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Making the Great Outdoors Accessible for All

By Cindy Atoji Keene

When house-bound senior citizens try out a recumbent bike for the first time, many are amazed at the new freedom and comfort they experience, said Susan Tracy, program director for All Out Adventures, a non-profit that specializes in outdoor recreation for people of all abilities. But seniors aren’t the only ones who find that sports – paddling a kayak, adaptive ice skating, hiking a trail – can lead to independence, resilience, and awareness. All Out Adventures in Northhampton, operates approximately 150 outdoor programs for people with disabilities, complementing the Universal Access Program in the state parks. “Beaches, trails, lakes and even skating rinks are now accessible but if there’s no hands-on help, available equipment and instruction, many participants don’t know where to begin,” said Tracy. As program coordinator, she has taught people how to play adaptive hockey using ice sleds; helped able-bodied caregivers tandem bike with their family members, and guided veterans as they find solace in the outdoors. “One of the biggest issues for the disabled is a sense of isolation; they find camaraderie in our outings and also learn that they don’t need to be sedentary – they can discover adventure and fun,” said Tracy.

Q: As any physically challenged person knows, working against physical limitations can be exhausting, and disabled people can run out of energy before a non-challenged person will. How do you encourage the disabled to know their limits?
A: An able-bodied person is able to balance their body and easily regulate their body temperature. But someone with a disability might be compensating just to sit upright, or perhaps muscles have atrophied over the years. Lung capacity also can be diminished and they can be prone to overheating or becoming too chilled. Fatigue can set in easily. I make sure that an outdoor recreation program is suited to all ability levels and also plan travel along small loops that are easy to navigate. One woman had a brain injury and she would forget her limitations; if she went out too far on a winter hike, we would push her back on a sled.

Q: Why is it important for the disabled to have an opportunity to experience outdoor adventures?
A: Personally, for me to connect with nature in all its season is beneficial not only for my physical and mental well-being but also spiritual. It’s the same for those with disablities. It’s very healing for a quadriplegic to be able to kayak at Walden Pond and feel the sun and wind on his face and hear the birds. Or a person can be severely restricted in mobility but still be able to propel themselves across the water in a kayak – that’s huge.

Q: All Out Adventures also has cycling and accessory store – does that help support your programs?
A: We get funding from places like Tufts Health Plan Foundation but we also sell cycles and accessories, including recumbent trikes, as an "earned income" revenue stream. We only sell products that support our mission of promoting health and independence for people of all abilities. Recumbent trikes offer a more neutral body position than a traditional bike and eliminate the need to balance the bike. Folks with neck, back, and wrist issues as well as those that have had a stroke, brain injury or other disability find these trikes to be a way to get exercise and gain freedom. We service the recumbent trikes we sell; our part-time mechanics hold degrees in kinesiology and engineering and feel personally connected to our mission. I also attended the Pioneer Valley Bike School three years ago to hone my mechanical skills –now I can assemble the trikes and adjust a derailleur with the best of them.

Q: Do you have participants that are aspiring to be in the Paralympics?
We are a new Paralympic Sport Club and are looking forward to the opportunity to work with aspiring Paralympians. As a Paralympic Sport Club we promote Paralympic awareness and direct interested competitors towards the appropriate training. One of our ice and sled skating program participants is an aspiring Parlaympian in sailing. She has a spinal cord injury but is able to successfully sail and maneuver the boat in the water and is hoping to compete in Rio in 2016.

Q: Can you leave us with a story about how outdoor recreation can change lives?
A: We had a stroke victim try a recumbent bike – since his illness nine years ago, his only form of leg exercise was lying in bed while his wife moved his legs for him. He was able to pedal by himself and his wife watched with disbelief and tears in her eyes. A whole new world of opportunities opened up for both of them that day.

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