NSCIA Members in Action: Bill Fertig, Jennifer Wolff

Bill Fertig: Solving Problems in the Office and on the Beach

Resourcefulness. It is one of the qualities most tested by a spinal cord injury and one found in almost every successful person with SCI. The ability to adapt and cope when faced with adversity or difficult situations is a must when living with SCI. As the manager of the NSCIA Resource Center, Virginia member Bill Fertig has devoted his professional life to helping people with SCI discover their inner resourcefulness. To show that he not only talks the talk, but, shall we say, rolls the roll, he has launched a new beach wheelchair he designed because he simply wasn’t happy with the options on the market.

WillPullsBill-(3)Fertig, 59, was paralyzed 15 years ago in a motorcycle accident. A career police officer, he found his way back to emergency services as an emergency call dispatcher. Eight years ago, a vocational rehab worker suggested his skill set would be a good match for an opening in the NSCIA Resource Center and Fertig soon found himself in the world of SCI.

As the manager of the Resource Center, Fertig leads a team of specialists devoted to answering questions and providing guidance for people with SCI and their friends, family and community members.

“I get to guide people and help them out when they are at their lowest and get them pointed in a positive direction so they can be successful,” explains Fertig.

The calls and inquiries to the Resource Center span a wide variety of topics and come from all over the SCI community, but Fertig says his background as a call dispatcher and a training sergeant help him efficiently connect people with the appropriate resources.

When he is not working, Fertig has always been an avid beachgoer. Not one to let his SCI get in the way of enjoying the sun and the sand, he has tried out multiple beach wheelchairs — all with no satisfaction. Whether too heavy, too ugly, too hard to push or too unwieldy, the chairs simply didn’t fit Fertig’s needs. “My son-in-law, who is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, it just about killed him pushing me in a beach chair two blocks along the hard pack, over the heavy rutted sand and onto the beach,” recalls Fertig. “He was sweating bullets.”

Bill Fertig and George Gallego at Sen. Gillibrands officeMoving to Virginia Beach was the final straw. “When I moved here two-and-a-half years ago, where there are so many beach options, I realized that even the next level up of existing technology just didn’t work very well,” he says. “So I decided to build one that would work very well, and for me.”

Working with his wife, Noreen, and his son, Chris, neither of whom are engineers but share a love for innovation, the Fertigs set up his business, working on what would become the Sand Rider.

The Sand Rider is a sleek, three-wheeled beach chair with a lightweight aluminum frame that makes it easy to push or pull and disassemble. Fertig and his family have tested the chair on all types of sand, snow and in swamp-like conditions and found it to be easily maneuverable. One of the promotional photos shows Fertig’s 3-year-old grandson pulling him through shallow water.

Fertig is planning to take his personal Sand Rider to Mexico for a winter vacation and is looking forward to making the most of it this summer. In the meantime, he will continue to man the phones and web help desk at the Resource Center. Should anyone call with questions about beach access or building solutions to their problems, you can bet Fertig will know what to tell them.

For more info on the Sand Rider, visit mysandrider.com. To connect with the NSCIA Resource Center, visit www.spinalcord.org/resource-center or call 800/962-9629.


UsersFirst: Changing of the Guard

Jenn Wolff succeeds Ann Eubank as the manager of UsersFirst.

Jenn Wolff succeeds Ann Eubank as the manager of UsersFirst.

By Jennifer Wolff

UsersFirst lost its founder this month when Ann Eubank decided to leave to pursue other career opportunities. So many of us involved with UsersFirst owe gratitude to her for developing UsersFirst, empowering wheelchair users, parents, caregivers, health professionals, vendors and others and giving us a voice. One of Ann’s main emphases was the importance of telling your story, and how doing so was the best way to bring about the changes you want to see in the world. In light of that, I thought this would be a good place to share the story of how I got involved with UsersFirst and how my involvement has impacted me.

I met Ann at the Continuing Education and Legislative Advocacy conference in 2010. The previous year, the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology and the National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers started having consumers join them in advocating on Capitol Hill for policy changes. Ann spoke about UsersFirst and how she was trying to give wheelchair users a voice, a place to share their stories and struggles with the legislators who actually make the policy changes. She mentioned that she was an occupational therapist and was getting a master’s in social work. As an OT myself, I offered to help her in any way I could. She helped create a monster!

I learned a lot at that first conference. Confidence was not my strong suit, but I had a story to tell since Medicare had denied my second chair. As an OT, I knew that a lighter weight and more ergonomic chair fit specifically to me would help me prevent the inevitable wear and tear that comes with paraplegia, keep me working longer and allow me a better quality of life. But Medicare didn’t care about what I did outside my house, or that as little as a 5-pound difference in wheelchair weight could shorten the time until I needed a power chair. I was angry (and still am!). I knew that if I was having this issue, others would be too — a fact proven to me in my subsequent work with UsersFirst.

CELA and United Spinal Association’s Roll on Capitol Hill have taught many wheelchair users, vendors, therapists and caregivers that we, as constituents, have the right to share problems with our senators and representatives. Many times our legislators get caught up in the “politics” of our government without hearing how it is affecting the everyday person, and they often express gratitude for being able to hear our stories directly from us. After all, if our leaders do not know about problems, how are they to know what to change? Our stories guide our leaders in decision making. Your story counts.

We have made great strides in our effort to protect access to complex rehab technology. The Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act has been introduced in the House and the Senate, and are gathering momentum, but nothing has been passed into law.

As we begin to prepare for another season of advocacy and Hill visits, UsersFirst continues to need your voice and your story. Contact your legislators! It is really easy. You can call or email them. Tell them how hard it is to get the right wheelchair. Tell them how long you had to wait, or how competitive bidding has put your supplier out of business. Tell them how your current chair is hard to push or doesn’t quite fit you and your life.

You never know where telling your story may take you — Ms. Wheelchair America contests, newspaper and magazine articles, Abilities Expos across the U.S. — and maybe even into someone else’s life, to help give that person the motivation to share a story too. Advocacy leads to empowerment and that is what the world of disability needs: empowerment to lead the lives we want and deserve and the equipment to do so.

UsersFirst’s new leader, Jennifer Wolff, is an occupational therapist and wheelchair user from Waverly, Iowa. Learn more: www.usersfirst.org.

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