florida not only has been the perfect backdrop, but the weather has been helpful. “The heat here in Florida keeps my hands warm enough to operate the camera switch,” he says.
There are barriers that wheelchair-using photographers face outdoors, but Sands says a quality zoom lens helps with overcoming those obstacles. And a year ago, he tried a skydiving photography switch that allows him to focus the camera and activate the shutter by blowing into a small tube. He currently uses the switch as a backup because he feels it’s important to use his hands while he can. “Do what you can do first, for as long as physically possible,” he says. “Don’t just take the easier route.”
Photography is one of just a few activities that Sands can do by himself. He says the independent feeling is immeasurable, and he encourages others to pursue the hobby. “Photography can be as simple as pie with the right equipment,” he says. “If you want to do it, and you have the resources, go for it!”
It is that kind of attitude that helps build self-esteem and makes life more enjoyable. The world of outdoor recreation is alive with possibilities.
Mark Boatman is a recent graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism. When he isn’t chasing down stories, he’s involved in disability rights advocacy and enjoying the grandeur of western Montana.