Outdoor Recreation for All

Nature provides more than the air we breathe and the food we eat. It also provides a place to connect with our thoughts and find peace of mind. For this reason and many others, it is imperative that everyone have access to the outdoors, including individuals who live with disabilities.

Thanks to a kind and generous donor, McCormick’s Creek State Park now offers guests access to a Grit Freedom Chair. The donor suggested the idea of making this all-terrain wheelchair available at one of Indiana’s State Parks. The INRF, along with the Division of State Parks, chose Indiana’s first state park as the location to introduce this wheelchair.

“McCormick’s Creek means so much to so many people,” said Wyatt Williams, interpretive naturalist at the park. “We have people come to hike, camp, trail ride, attend events in our shelters, play on the playgrounds, birdwatch, and more. This wheelchair allows more people to spend time outdoors with loved ones at our park.”

One recent person who used the chair was a retiree in his late 80s who had once helped staff research the park’s caves. The man’s wife had recently passed away, and a friend brought him to the park in hopes the trip would cheer him up. Williams said the visitor had a positive experience.

The donor who made the purchase of the chair possible did so at a time when the benefits of accessibility to the outdoors is garnering more attention. According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, there are proven social, physical, and mental health benefits that people living with disabilities gain from spending time in nature. Mental benefits noted in the study included stress relief and improvement of cognition and relaxation. The study also reported improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem.

The Grit Freedom Chair was designed at MIT. It is propelled by the rider’s arms and requires some upper body strength. The levers keep the rider’s hands clean as they go, and there are handles on the back to push and assist the rider if needed. The chair is called the “mountain bike of wheelchairs” because it can handle easy to moderate hiking trails, sandy terrain, and snow. Anyone interested in using it can make a request at the Nature Center when they arrive at the park.

We tested the chair on a snowy day at McCormick’s Creek, and it rode remarkably well through the snow compared to other wheelchairs. It takes some training to learn how to maneuver it, so guests should allow extra time to practice before taking on a trail. It is recommended that riders enjoy outdoor excursions in the chair with a friend, in case they need assistance.

Ric Edwards, ADA/safety program director for the DNR, said it is important for each state property to remove barriers, where feasible, and to be ADA compliant to create outdoor opportunities for all Hoosiers. The plan is for more Indiana State Parks to have all-terrain power wheelchairs available to guests, so all who visit are able to explore in nature.

American naturalist John Burroughs once said, “I go to nature to be soothed, healed and have my senses put in order.” Indeed, the outdoors can do wonders for the mind, body, and soul. It is because of this that the INRF works to make the outdoors accessible for all Hoosiers.

Thank you, again, to the donor who made this project possible. If you would like to help us in our mission, please consider donating today.

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