PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Overland or Airborne, Recreational Opportunities Are Growing
By Loretta Marmer
The sky's literally the limit for some people with disabilities seeking new and interesting outdoor activities this summer. They're shooting for the wild blue yonder.
Meanwhile, those who like to keep themselves a little more "grounded" are shooting, too--with rifles and bows.
ADVANCE found three organizations not just in the realm of typical "wheelchair sports" that are welcoming people with disabilities with open arms.
Archery may not be the popular sport it was a few decades ago, but according to Lyn Rourke, chairperson of Wheelchair Archery USA, it is one of the few that puts participants with disabilities on a level playing field with their able-bodied competitors. And, she adds, it's less expensive than most wheelchair sports, since there are no special racing chairs to buy. Besides the bow and arrows, athletes with disabilities sometimes purchase special cuffs equipped with a mechanical release.
Rourke first became interested in the sport through her work at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, MN, where she was a therapeutic recreation specialist. "One of my first clients had SCI and wanted to continue to hunt," she said. "I said 'I can teach you to shoot and hit a target.' My involvement in the sport got me involved in organizing competitions for the state, and it just mushroomed from there."
Headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO, the organization is under the umbrella of Wheelchair Sports USA. The organization was established in the early 1970s and publishes a quarterly newsletter to keep its 100 members nationwide apprised of competitions going on at the local, national and international levels.
While most tournaments include a division for archers with quadriplegia, paraplegics can shoot in the same division as able bodied athletes. Rourke, a therapeutic recreation specialist in Indianapolis, said many disabled athletes have even taken part in Olympic trials, although so far none have made the Olympic archery team. "Italy was the only country this past Games in Atlanta that had a member of their paraplegic team who was also a member of its Olympic team. So it is possible," she added.
There are several rounds of competition in archery. Shooting 72 arrows at 70 meters will rank an athlete, Rourke explained. Most competitions include shooting 144 arrows. And while the sport is 75 percent mental, it does take considerable stamina to shoot that many arrows, she noted.
There are three divisions for wheelchair archers: W1, for quadriplegia; W2 for paraplegia; and W3 for people who have difficulty with standing, hand control and in other areas.
Part of the National Archery Association, Wheelchair Archery USA hopes to spread the word and attract more athletes to the sport, particularly younger people, since the average age of members is now mid 30s to early 40s. Accessible ranges are hard to find, Rourke admits, but it is an easy sport to take up if there is a safe, accessible area in which to shoot. An accessible range also has staff available to teach the archer to shoot from his wheelchair and to help him pull the arrows out of the target.
Marksmen with disabilities can take their skills to the shooting range as well.
Like archery, riflery enables sportsmen at all levels of ability to participate, and there are organizations geared specifically for sharpshooters who like to compete as well as those who enjoy hunting.
Interest in riflery is growing among the disabled population, said Dave Baskin, president of the National Wheelchair Shooting Federation (NWSF), Rockledge, PA, and manager of the National Rifle Association's Disabled Shooting Services, based in Fairfax, VA.
The NRA, says Baskin, is decades ahead of most other sporting organizations in accommodating people with disabilities. The largest shooting organization in the world, it had rules applying to people with disabilities on the books as early as the 1950s. "They were very far-sighted," said Baskin, adding that classification in the NRA's Disabled Shooting Services has always been based on function, not medical disability.
About 80 percent of the activities offered by the NRA's Disabled Shooting Services are focused on hunting and outdoor recreation. Ten percent centers on competition, and 10 percent on personal protection and other services.
This year, the NRA Disabled Shooting Services, in collaboration with Beeman Airgun Corporation, is sponsoring the first NRA-Beeman Grand Prix Championship in Columbus, OH.
This event is a big deal, according to Baskin, as the organizations already have more than $15,000 in cash and prizes to award the top shooters. "This is a big upgrade for disabled athletes," he said.
The number of entrants reflects the growing interest in shooting events. "Normally the wheelchair shooting events draw 10 or 15 people. In Columbus next week there are 38 entries already." And three of the top 10 shooters are women, he added.
The emphasis of the NWSF, another organization under the umbrella of Wheelchair Sports, USA, is competition. The organization sponsors airgun competitions in nine regions across the country, as well as a Can-Am competition bringing together the best of American and Canadian marksmen.
