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“A” in ATV may mean Access

It takes more than wheelchairs to help people with disabilities enjoy the backcountry.

By Karen Umphress

"For many people, an ATV is the only way they are able to get out to explore our natural areas."

I WAS STANDING IN LINE to use the microwave during lunch at my company. The person using the microwave was in a wheelchair and had his tray balanced on his lap. I was looking at the chair to see what kind it was when I saw the person looking at me. I smiled and asked him if he had ever taken his chair up an escalator. I thought that the other people in line were going have a heart attack because of my “insensitive” comment. However, the gentleman smiled wide and admitted that he had. This started a good conversation where we compared some escalator adventures of friends who use wheelchairs.

photo of ATVs on trail with wheelchair
Areas such as the Paiute Trail in Utah provide people of all abilities with access to the backcountry

One thing that I have discovered is that people who are in wheelchairs or are otherwise disabled want to feel “normal.” In the everyday world, they do not get many opportunities to feel this way. One way that many of them are getting to feel normal again is riding on trails in a variety of off-highway vehicles (OHVs). Some are able to use an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or snowmobile, and others drive a four-wheel drive vehicle (4WD). This does not mean that they want to take an ATV down a motorcycle-only route or on a pedestrian trail or through the local mall. The key here is legal access to motorized trails or hunting areas. It does not do any good for them to stand out on their OHV any more than if they stand out in their wheelchair.

A few years ago, Sandie Jungers was in an accident which left her paralyzed from the bust down. Sandie has not let that stop her. She remains active doing the things that she loves to do. In 2005, Sandie decided to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair South Dakota pageant. She did this because she felt it is a great program that focuses on the abilities of women instead of their disabilities. The contestants must demonstrate personal and professional achievements and have a project on which to work. About the experience she says, “I learned so much from very talented women who just happened to use a wheelchair for mobility.”

photo of woman in wheelchair

Sandie Jungers is an ATV enthusiast


When talking to Sandie about what she likes about riding an ATV, she said, “The Black Hills have been a vacation spot for my family all of my life. I have many memories of vacations as a young girl and also with our own children. Driving an ATV allows me to be deep into the heart of the Hills, a place I truly love. There is nothing better than a day with family and friends on an ATV, lunch by a gurgling creek, and the smell of pine. Add in exploring old mines or seeing wildlife up close and the day gets even better.”

Sandie continued, “I enjoy riding ATVs because that is one thing that I can do in the same way I did before my accident. Now that I am a paraplegic, many things have to be modified or altered. The automatic ATV allows me to get out and have fun just like before and to be normal.”

Dan Kleen has been an avid off-highway motorcyclist for all of his life. In 1987, he had an accident which left him an incomplete paraplegic. He switched from the motorcycles to an ATV after the accident. It is one of the few ways in which Dan could still enjoy OHV riding. There was very little modification that needed to be done on the ATV to get him set up. “An ATV is a great equalizer,” says Dan. “I can go out and ride 50 miles during the day along the trails in the woods without any problems. Then I get back to the parking lot and will be stopped cold by a 6 inch curb in my chair.”

Dan is also an avid hunter. Using an ATV for hunting allows Dan and a number of people access to their hunting spots. Dan says, “As a hunter with a physical disability, I’m pleased to report that a growing number of states recognize the value of ATVs to those of us with disabilities. Without an ATV, my hunting would be limited to areas I can access with my wheelchair or pickup. And believe me, my ATV is a lot better in mud and snow, and going up and down hills than my chair!”

photo of ATVs on trail with wheelchair
Dan Kleen gets ready to do some turkey hunting

Legislation was passed in West Virginia to allow the trails of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system direct access into the communities. So in this area of the country, it is not uncommon to see off-road vehicles traveling on city streets. This has benefited the people of the community in both social and economic ways.

Stephen Caldwell, or Bandit as he is called, has seen some of the side benefits of this trail system. Bandit is a paraplegic who lives in Accoville, WV, which is about five miles away from the Rockhouse Trailhead. His main form of transportation is his ATV. He has literally put thousands of miles on his two machines, racking up more than 39,000 miles in approximately five years.

When Bandit is on his ATV, he is just like everyone else who is riding an off-road machine. You would not be able to tell his condition because he never takes his wheelchair with him when he rides. When running errands, the hospitable people in this area of the country come out of their stores to assist him.

