03/25/2001 - Sunday
By Pamela S. Robinson
EQUIPMENT RANGING from electronic fishing reels to redesigned skis to customized saddles for horseback riding is helping people with disabilities enjoy outdoor sports and recreation.
Improved technology and a desire to not let a disability limit activities have led to new inventions or redesigns of existing equipment, say people who work with or use adaptive equipment.
Mike Zangari, who uses a wheelchair because of spina bifida, has witnessed the changes in technology in recent years.
"The technology has changed since I got my start. I was playing sports in a 45-pound chair; now they're 25 or 30 pounds," said Zangari, who supervises a repair shop at Home Care Supplies in Bethpage. Zangari has participated in trapshooting, water skiing, skeet shooting and parachuting, and says that wheelchair users and people with other disabilities participate in water sports, a form of rugby, races, basketball and many other sports.
"Technology is improving access quite a bit, maybe a hundredfold. Usually an individual, through some sort of disability, feels limited and comes up with an idea, throws it out to a manufacturer or does it himself," Zangari said.
Dick Traum, president of the Achilles Track Club in New York City and an above-the-knee amputee, ran his first marathon in 1976.
"There's been a tremendous change in the technology since the mid-1970s; they're using lighter material, stronger material. I take a hop and a skip; today, with newer technology, people can run leg over leg. We have amputees who are running as fast as world-class female runners. These are things that were almost impossible a generation ago," Traum said. He sees runners with a variety of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, amputations and heart conditions.
Traum also knows that when technology changes, controversy can follow. Next Sunday at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the club is sponsoring its first marathon to feature a division for athletes using handcranked wheelchairs, instead of just one division for all wheelchair users. Traum says users of the standard chairs think that the handcranked devices have an advantage because they have gears.
Unlike many other marathons in the United States, Traum says, at the Achilles marathon, "We're encouraging rather than just permitting" handcranked wheelchairs. The club will give away 40 of the chairs.
Don Krebs of Newbury Park, Calif., built a new life and a new business marketing adaptive equipment after he was left a quadriplegic in a water skiing accident in 1978. His company, Access to Recreation Inc., works with about 200 manufacturers of specialized equipment, many of them garage-shop entrepreneurs, marketing such items as gun mounts for wheelchairs, lifts for water access, fishing equipment and water flotation devices.
Krebs came up with the idea to market adaptive and other exercise equipment while developing a business plan in a college course on entrepreneurship he started after his accident. The former construction worker's desire to return to water skiing "led to the research and finding that there were a lot of products out there." He gets many calls from people who are looking for just the right equipment, including people who have lost an arm in an accident or recently had strokes and are unable to use an arm but want to return to fishing. He markets rod holders that hold the pole so people can crank with one hand instead of using two, and electronic fishing reels that, once the fish is hooked, a push of the button reels it in.
Ted Berry and his wife, Helen Black, decided that wheelchairs and other technologies weren't as good as they could be. The Pottstown, Pa., couple, both of whom use wheelchairs because of medical conditions, formed BlackBerry Technologies in 1991. While they manufacture wheelchair braking systems, they've branched into other areas with a mount added to a wheelchair that can hold and help operate other items, including guns, fishing poles, or cameras.
The basic mount is customized to hold whatever the user wants. For wheelchair users who want to hunt or target shoot, Berry said, options are added with specific operating devices, depending on the individual's needs.
"There are all sorts of iterations to the base that can be fitted with recoil compensation, as well as power elevation, power trigger, rotation," he said. A joystick, chin switch, a sip-and-puff tube, using a breath of air from the wheelchair user, can control, aim and fire a gun with the mount and right options, Berry said.
Berry got his start the same way that other equipment manufacturers had, through his own experiences and needs. He first wore braces but later began using a chair.
"After I wound up mobility-impaired, I thought this stuff is the pits, it was a joke, it was woeful," talking about the equipment he first encountered.
That led the engineer to start designing to meet his needs and those of others who sought him out.
It's the customization that can make all the difference to a user of the device A person who remains indoors is "totally different from a person going to work across parking lots and various terrains. Whenever I do a wheelchair order, I include their social or recreational needs. We learn from the users," said Sue Buckley, an occupational therapist and assistive technology practitioner for UCP Greater Suffolk, which works on behalf of people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
And while one person might be the chief beneficiary of a piece of equipment, both Buckley and Traum see other gains as well.
When one person with a disability figures out a way to adapt and use equipment, "another disabled person says, 'Maybe I can do that,'" Buckley said.
"People on the sidelines see disabled runners but identify with them-'I can do more, I can finish my master's' -everyone struggles with things they have difficulty succeeding with; they make an analogy, and it makes them feel good," Traum said.
Web sites and phone numbers for some adaptive equipment sources:
Access to Recreation: http://www.AccessTR.com or 800-634-4351.
Freedom Rider: http://www.freedomrider.com or 888-253-8811.
Pamela S. Robinson
is a news editor for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.