Although the average age of shooters with disabilities is dropping, Baskin says it still tends to attract older people with disabilities. Disabled athletes realize that they can participate in the more strenuous wheelchair sports while they are young, then sharpen their shooting skills later. "We have a world-class shooter over 60," he said. "You can do this for a long time."
Also, the sport accommodates athletes at all level of disabilities, since this is a sport requiring precision, not great strength.
For people whose aim is a little "higher," there are organizations to help people in wheelchairs earn their wings.
Mike Smith, president of Aero Haven in Big Bear City, CA, specializes in teaching people with disabilities to fly. Smith was a pilot when he broke his back 16 years ago. Unconvinced he would never fly again, Smith contacted International Wheelchair Aviators, an organization providing information worldwide on flying and disability. "International Wheelchair Aviators helped me get my pilot's license back," Smith said. "The original members also needed someone to take over, and they passed that on to me." He now serves as president of that organization.
Smith owns and operates what's known in the field as a total fixed base operation. "That means we rent airplanes and are carriers, and provide fuel and pilots' supplies and maintenance here on the field."
Minimum time to earn a pilot's license is 35 flight hours. Smith estimates that he's trained about 50 students with disabilities to fly. "I've taught students in as little as three weeks," he said. "If I have their undivided attention, and they study, it doesn't take long."
Aero Haven has five planes equipped with hand controls for steering and rudder control. The wheelchair fits in the cargo pod, or the pilot may simply leave the chair behind on the ramp.
Smith believes the growing number of pilots with disabilities will begin to open doors into commercial flight, although he admits some people are still skeptical of the abilities of the disabled. "As little as a year ago, an FAA man back east said I shouldn't have a license," Smith explained.
Aero Haven is unusual in that the instructors have disabilities too. Flight schools using able-bodied instructors may not fully understand the coordination it takes to operate hand controls. "That makes us a world-renowned flight school. We have disabled pilots teaching disabled people how to fly," Smith said. He has had customers from Israel, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and New Zealand.
The cost to earn a pilot's license is about $3,600, but may vary depending on how long it takes the flyer to earn his license.
"(A person with a disability) finds out he is equal to everyone else in the air," Smith said. "You don't have to have use all your extremities."
Freedom's Wings International, based in Scotch Plains, NJ, is another aviation service run by and for individuals with disabilities. The all-volunteer organization operates a fleet of sailplanes out of Van Sant Airport in Erwinna, PA. It offers people with physical disabilities the opportunity to fly or simply enjoy the ride in a specially adapted sailplane.
Soaring is an entirely different kind of aviation experience. The sailplane is towed into the air by a powered plane then released for a silent glide back to earth. A single flight can last up to two hours in the hands of a skilled pilot who can gain altitude by riding rising thermal currents.
Ray Temchus, president and instructor at Freedom's Wings, founded the not-for-profit membership organization in 1981. All of the company's instructors are certified by the FAA, and follow an FAA-approved flight training program. Students are required to pass the same written and verbal tests as non-disabled students. Students can solo after 50 flights, and are eligible to earn their licenses after another 50 flights, Temchus noted.
The sailplanes are specially equipped. "We have a hand-controlled system with a lever on the left-hand side of the cockpit to actuate the rudder pedals," Temchus said.
The cost to go through the program and earn a license at Freedom's Wings is about $3,000, even though instruction is provided at no cost. The company owns its sailplanes, Temchus said, but it does have to pay for the tow plane services. "And we do have scholarships for people with little or no means," he added.
Freedom's Wings offers a free 20-minute introductory ride to people who are interested in learning to fly or who want to participate in soaring.
Temchus said aviation for people with disabilities is often seen as therapeutic. "Before, this was just a sports program. You went out and had a good time. Now it's seen as therapeutic recreation."
Only about 10 percent of Temchus' students earn their pilots' licenses, a rate which he says is typical for the industry. The sense of accomplishment for those who do, however, is great. "A pilot's license is not a gift. It's earned, and they have to work at it. There is a great deal of satisfaction and achievement, but it requires a lot of focused energy."
But earning a license is not only the only goal at Freedom's Wings.
"The road you travel is as good as the destination," Temchus said.
* For more information: Contact Wheelchair Sports USA at (719) 574-1150; Freedom's Wings International, (908) 232-6354. Contact International Wheelchair Aviators, (909) 585-9663. Call the National Wheelchair Shooting Federation at (703) 267-1495.