Center shows people with disabilities a way to change their lives
Wed, Jul. 24, 2002
By Laura Yuen
Central Kentucky Bureau
GEORGETOWN — A horseman and athlete by nature, Kevin Teeman has gone 18 years without using his legs little more than to wiggle his toes. He and his wife care for a dozen thoroughbreds on their small Oklahoma farm, but it is no comparison to the rush of commanding a 1,000-pound horse through his voice, reins and heels.
Those yearnings recently sent Teeman and his family on a weekend visit to a Scott County non-profit operation that promotes horse sports for people with disabilities. On some 600 verdant acres of the Gayla Driving Center, the organization familiarizes its students with the carriage — an old-fashioned vehicle that can whisk a driver into a world beyond the boundaries of a wheelchair.
“He’s dreaming about going fast,” Michael Muir, president of the United States Driving for the Disabled Inc., said of Teeman. “For somebody in a wheelchair, your life changes in one heartbeat. We say, ‘Hey, your life isn’t over. If you want to fly through the countryside, I’ll show you how to do it.’”
Muir, the adrenaline-seeking patriarch of the association, represents a certain breed of horse-lovers whose disabilities are dwarfed by their hunger for competition and fondness for the creatures.
Muir, who now uses a cane, has suffered from multiple sclerosis since age 15. But over nine months last year, from a wheelchair-accessible carriage, he led an international crew of drivers with disabilities on a 3,000-mile horse-drawn journey across America. They weaved through mountain passes, plodded through deserts, spoke at hospitals and rehab centers — and even were pulled over by police for trotting too fast.
The great-grandson of naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir, considers the carriage an equalizer that puts disabled drivers on par with the able-bodied. He was a bronze medalist in the team competition of the World Championship for Disabled Drivers in 1998. And his desire to compete has been infectious.
Parked in a wheelchair on a gravel road, Teeman, a computer programmer from Muldrow, Okla., watched veteran horsewoman Cindy Goff steer her pony and carriage into lush fields. They have been dealt similar misfortunes — a diving accident broke his neck, leaving him completely paralyzed at first; Goff was paralyzed from the waist down in a horse accident 20 years ago.
But Teeman smiled at the possibilities to come. “Pretty cool, huh?” he whispered to his 8-year-old daughter, Ashley, nestled in his lap.
Moments later, Teeman himself mounted a carriage. Horse trainer Jose Hernandez rolled Teeman’s wheelchair up a wooden board before latching it onto the platform. “We try not to make this a pony ride,” said Hernandez, who is legally blind. “We try to make it a life-changing experience.”
On this recent morning, Teeman was paired with Freddie, a docile, sleepy-eyed Norwegian fjord horse who has just enough hot blood to get psyched up for competition.
The non-profit group can introduce pupils to the rudiments of driving, but it will be up to Teeman to continue classes back home and buy a horse and carriage for himself. He expects the horse to cost about $3,000 to $5,000, and the carriage, modified to his specific needs, about $3,500.
With Muir beside him, Teeman took his first shot at the reins. Now he realizes that this intricate dance he can perform with the horse — the slight pulls with his fingers that can send him ripping through the woods — is a blessing.
“You have this 1,100-pound animal, and it’s like being one with it,” he said. “It’s being able to go wherever I want to go. When you start going fast, it just gets your heart pumping.”
Eventually, he’ll follow the steps of Johnny Burkhead, a student entering his third week of driving lessons, who dreams of taking his skills to the Paralympic level. On this day, though, Burkhead began to roll out of the stable with small steps. “Walk on, Buster,” Burkhead gently commanded. “Look pretty.”
Born with a rare neuromuscular disease that kicked in after a 1988 car wreck, Burkhead cannot move his feet, and his fingers are tautly curled under. But driving has been therapeutic for both the mind and body. Working underused shoulder muscles gives him an “awesome tingling,” he said, and the adrenaline “makes you do things you didn’t think you could.”
A Wal-Mart greeter known for zipping around the store in his motorized wheelchair, the boyish 37-year-old was scouted by Muir one day at his place of work. “He was flying around Wal-Mart,” the elder recalled, “and I said, ‘There’s someone who would like to drive.’”
The organization was founded in 1982 by Sybil Dukhart in Jarrettsville, Md, and moved to the Bluegrass in March. The facility is sponsored by corporate and private donations, and the driving center, which offers classes for the able-bodied, is owned by Chuck and Gail Austin Ellman. There is no charge to participate in the non-profit’s programs.
Competition can take drivers through a variety of events, such as dressage — a stately exhibit of traditional showmanship — to 25-kilometer races. In late September, Muir will lead a team of drivers across France, Belgium and finally to Germany, where they will compete in the third World Championship for Drivers with Disabilities.
It may sound dangerous, and it is. “Well, guess what, disabled people have rights to take risks too,” Muir countered. “If we want to go wild in the countryside, we’re entitled to do it.”
As Burkhead said his goodbyes after practice, Muir called out: “We’ll be ready to take you up a notch next week.”
“All right, I’m ready for the challenge,” Burkhead said, pumping his
fist, his wheelchair motoring into the distance.
© 2002, Kentucky.com