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Chair Lift

Paul Speight says athletic equipment for the disabled has only recently made significant strides.
Brett Amole

On September 14, Glen House raced to the top of Pikes Peak. Starting at 5 a.m. with a headlamp to light the way, the Colorado Springs physician finally reached the summit parking lot -- 7,400 vertical feet and thirteen and a half miles later -- just after 10 a.m. Hundreds of people complete the Pikes Peak Challenge, an annual fundraiser for head-injury research. But House and his racing partner, Muffy Davis, were the first to do it in wheelchairs.

In recent years, top disabled athletes have been breaking down physical barriers at an astonishing and inspirational pace. Two years ago, Golden's Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind, climbed Mt. Everest. Marlon Shirley, an amputee sprinter who runs the 100-meter dash with a prosthesis, is within a half-second of competing against the world's best able-bodied sprinters.

But House's ascent was not just another a victory for an elite Paralympian. It was more a triumph of the weekend athlete, disabled division, made possible by a new, technologically advanced wheelchair. Manufactured by Independence Technologies, a start-up division of Johnson & Johnson, the I-Glide is what is known as a "manual-assist" chair. Using an on-board computer, it senses changes in slope and terrain. When such changes make pushing the chair too difficult, an electric motor kicks in to help, and the resistance on the wheel stays constant.

Thanks to the innovation, the ten miles of steep and unpaved road leading to the summit of Pikes Peak was suddenly accessible to moderately athletic individuals in wheelchairs. "I feel like I could go another ten thousand feet!" Davis, a paraplegic, said at the summit.

"The chair was great!" added House, who, with no use of his legs, limited use of his hands and full strength in his shoulders, arms and wrists, is considered a "tetraplegic." He'd trained for the trip by making daily seven-mile loops around his hilly neighborhood. With a regular wheelchair, House says, he'd been able to push only a half-mile at a time. The I-Glide, he notes, was like being handed a 21-speed bike after using a one-speed cruiser his entire life.

A fitness boom in the United States has produced a parallel boom in fitness gear for the occasional jock. After all, you can't very well run, bike, snowshoe, ski, climb, kayak, or river raft without a special pair of shoes and outfit for each sport -- a premise that Gart Sports, Nike and others have made millions exploiting. The National Sporting Goods Association calculates that Americans as a whole spent about $22 billion on sports equipment last year.

Left out of the jock-wear bull market, however, has been equipment for the disabled weekend athlete. Elite wheelchair racers have specialized chairs that are built for exceptional speed -- but can take fifteen minutes to get into. Runners like Shirley strap on prosthetic legs that are marvels of modern technology -- but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and are worthless for anything but sprinting.

So what about the quadriplegic who simply wants to go for the equivalent of a hike? Jay Van Vechten, a spokesman for Independence Technologies, concedes that what may be more stunning than the invention of the company's I-Glide wheelchair is that it took until 2003 to accomplish it. "The basic wheelchair hasn't changed in 150 years," he says. "It's amazing it took so long for this new technology to be used."

It's been a long wait for many wannabe athletes. "Colorado is brutal," admits House, who lost the use of his lower body after breaking his neck in an extreme-skiing accident fourteen years ago, when he was twenty. The injury didn't prevent him from becoming a physician -- but it did prevent him from visiting the zoo. "The first time I visited here, I came to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo," House recalls. "We couldn't see it, though, because my wife and daughter couldn't push me around the hills by themselves. We had to get more people to help."

House also discovered that he couldn't enjoy the scenic Colorado backcountry and get a decent workout at the same time. He was unable to push his regular wheelchair over the rough terrain. "I used to take an off-road power chair," he says. "It's so nice to get back there. But there's no cardiovascular benefit."

Paul Speight says that when he became confined to a wheelchair 25 years ago after a car accident, he had even fewer options -- basically wheelchair basketball or swimming. "I rolled out of the hospital door and said, 'I want to play tennis.' And people said, 'What? How can you play tennis?'"

Speight says it's been only in the past five or ten years that athletic equipment for the disabled has made significant strides. Today the New Zealand native owns Spokes 'n Motion, a manufacturer and distributor of sports equipment for disabled athletes. Operating out of a tiny office and warehouse in an industrial neighborhood in south Denver, Speight says that new gear permits the disabled to participate in everything from water skiing to wakeboarding to tennis -- or simply roll along a beach. (Old-style wheelchairs sunk into the sand. This year a French company designed a model boasting a front balloon tire and dual back tires to keep the chair skimming along the top.)

 

Despite such innovations, making sports equipment for the disabled remains a tiny industry, more artisan craft than product line. "Nothing is made en masse," Speight explains. "It all must be handmade."

General-use wheelchairs and prostheses have attracted the attention of big companies because they're necessary for the disabled to navigate through the world; equally important, such goods are usually covered by insurance. Sports equipment, however, is considered a "lifestyle" purchase and therefore less essential. This, says House, despite the fact that much of the disabled population has secondary medical conditions, many of which -- heart disease, diabetes -- could be vastly improved with exercise.

