By Steve Welker
In his youth and well into my teens, my father remained an avid outdoorsman.
He grew up roaming the Appalachian mountains near his home in Millersburg, Pa., learning woodcraft and camping skills, identifying native plants and trees and finding berries, nuts and medicinal herbs like pennyroyal. He and his brother fished up and down the Susquehanna River and in its tributaries. After moving to the Midwest, he enjoyed hiking along pastures and fence rows, as well as in the state and county forest preserves, and he changed his fishing style and tackle to take advantage of ponds, sloughs and lakes.
Some years ago, however, his knees began to fail. From one cane he went to using two and then a walker. He steadily lost mobility. Now he can’t get in and out of his wheelchair without assistance. Going outdoors means making a short trip to the balcony outside his nursing home’s parlor. Thoughts of hiking in the Palos woods or circling Sunset Pond are distant and fading memories from a happier time.
But there is a group of outdoors enthusiasts making it possible for physically disabled men and women like my dad to get outside again, and they’re using some high-tech hardware to support their efforts.
I first learned about the Wheelin’ Sportsmen of America from Manus McMillian, who co-chairs the Yadkin Valley chapter with Jacky Seal, the plant manager at Surry Chemicals. Manus talked to me just before the chapter hosted its first Yadkin Valley Catfish Roundup at Shelton Vineyards near Dobson. The Wheelin’ Sportsmen stocked the pond with $20,000 worth of catfish and arranged for rods and reels and volunteers to help disabled individuals spend an afternoon fishing. With the Sheltons’ cooperation, the pond remains exclusively reserved for fishing by disabled persons.
Kirk Thomas was on hand for the catfish roundup. In 1992 he fell out of a tree stand and the accident broke his back and left him paralyzed below the waist. Living in Alabama, Thomas had been an active hunter and shooter, angler and archer. With his family’s help, he began resuming his outdoor activities from his wheelchair. In the mid-1990s, he conceived the Wheelin’ Sportsmen as a nonprofit organization with both disabled and nondisabled members whose mission was to give disabled people the opportunity to enjoy outdoors activities.
Jacky Seal became partially paralyzed in 2003 while being treated for back pain. He, like Thomas, had been an outdoorsman all his life. And he, like Thomas, got help and assistance from family, friends and therapists to resume hunting, fishing and shooting.
Both men also shared a concern that other disabled individuals might not have the same support.
With encouragement from Scott Martin, regional director of the National Wild Turkey Federation (Wheelin’ Sportsmen has become its outreach program for disabled hunters and others), Seal and McMillian took on the task of leading the Yadkin Valley chapter. In January, Seal was asked to become the group’s state coordinator.
Wheelin’ Sportsmen has grown fast. Not so long ago, it had 1,000 members; next year it expects to top 20,000.
The organization estimates that 250,000 people each year stop participating in hunting or shooting because illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis force them from the field. There must be millions of others in a similar situation — not hunters or anglers, but people who also enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, bird watching and canoeing or kayaking.
Wheelin’ Sportsmen is changing expectations about what such people can accomplish with some support. Thomas says support has three aspects: access, adaptation and attitude.
Access may be as obvious as providing a handicapped-accessible path to or around a pond (I’m pleased to see that is part of Mount Airy’s plans for Tumbling Rock Reservoir’s improvements), paved lanes between stations on shooting ranges and convenient handicapped-accessible restroom facilities.
Adaptation may be as simple as lowering a shooting bench or moving target controls so someone in a wheelchair can use them. Many manufacturers now make adaptive devices such as power fishing reels for one-armed anglers, four-wheel-drive wheelchairs to negotiate uneven terrain and gun rests that allow a quadriplegic (or even a blind man) to shoot a firearm.
Since learning about Wheelin’ Sportsmen, I’ve heard about other groups such as Buckmasters American Deer Foundation Disabled Services, Physically Challenged Bowhunters of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America Disabled Outdoorsmen and the National Rifle Association’s Disabled Shooting Services. Each in its own way is helping change nondisabled people’s attitudes about what disabled people can do, and changing disabled people’s attitudes about their own capabilities.
I particularly like what Dan Donovan of Alabama, who has two disabled sons in Wheelin’ Sportsmen, said: “No one is measured by his or her limitations, but by the endless possibilities. The attitude of the volunteers and sponsors is can-do, whatever it takes to help.”
And this from Dave Baskin of NRA Disabled Shooting Services: “The key is to look at each individual’s function, not their disability.”
For thousands of soldiers severely injured overseas, and for millions of people like my dad, crippled in old age and long denied the pleasures of being outdoors, groups such as Wheelin’ Sportsmen and the work they do will be even more important ... in the future.
For information about the Yadkin Valley Wheelin’ Sportsmen, call Jacky Seal at (336) 789-6472 or (336) 786-4607.
On the Web, visit http://www.wheelinsportsmen.org