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All-terrain wheelchair opens 'a whole new world' for nature exploration

A woman in a wheelchair pauses along a river to take in the scenery.
Kim Kosmatka takes in the views at McKinley Woods. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Kim Kosmatka buckled her seatbelt, grabbed two handlebar levers and pulled and pushed her way into nature on a recent visit to Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon.

The Mokena resident was the first person to test the newly acquired GRIT Freedom Chair, purchased by the Forest Preserve District to help those with disabilities better explore the natural surface trails in the surrounding McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove. The chair is free to use by members of the public. 

During her test, Kosmatka rolled over grass, roots and mud admiring spring wildflowers and reaching a river view. She said the chair was comfortable and secure. 

“I wasn’t afraid of falling over,” she said. “It stopped on a dime, which is real important when you are by yourself.”

For Kosmatka, the GRIT Freedom Chair provides just that, freedom. Having suffered from multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years, the 65-year-old said it’s one thing to have an accessible site, but it’s another thing to offer people the independence to move around nature on their own.

“I think it’s wonderful that you have this option,” she said. “I can’t access trails with the wheelchair I have now. … And this one, I can. I’ve never been in this chair before and it’s thrilling. To be this close to the river is awesome, and I did it on my own. It’s neat, it’s definitely a whole new world.” 

Nature for all

The chair is just the latest in accessibility advancements the District has undertaken, including an accessible kayak launch at Lake Chaminwood Preserve, an All-Persons Trail at Four Rivers and accreditation of Four Rivers by the National Inclusion Project.

What the chair provides is a design that allows for trips on natural surface trails, said Jerome Gabriel, facility supervisor at Four Rivers. Instead of grabbing push rims on a wheelchair, chair users push forward on the handlebar levers for propulsion. There is a footrest so feet can be strapped down. And an anti-tip bar is mounted on the back of the chair, he explained prior to Kosmatka's trial run. 

The Spartan model, which is the newest version of the chair, has wider tires and a stronger gear system, Gabriel added. 

The new wheelchair can be used by people of all ages and those with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, joint conditions, amputations, cerebral palsy and more, according to Medford, Mass.-based GRIT. 

The GRIT chair can be checked out at the front desk at Four Rivers on a first-come, first-served basis when the visitor center is open. Reservations over the phone cannot be taken, but you can call ahead to see if the chair is available. For more information on using the chair, visit the FAQs posted online

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Getting back outdoors

Wheelchairs that can traverse natural terrain make all the difference in the world, said Brian Swift, an accessibility proponent who started Swift Outdoor Accessible Recreation (SOAR), a non-profit that provides funds to purchase outdoor accessibility equipment for people with disabilities. 

Swift became a quadriplegic around 40 years ago when he was 17 when he was tackled and broke his neck while playing football with friends the day after Christmas. 

“When you get hurt it’s not just that you can’t walk,” Swift said. “But you lose the freedoms and all the things that you did before.” 

Outdoor activities bring balance to people’s lives, he said. And having adaptive sports equipment helps get people back into nature. 

“The GRIT chair is going to open a lot of doors for people to get back into enjoying the things they used to enjoy,” he said. “… The chair is going to service so many people with so many different ailments and get them back outdoors.” 

Swift was going to use the chair along with Kosmatka, but he didn’t have the hand strength to pull the levers back. He spoke with Gabriel about adding hand straps to further adapt the chair for people like him. 

From impossible to possible 

For Kosmatka, her outing at McKinley Woods on a beautiful spring day gave her a hint of fun adventures to come. 

“Many places are hard out in nature for me,” she said as she sat in the GRIT Freedom chair looking out at the Des Plaines River. “When (a path) is not paved, it’s impossible. So, this affords a lot of opportunities.”

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