Without the involvement of bigger manufacturing companies, developments in sporting goods for the disabled have been made slowly and in tiny increments, more often in garages than in giant research facilities. (Occasionally, the need hits home for an industrial giant: Bicycle manufacturer Cannondale got into the wheelchair business briefly when its founder became frustrated over the slim selection of wheelchairs available for his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son.) It is telling that high-quality handcycles, in many ways a vast improvement over wheelchairs, have only recently become widely available.

Larger companies have also tended to ignore the market because there is no promise of a breakout product that will eventually produce huge sales. "We don't have the equivalent of a snowboard that will shake up the industry," Speight says.

For example, he says, his company produces only about 120 bi-skis a year and sells maybe only four or five dozen water skis in the U.S. Most of those are one-time sales. While many able-bodied athletes wouldn't dream of hitting the slopes without the latest parabolic skis or hydraulic-braked mountain bike, disabled athletes don't replace their gear at nearly the same rate.

As a result, Speight, one of the largest distributors of athletic gear for the disabled in this country, says he averages only about $600,000 or $700,000 in annual sales. These small numbers in turn discourage retailers: Nike, REI and Gart Sports, all of which he says he has contacted, have declined to carry athletic equipment for the disabled.

Such limited point-of-sale locations have kept many potential athletes in the dark as to what gear is available to them. It was that gap that Joel Berman aimed to close when he started Evergreen-based Adaptive Adventures, which organizes activities for disabled athletes and other adventurers. He recalls a woman telephoning from Chicago: "She said, 'I can't use my legs, but I've got use in my arms. What do you have?' I called a bunch of people in Chicago, and no one had a handcycle. Finally, I found one in St. Charles, Illinois. A father had a disabled kid and owned a cycle shop." Berman was shocked that anyone would have such a difficult time finding a basic piece of athletic gear.

Now, five years later, Berman says sporting gear for disabled athletes is getting somewhat easier to find -- thanks in part to new laws that demand greater accessibility at parks and other outdoor recreation areas. Still, he adds, "If you were to ask me where the development is, it's in the very beginning. Maybe not Alpha, but Beta."

Naturally, the biggest barrier is cost. Because of the small market and related hurdles to mass production, equipment for the disabled is extremely expensive. While the price of an entry-level handcycle might be comparable to, say, a top-end racing bicycle, that still leaves your average disabled sportsman out in the cold -- particularly, says Berman, among a demographic in which 75 percent of the population is unemployed.

"You can't go out and get a cheap handcycle for $150 at Wal-Mart," he points out. "Nobody's going to get rich doing this stuff; no one is going to embrace this out of capitalism."


As an experiment, I went outside for a quick inventory of my own sports equipment. Like many garages in Colorado, mine is too full of athletic gear to actually fit a car inside.

In one corner is my seven-year-old road bike, still in fine enough shape. I bought it for about $600 from a discount bike shop. My mountain bike cost about $500 six years ago. I snapped up a pair of cross-country skis at a liquidation sale at Grand West Outfitters for about $120; my snowboard, boots and bindings, SNIAGRAB specials, ran about $500.

 

We also have an ancient windsurfer taking up one entire wall of the garage: $300, used. My tennis racquet cost about $100, and I spent $40 for my basketball. Finally, once a year I pay an average of about $80 for a serviceable pair of running shoes. Add another $60 for court shoes.

In all, then, about $2,300 worth of athletic gear -- perhaps embarrassing for the physical condition I'm in, but by no stretch unusual, particularly in our sports-frantic state.

So what would my recreation habit cost if I wanted to do the same things and I was disabled?

Speight provided an estimate of what it would cost to replace my gear with equipment suitable for a disabled athlete. Financing your sweaty habit as a disabled jock is not in the same category as, say, a moon shot. But let's just say that if you want to be active, it would also be helpful to be independently wealthy.

For starters, Speight says that a basic stripped-down handcycle runs about $2,700; add the same figure for a mountain-biking version. There is no windsurfer being made for disabled athletes, but Speight says water skiing is becoming more popular. A ski -- basically an oversized slalom ski with a seat mounted on it -- costs about $1,600.

A mono-ski comparable to my snowboard costs about $3,000, and a set of cross-country skis, which are just beginning to catch on with hard-core disabled athletes, runs $1,200. (You think it's hard to kick and pole? Try using just poles.)

For an athlete without the use of his legs, there is no direct comparison to my running shoes. Yet for weekend jocks like Glen House to get out on a trail for an enjoyable and aerobic trek, a specialized wheelchair like the I-Glide is necessary (about $8,000). And while a tennis racquet and basketball would cost a disabled athlete the same $140 I paid, the Match Point tennis wheelchair, manufactured in Longmont by Sunrise Medical's Quickie division, adds another $2,500 to the cost of the game. The Allcourt basketball chair, also made by Quickie, runs $2,350.

In other words, the same equipment I found necessary to stay active would cost a disabled athlete interested in the same sports a little more than ten times what I spent -- just under $25,000.

House, who borrowed his I-Glide from the manufacturer for the Pikes Peak Challenge, says he would love to have one of his own someday if he could come up with the money. "You're not going to use it for a race," he says. "But I could use it on a dirt trail winding through the hills outside of the city."

It doesn't seem like that much to ask.


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