DisAbility in the Out-of-Doors

I WAS CRUSHED. PHYSICALLY, YES.

Three of my vertebrae at chest level were broken when the small pickup truck hit a tree and I was thrust across the bed, hitting the steel truck bed and shattering more than my bones. They’re called dreams. We all have them, and sometimes, they can be shattered, too.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors. Subscribe by joining Michigan United Conservation Clubs here!

What was next for a 15-year-old in the prime of his life who sustained a life-changing spinal cord injury? How was life going to be when I had to relearn Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs as they are known in the Physical Rehabilitation field, such as getting dressed, showering and getting around in a wheelchair? I quickly learned that my immediate focus would be on the basics, and everything else like hunting and fishing, sports and chasing girls would come later. Oh, and school, of course.

That was April 1994 and a lot has happened since then. I would say I have been successful in life. The gap between my wheelchair and the seat of a car that seemed as wide as Lake Superior has narrowed considerably since then and I recently bought my first full-sized pickup truck, which is an indicator that I have also been successful in getting through college, finding a job, saving up some money and being a contributing member of society. It was not, and is not, always easy, but I would not settle for less. I was getting back into the outdoors come hell or high water because that is what I loved to do and I had an incredible support network of friends and family that helped me along the way.

Our nation, since the mid-1990’s, has seen an increase of people with disabilities (PWDs) due to a number of factors, including the advancement of medicine and science that helps PWDs live longer, more fulfilling lives, as well as many of our military men and women returning home who have sustained physical and mental injuries who want to remain active by returning to the outdoors and to meaningful careers. Those factors, along with the respectable advancement in technology of wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment that allows these men and women to do what they love, has been nothing short of welcoming in the eyes of these aspiring individuals.  

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the increasing number of opportunities that are available in the state of Michigan for people with disabilities, some of which were inspired simply by people close to an individual with a disability or by a number of local conservation organization chapters wanting to make a positive impact to people with disabilities

EQUIPMENT 

I have had the opportunity to test out a number of different types of adaptive equipment (AE) that were designed specifically for taking PWDs into the woods or marshes. You may think of it like shoes – different shoes are required for different purposes. Running shoes are for running; boots are for snow or mud. Different wheelchairs exist for wheelchair tennis, rugby or basketball. Hockey ‘sleds’ are designed for chasing pucks on the ice. Not one piece of equipment is practical for every sport and there are even different types required for the various terrain one might encounter hunting different species depending on the habitat in which they live.  

The metaphor between shoes and adaptive equipment paints a picture to show that ‘not one size fits all’, but it stops short when you start talking price. While it is true that some designer shoes I’m sure cost more than some lower end or simpler types of adaptive equipment, when you step back and compare the fact that adaptive equipment is a ‘medical expense’ and that there is a lot more development cost that goes into an outdoor scooter, for instance, and adaptive equipment costs soar far above that of the various shoe types needed to fulfill even the most active person’s lifestyle. In fact, the cost of adaptive equipment is likely the single-most prohibitive factor that a PWD faces in getting back into the outdoors.  

It’s true, adaptive equipment manufacturers put a lot of development and material cost into their designs but it also takes much effort for them to engineer something that a) is available for broad use across different types of disabilities, and b) that insurance companies ‘approve of’ and will purchase for someone in need of it, whether in part or in whole. Lastly, while advancement of AE has been by leaps and bounds in recent years, there is still a long ways to go in this field that has been largely underserved for decades, in part due to societal perceptions and unconscious biases that still exist today that say PWDs lack the same abilities as able-bodied individuals have. 

All that can be said to that is, ‘attitude’ can often be more disabling than any physical or mental disability, but from the viewpoint of a person aspiring to be back among the tall timbers of the Michigan wilderness, any progress is better than no progress at all. 

HUNTS FOR PWD'S IN MICHIGAN 

A number of accessible-type hunts exist throughout Michigan, and I have been fortunate enough to participate in some of them. There certainly may be more than this, so if you are aware of others or have comments in general about accessing the outdoors with a disability, send me an email at accessoutdoorsllc@gmail.com.  

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge  

Non-ambulatory Whitetail deer hunt – Two hunts take place during the opening four days of the Michigan firearm deer season. Ground blinds and support staff enables hunters who use a power or manual wheelchair an opportunity to take an antlered or antlerless deer based on an annual application process. Contact Shiawassee NWR, 6975 Mower Rd., Saginaw, at (989) 777-5930. 

Michigan Army National Guard (ANG) Fort Custer Training Center (FCTC) – Fort Custer offers an annual Michigan Whitetail firearm deer hunt in October for PWDs. Visit their website at www.fortcusterhunt.org or email Jonathan Edgerly at jonathan.w.edgerly.nfg@mail.mil. 

Wolverine Lions Club MI Whitetail Deer Hunt 

The Wolverine hunt was started by a hunter with a disability named Paul Bunker who aspired to provide individuals with an opportunity to hunt on beautiful private land in the northern Lower Peninsula. This firearm deer hunt takes place during two days in October. Contact Paul Bunker at (231) 833-0019. 

Michigan DNR Liberty Hunt 

Veterans and hunters with a disability may hunt Whitetail deer during two days in September with a firearm if they fit one or more criteria found on the MI-DNR website. For qualified persons with disabilities, valid licenses include a deer or deer combo license. During this two-day hunt, a deer or deer combo license may be used for an antlered or antlerless deer. Antler Point Restrictions do not apply. A Deer Management Assistance (DMA) permit may also be used to take one antlerless deer only, if issued for the area/land upon which hunting. The bag limit for this season is one deer. All hunters participating in this season must wear hunter orange. Visit www.michigan.gov/dnr and search for Liberty Hunt. 

Michigan DNR Independence Hunt 

This 4-day firearm deer hunt will take place on private lands or public land requiring an access permit, and open to the Independence Hunt by lottery in October of each year. Specific season dates are available on the MI-DNR hunting season calendar page. Veterans with 100-percent disability or rated as individually unemployable by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may participate in this hunt. In addition, hunters who possess a permit to hunt from a standing vehicle or to hunt using a laser-sighting devise, and hunters who are legally blind may also participate.  During this hunt, a firearm or combination license may be used for an antlered or antlerless deer. Antler Point Restrictions do not apply. The bag limit for this season is one deer. All hunters participating in this season must wear hunter orange. Visit the MI-DNR website and search for Independence Hunt. 

The main difference between an able-bodied person and a person with a disability is how obvious the differences are in the way that PWDs do things. For that matter, everyone, whether they have a disability or not, does things in a way that works best for them. For people with disabilities, the challenges that they face are just a little bit greater to get there, and many are just looking for the next perfect ‘pair of shoes’ to do what they love doing in the great outdoors.

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