wheelchair user

Access 25 Years Later ...

Dan Wedge said he grew up feeling sad for people like his grandmother who used a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes.

“There were so many things that she would have enjoyed that she didn’t get to do,” Wedge said. “Even going out to eat with her required a lot of planning because there were so few restaurants that a wheelchair user could get into.”

Wedge - now Allegan County’s executive director of services - says his experience as a person using a wheelchair has been much different, thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Wedge lost use of his legs in 1987 when his Cadillac rolled on him as he tried to push it up a snowy embankment after sliding off an icy Mecosta County road.

After rehabilitation, he was able to return to his sales position with office equipment business owned by his family, but being able to access public places wasn’t something a person using a wheelchair could count on.

That began to change when Congress enacted the ADA three years later, in 1990.

“The ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have a right to equal access,” Wedge said. “Its focus really addresses the needs of everybody.”

Parents of young children appreciate curbed sidewalks and the option of a wider public restroom stall, Wedge said. Subtitles on TV shows and movies benefit the hearing as well as the hearing impaired.

The ADA-inspired hard-surface walkway over the beach to Lake Michigan is the most popular way to access the water among all visitors to Holland State Park, he said.

Near and dear to Wedge’s heart is the new “winding ramp” at West Side Park in Allegan County which allows visitors including people who use wheelchairs to gradually navigate the 80-foot drop from the bluff to the Lake Michigan shore. Two scenic rest decks are popular with people with and without disabilities alike.

And the list goes on.

Individuals using wheelchairs may not be sitting still much longer.

Design enhancements are coming from several quarters that expand possibilities for people using wheelchairs.

CBS News aired a story Jan. 17 about the latest and greatest iteration of a standing wheelchair. It shows a user in a gym easily maneuvering his compact chair from a sitting to a standing position and then shooting a basketball through a hoop twice.

Standing wheelchairs give users more autonomy and independence, but the greater benefits may be to the user’s physiology.

Many doctors consider immobility to be the “new cancer” that’s slowly killing too many people.

Standing promotes bone health and muscle strengthening, improves respiratory function, enhances bladder and bowel function, and reduces the threat of contractures.

“The human body is designed to be upright,” said Erin Neuland, a physical therapist at The International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore told Rehab Management magazine. “Our bones, muscles, organs and nervous system function optimally when either walking or standing.”

Scientific research shows that upright mobility improves outcomes for patients in physical therapy, she said.

The newest standing wheelchairs offer multiple functions, including sit-to-stand and seated transfers. Inventor Dean Kamen is working on an electronic one that is highly intuitive – allowing the user to move when reaching forward and leaning back. The iBot can even climb stairs!

Design of prone standers is also improving to add premium adjustability and increased utility.

Ever popular power wheelchairs -- which perform well under many indoor and outdoor conditions -- are also getting new features like easy-touch switches and chin booms with joysticks.

Not all of the newer features are all that high tech. Methods are now available that custom-mold seats to fit people using wheelchairs with structural deformities. These seats make wheelchairs more comfortable and functional for users who need them.

Another exciting wrinkle: Wheelchairs are being designed to connect with their user’s computer keyboard and environmental controls through Bluetooth and joystick technology. 

The wheelchair becomes part of the interface that allows users to turn off the television, turn on the lights, unlock doors and answer the telephone.

That’s a whole lot more than a ride.

Sunny skies, warmer weather - let's hit the beach!

Holland State Park’s mile-long white sand Lake Michigan beach is enjoyed by more than 1.5 million visitors each year. In the two summers since the state park purchased a $2,500 all-terrain wheelchair, a growing number of people who use wheelchairs have actually been able to get down to the water.

For most of the park’s 88-year history, people in wheelchairs had to be content to admire sailboats and sunsets from the parking lot.

An 8-foot wide concrete sidewalk from the parking lot and along Holland Channel to the pier was the focal point of a remodeling project in 2001. Visitors got their first up-close-and-personal contact with the shoreline in 2000, when a 450-foot sidewalk made of interlocking plastic planks was donated. That seasonal sidewalk is reassembled over the sand in May, and packed away again in mid-September, before fall and winter storms would bury it. 

“Those things have improved access to the lake a lot,“ said Erik Bailey, Holland State Park’s lead ranger. “It couldn’t be described as perfect, though. While our beach wheelchair can get wet, it doesn’t float.”

In other words, a person using the park’s beach wheelchair could get their feet wet, but couldn’t be immersed unless he or she could transfer from the chair.

Bailey said the Plainwell State Park District, which includes Holland State Park, considered purchasing another type of beach wheelchair that floats, but chose the all-terrain chair because its wheels are larger and thicker, making it easier for an assistant to wheel a rider over the sand. 

“Our beach chair was in use six to 10 times a week last summer,” Balley said. “A lot of times it’s young kids pushing their grandparents and that’s really neat to see.” 

