A new type of wheelchair allows those with disabilities to go hiking
On an early October morning when the air is as crisp as a just-picked apple, Nate Johnson rolls his power wheelchair down the ramp extending from his family’s minivan, gets a boost into a walker, and makes the transition into his hiking chair.
Yes, his hiking chair, a manual vehicle with fat tires and push-pull levers wrapped in red handlebar tape.
A year ago, Johnson couldn’t have imagined hiking with his family — never mind propelling himself along the McLaughlin Trail at the Lake Dennision Recreation Area in Winchendon — in a chair designed like a sit-down mountain bike.
But during a demonstration that he and his parents attended last March at Mount Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, he watched people with disabilities test the Freedom Chair, a vehicle designed to get a person in a wheelchair off the pavement and onto rougher, natural terrain — trails, woods, snow, and sand.
Then he tried one.
“I got in, and I could move it. For the first time, I could move a manual wheelchair,” says Johnson, a compact man of 35 with an irrepressible laugh. In infancy, he was diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy that left him with no sitting balance, a limited range of motion in his arms and legs, and an uncomfortable tightness in his muscles.
The Freedom Chair was designed by former MIT students who now run GRIT, Global Research Innovation and Technology, and has been sold in the US since 2015. Its creators met in 2006 in a class called Wheel Chair Design for Developing Countries and developed the first version of the chair sold overseas at low cost, to enable those unable to walk to get to work or school.
What makes the chair unique are its mechanics and components. Instead of grabbing and moving the wheels — the source of power in a conventional manual chair — a rider pushes the levers, which work like bicycle gears, to propel up hills, across grass, and over rocky ground.
The moving parts are standard bicycle parts, and the three-wheeled chair, which disassembles easily and fits into the trunk of a sedan, can be serviced at any bicycle shop.
The chairs aren’t cheap, selling for about $3,000 each. But GRIT offers grants, and other options, including crowdfunding, to help make them affordable to prospective customers.
“The chair was designed for a wide range of abilities,” says CEO Tish Scolnik, who was leaning toward a medical career when she arrived at MIT in 2006 as a freshman.
So far, Scolnik says, the company has sold 180 Freedom Chairs in the US, including 15 in Massachusetts.
After the demonstration last spring at Mount Tom, the North Quabbin Trails Association launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised enough money to purchase two Freedom Chairs. One was for a young veteran who had lost a leg during a deployment to the Middle East. A second chair is now available by reservation for a day or a weekend at no charge through the trails group or the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce.
For Johnson, a UMass Amherst graduate who works in social services, the chair has been life-changing.
Before he was 12, he underwent multiple surgeries and twice was put in a body cast. He loved the outdoors and sports and briefly shared a position on a school softball team with his twin brother, Josh. Nate would cruise around the bases in his power wheelchair after his brother hit the ball.
But his opportunities for recreation were limited: He could sit in a lawn chair in the family’s woodlot in Orange where family members harvest wood to heat their homes; or he could spend time on the water in a kayak, thanks to a device his brother cobbled together to harness and hoist him into and out of a kayak at Tully Lake.
On his first Freedom Chair spin in his backyard, videotaped and narrated by his friend Bobby Curley, president of NQTA, Johnson propelled himself 50 feet, and had his first experience of aerobic exercise — heart beating fast, breath deepening, sweat beads trickling onto his neck.
Since then, there have been family excursions, including apple picking at the Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, where the ground is rocky and rolling. There have also been more training sessions in the backyard.
On the trail on this gray morning, Johnson moves slowly, stopping now and then to take in the views. On a previous hike, a great blue heron mooned him. On another, he spied a beaver’s den. Today, he’s marveling at the color of the leaves.
“Wow. I’m really in the woods,” he says.
He’s grateful, he says, for an experience that hasn’t been manufactured, as are so many for people with disabilities: proms in the afternoon, camping trips in the front yard.
“I just want to be part of the regular hikers,” he says.
The McLaughlin Trail, in the region of the state known as the North Quabbin, which was built and is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is a good one for new hikers. It’s wide and mostly flat, skirting the Millers River as it enters the woods, more road than path under towering pines, and except for one section, easy going all the way.
It takes a sustained push with a running start for Sandy and Leon Johnson to get their son up a short, tough section. But at the top, when they stop to catch their breath, they’re beaming.
Except for this part of the trail, which needs repair, the family agrees that the trail is a “one,” an accessibility rating that marks it as “easy” and suitable for beginners. At the next meeting of the NQTA, they’ll share their assessment.
On the trail on this chilly morning, Nate moves slowly, his arms the power source of the hiking chair until his shoulders begin to ache and he accepts a push from his dad.
Later, there’s the luxury of an afternoon nap, and when he wakes, a feeling of gratitude that rises in his chest like a song.
“I’d love more people to experience the joy I have,” he says.