When asked why he started using his ATV as his transportation, Bandit replied, “I have been using an ATV since I was four years old. It seemed the natural choice for transportation.” Bandit’s advice to anyone else with a disability is simple: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can always find a way around any obstacle.”

photo: of jeep on dirt trail

A four-wheel drive vehicle allowed John Johnson to bring his wife, who has MS, on a trail ride


Scott Rosium was riding a snowmobile three days before his 17th birthday when he was hit by a truck. Although he did not suffer a spine injury, severe blood loss and a lack of oxygen to his legs resulted in nerve damage and left his legs paralyzed. Scott modified the truck that he owned at the time for hand controls and he now uses it to get out into the woods. Most of the off-roading he does involves leaving the camp area and spending several hours on the trail. He usually doesn’t bring his chair along, as he doesn’t spend too much time sitting idle.

He and a few friends formed the LWT ORV Club to be able to participate in more events in his local area. Scott and the rest of the LWT work as trail guides during the Minnesota Go 4-Wheelers annual Memorial Day weekend event, and also trail ride in the area on numerous other weekends throughout the year. Scott’s favorite hobby is working on the trucks, so going off-roading is a fun chance to see if what he has built works and to hang out with friends for the weekend.

In addition to ORVing, Scott also has an ATV which he rides often. He is an avid deer hunter and uses his ATV to get to the deer stands which he has built on his land and family land in northern Minnesota. Scott usually takes his ATV trail riding in Minnesota and in other states in the nation. In those cases, he straps his wheelchair to the back of his machine. This allows him to spend all day away from camp and be able to go into a restaurant or bar when stopping for a break. His ATV is also useful for plowing his driveway in the winter. ATVs and ORVs allow Scott to do many of the things he was able to do before his

photo of ATVs on trail with wheelchair
It takes more than wheelchairs to help people with disabilities enjoy the backcountry

The ability to take an ATV, ORV, or even a Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle (ROV or sometimes called a “side by side”) through the woods to get back to nature is important for people other than those who are in a wheelchair. According to a Federal study on Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use, the demographic that is increasing the fastest is for people age 50 and over. Many of these people no longer have the ability to walk miles along a trail in the woods, but they can ride an ATV there.

Ed Goss has developed severe arthritis in one of his feet. He can’t ride a bike or hike on a trail. In order to get into the woods he uses an ATV. Without the ATV he would not have that opportunity to experience nature. Ed wonders how other “old duffers” like himself would be able to enjoy that opportunity if they did not have motorized access and trails into the woods.

I have a friend who is now an avid ATV rider. She used to ride horseback and still considers herself an equestrian, but she is “getting up there in years” now and can no longer ride horseback. She, like Ed, works as an advocate to keep trail systems open. She says, “As people get older, we can no longer get around like we used to. We need to be able to ride ATVs and have ATV trails. This is our form of outdoor recreation.”

There are also cases where the use of an off-highway vehicle is necessary not because of age, but because of a disease. Danette Johnson was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis in 1998. At first she was able to still ride in an ORV with her husband John on trail rides. She loved getting out into nature. They always found it very peaceful. In the last seven years, her MS progressed to the point that she is unable to travel any more on the trail rides. Her transportation is an electric wheelchair. As her husband John said, “Unfortunately this means, she’s stuck within the confines of our concrete and asphalt world. During the time that she was able to still go out, due to fatigue and minimal strength, she would have had no other choice but to ride in a four-wheel drive truck because it provided the support she needed.”

photo: of man with ATV

Driving an OHV can provide a fun challenge on equal footing for people with disabilities


John continued, “In 2004 I came up with an idea to raise money to help fight this disease that has wrecked our lives. The ‘Crawl 4 the Cure’ is an ORV event held at the Iron Range OHV Park in Gilbert, MN. All of the proceeds go to the National MS Society, MN Chapter. In our first four years we have raised over $120,000, becoming the third largest party event in the MS Society. This year will be our fifth annual event and we are planning it to be bigger than ever. We usually have a few people with MS attend the event. They truly enjoy the opportunity to get out and enjoy our natural resources and to see nature as it was intended to be seen, not at some paved walking path at a zoo or conservatory.”

So the next time you are in the woods, and you hear an off-road engine for a short time in the background, before getting too upset, take a moment and consider that the off-highway vehicle you hear might be that person’s only possible form of outdoor recreation. It might also be giving that person a chance to feel like a normal person. And pause to consider how you will get into the woods in 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years from now. It just might be that in a few years you, too, will be responsibly riding an off-highway vehicle to enjoy the life in nature around you.

Karen Umphress has been an enthusiastic advocate of on- and off-highway riding for over a decade in her home state, Minnesota. She also enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, canoeing, and other activities which allow her to be in the great outdoors.

photo of ATVs on trail

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Updated April 22, 2009

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