There were also questions about liability with the floating chairs, Bailey said. 

An assistant has to push the person in the chair – which has armrests and a pivoting front fork wheel that float -- into the water and wade while he or she floats. There are several makes of floating wheelchairs. Then to be steady in calm waters, but a big wave could cause them to tip, making an attendant essential.

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

“Water is freedom for someone who can’t walk because it’s a zero-gravity environment,” said Sabastien Ragon, of AccessRec LLC in Union City, NJ, which markets a floating wheelchair called WaterWheels. “A lot of parks, resorts and attractions on the water have these to assure accessibility to the water, which is always their biggest drawing card.” 

The WaterWheels is fashioned from a lightweight aluminum bicycle frame. It sells for $1,700, making it one of the more economical chairs of its type.

Grand Haven State Park got its first all-terrain wheelchair a year ago. Longtime Holland State Park Supervisor Joyce Rhodes brought the idea when she was transferred because of its popularity in Holland, Bailey said.

Discussions about whether Saugatuck Dunes State Park should have a beach wheelchair “never went anywhere,” Bailey said, because it is almost a mile from the parking lot to the beach. That’s a lot of sand to traverse in any kind of chair." 

Before the beach wheelchairs, park personnel would drive visitors who use wheelchairs who asked down to see the water in an all-terrain utility vehicle. However, it is important to reserve “the Gator” for emergency use, Bailey said.

Holland State Park charges no fee and imposes no time limit for using the beach wheelchair, although Bailey said staff like to get an idea of when it will be returned in case another visitor requests it.

Public access to the Holland Channel will be further enhanced by an extension of the Ottawa County Parks Department’s boardwalk and fishing pier into Holland State Park. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has awarded a  $250,000 grant for the project and construction could begin as early as fall 2014, Bailey said. 

Do you think Holland State Park should add a floating wheelchair to make it possible for people who need wheelchairs to actually get in the water?

Winter wimps, we’re not.

Living on the lakeshore has made us hearty. Lake Michigan is not just our summer friend. The beauty of a freshly fallen blanket of snow makes us sigh as deeply as the next guy.

Yet, wouldn’t you squeal with delight if you thought you could get through the remainder of epic winter 2014 without seeing another snowflake?

snowwheels.jpg

For people who use manual wheelchairs, snow is a pain – literally.

Propelling a wheelchair through a few inches of snow multiplies the physical exertion required, and makes steering almost impossible.

And, as you know, the lakeshore has been blanketed under more than a few inches of snow since Thanksgiving. Factor in the “polar vortex” of wind and bitter cold and, well, it’s enough to keep even adventurous users in wheelchairs indoors.

 It may have been winter’s housebound who started the Facebook page, “Hating winter because the snow gets stuck in our wheelchair tires!!!

 Crying on Facebook doesn’t move the snow, but there’s no harm venting frustration among “friends” who know how hard it is to keep your life rolling when your front caster wheels are buried in snow.

That’s why, if you have to park your car in a lot that hasn’t been plowed – or the lot has been plowed but the snow has been pushed into a mountain covering accessible parking – you owe it to yourself and others to have a word with the business owner.

Owners may not realize that a person using a wheelchair has to tip the chair back and balance using only its big wheels to navigate deep or mounded snow. Requiring people to “do wheelies” is not safe – or good business.

It’s a business owner’s responsibility to make a reasonable effort to keep accessible parking clear.

Even when lots and walkways are plowed, expect even short errands during winter to require more muscle and time than usual.

And because it will likely take a person using a wheelchair longer to get inside, it’s especially important to do the things that protect against frostbite – a real condition that can cause permanent damage to the skin.

  • Carry a mobile phone and don’t hesitate to use it to summon help, if needed.

  • Keep your head and ears covered.

  • Keep your hands covered, remembering that mittens keep you warmer than gloves.

  • Dress in layers. (The air between the layers provides insulation!)

  • If cold weather leaves exposed skin red and tingly, it’s probably “frost nip.” Slowly warm the skin under warm (not hot) running water, then avoid going out again for a day or so.

  • Drink plenty of water. Cold weather dries out your skin, making it more vulnerable to frostbite.

  • Smoking, which causes nasal constriction, makes you more susceptible to frostbite.

There are cool inventions to help people in wheelchairs stay active outdoors in winter, but they can be pricey.

You can equip your chair with winter wheels that are not unlike nubby mountain bike tires.

FreeWheel is an attachment that can be clamped to the front of a manual chair, lifting the little caster wheels up and stabilizing the chair with one larger, thicker wheel. Great gizmo but it costs almost $600.

There’s also a contraption called Wheelblades – small skis that attach to the front wheels so they glide across the snow, rather than sinking into it. Size of dent in wallet: About $350.

OK fellow people in wheelchairs. Share your strategies. What do you do to keep active and get out and about when you need to in the winter?