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Freedom, access and equality: Overcoming disabilities with help from the trails

Chet Crisher

What does universal design have to do with West Michigan's trail system? Meet one Grand Rapids bicyclist with a disability who's successfully using the network to hit the trails and see his fair share of our fair state. Lauren Fay Carlson reports in this month's 'Moments on the Trails' feature.
When faced with a disheartening diagnosis or after struggling with a disability one's entire life, the question often arises: "What can I do now?" Limited physical activity can be frustrating, and the opportunity to get outside and explore nature can be freeing.

In West Michigan, rail trails provide an easily traversable getaway for those with a variety of disabilities. Relatively flat, smooth, and accessible in urban and rural areas, rail trails are a natural fit for those seeking a simple form of outdoor exercise, either for the elderly, those with a disability or those recovering from an injury. Many of the trails are also ADA compliant, meeting the national standards of accessibility for all. One avid bicyclist discussed his own struggle with a disability, and his recently discovered passion for the trails.
           
"I very much enjoy getting out. I enjoy the independence," says Grand Rapids native Chet Crisher, age 61. Diagnosed in the mid-1990s with multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system and can later affect one's mobility, Crisher was forced to quit driving at a relatively young age.
 
Living in Columbus, Indiana at the time, his options for outdoor activities were limited. "My ability to get out was very restricted," says Crisher, who earlier in life had been an avid biker. While also suffering from optic neuritis, which severely limited his vision, Crisher further sought an outlet for exercise outdoors.
           
After relocating to his hometown of Grand Rapids 10 years ago, Crisher began exploring the rail trails surrounding the city on his recumbent tricycle, a special bike that allows the rider to operate it in the reclined position. More recently, after relocating within the city to the Richmond Park area on the west side, he was able to access the trails even better, then simply bike to one of several trail heads in the city. He even upgraded to a bionic system with DC motor control that offers motorized assistance on hills and tough spots, and "makes these old legs work a little better," says Crisher.
 
With his specialized wheels, Crisher can also tow a trailer with any necessary gear for long rides. "I carry all the comforts of home," he says, allowing him to bike to popular spots like P.J. Hoffmaster State Park for camping trips.
           
With his recumbent tricycle and a new location that allowed for greater access to trails, Crisher was soon biking regularly. A few of his favorite routes are the Walker to Rockford section of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park, Fred Meijer Millennium Park Trails, and the Musketawa Trail, with a trailhead near West River Dr. and 4 Mile Rd. Utilizing this particular trail to travel west all the way to the village of Marne, Crisher goes the distance. "I enjoy it very much," he says.
           
For Crisher and for others, West Michigan's trails are accessible because many are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design, which require that a trail be constructed with a "firm and stable" surface, such as pavement or crushed aggregate materials.
 
"Most of them are designed for multi-users," says Cynthia Kay Burkhour, MA, CTRS, CPRP, a consultant who assists various entities, such as local and state governments, identify accessibility barriers on public trails. This means that the surface of the trail allows for those in wheelchairs—or virtually anyone on wheels, such as those pushing a stroller or walker—to easily maneuver the path. "That's what universal design really is," says Burkhour, who advocates for outdoor spaces exceeding ADA standards to make them easier for everyone to access.
           
The accessibility of many of West Michigan's trails has enabled Crisher to rediscover his passion for bicycling, and to celebrate the independence and freedom that these trails offer. "The disabled all too often are totally dependent on people for help," he says. But with this particular hobby, "once you get on the trail, you [just] go."
 
Crisher also enjoys the ability to engage with other bicyclists with disabilities. "It helped me so much," he says, to find solidarity in others who were also overcoming mobility challenges to exercise.
 
Lastly, Crisher believes in the mood-boosting effect that exercising on the trails can bring. "It's incredibly therapeutic to be able to get out and enjoy the day," he says.
           
Crisher's only complaint is the difficulty he sometimes faces in traveling to and from trailheads. "Getting to the trail, that's the challenge," he says. Though Grand Rapids is continually increasing its bicycle friendliness, urban roadways can still present a danger for those with limited mobility. In favore of combining camaraderie with accessibility, Crisher suggests a group transportation service with bicyclists with disabilities. Knowing the benefits that the trails have enabled in his own life, Crisher seeks to share these with others.
           
Though he struggles with multiple sclerosis every day, Crisher continues to exercise and remain independent. By encouraging others with disabilities to explore West Michigan's trails, he advocates this unique outlet that is accessible to a variety of users, and gives hope to those with limited mobility.

Lauren Fay Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.
 
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.
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