Illinois’ first public use, all-terrain outdoor wheel chair has arrived
CALEDONIA — Nature’s rough terrain shows no mercy for people with disabilities.
Jenna Hammerly knows this. She’s a quadriplegic and relies on a motorized wheelchair to get around. She must wait on the sidelines while her 20-month-old daughter, Reagan, plays on the playground or while her husband Nick hunts pheasant in the wild. Her chair has gotten stuck in grass or wood chips when she’s taken it too far off the beaten path.
“We don’t do a lot of (activities) outdoors except maybe driving or going to the zoo,” her husband said. “If we go to the park, we have to sit at the picnic table.”
But earlier this week, Hammerly not only went for a ride deep in Kinnikinnick Creek Nature Preserve — she sometimes led the way.
With her husband’s help, Hammerly moved from her traditional wheelchair to a sleek, all-black outdoor wheelchair propelled by a wheel-and-tread mechanism and a slew of modifications that allow it to go where no conventional wheelchair safely can.
As Hammerly put it: “It looks like a tank.”
All-terrain outdoor wheelchairs, which have been successful across Wisconsin, made it across the stateline last month. Winnebago County is the first in Illinois to make an all-terrain outdoor wheelchair available for the public to use.
Hammerly, who lives in Rockford, was one of the first people to try it out. During her test drive at Kinnikinnick, she went deep into the woods for a trek in an Action Trackchairs-brand outdoor wheelchair.
They don’t coast on the traditional side wheels but instead use two triangular continuous tracks.
Where her other wheelchair may have toppled over going downhill or gotten stuck in the mud, Hammerly used a Y-shaped joystick to traverse standing water, mud, tree limbs and downed branches. Hammerly, a 29-year-old grad student at Judson University, borrowed the wheelchair almost exactly 10 years to the date that a stray bullet hit her and paralyzed her at a Labor Day party.
“I feel so happy right now,” she said while on the trail. “This is so liberating.”
Jeremy Oster of Hononegah Archery — a Rockton nonprofit archery organization founded in 2014 — worked with Access Ability Wisconsin to host the wheelchair through his organization for local use. He serves as the Illinois outreach coordinator on the Access Ability Wisconsin board.
The wheelchair — plus a trailer to haul it around — was afforded through a $25,000 grant from Friends of National Rifle Association.
“This area has plenty of people (with disabilities) who want to go hunting or just go out in the woods,” Oster said. “This gets them beyond the treeline.”
The battery-operated outdoor wheelchair, and the trailer to transport it, can be borrowed for a refundable $50 deposit that is returned when the chair is brought back in the same condition it was when it was borrowed.
“A lot of people with disabilities are below the poverty line; owning a wheelchair like this is not feasible,” Hammerly said. “Knowing it’s available and it’s free — that’s a game changer.”
Although Hononegah Archery is based in Winnebago County, Oster said he can also accommodate residents in Boone and Ogle counties who want to borrow the wheelchair. Eventually, he said, he wants to expand statewide.
The battery life is five hours and the weight limit of the chair is 400 pounds. It comes with attachments that include an extendable arm where you can rest a hunting rifle. The chair can also traverse water and snow, so long as it doesn’t go more than halfway up the tire.
The outdoor wheelchairs aren’t exclusively for people with disabilities,” Oster said. “If grandma and grandpa want to walk in the woods with their grandchildren, they can.”
A veteran donated a second outdoor wheelchair to Hononegah Archery for those who need to use it during the organization’s weekly archery practices. Hononegah Archery is not affiliated with Hononegah High School.
Access Ability Wisconsin obtained its first outdoor wheelchair for public use in 2014. It now offers 12 outdoor wheelchairs in six counties across the state plus the one here in Illinois.
“We have a solution that is addressing low-income (residents) and increasing independence, increasing social interaction and decreasing depression,” said Monica Spaeni, president and founder of Access Ability Wisconsin. “Our wheelchairs are like our shoes; the outdoor wheelchair is like our hiking boots.”
Access Ability has showcased the chairs at major outdoor events and drawn interest from individuals.
“We have a wait list during the hunting season,” Spaeni said.
Bringing Illinois into the fold pushes the organization toward its goal of creating a national footprint, Spaeni said.
“It will help our potential for grant writing,” Spaeni said. “We can expand the population that we serve.”
Reservations are recommended at least 10 days before renting the wheelchair. They can be made by calling Hononegah Archery at 815-289-2822.
Adam Poulisse: 815-987-1344; firstname.lastname@example.org; @adampoulisse