As It Happens

'It is very empowering': Donated all-terrain wheelchairs provide access to Georgia parks

Wheelchair users in Georgia will now be able to travel off the beaten path in the state’s parks, thanks to a donation of all-terrain chairs with the help of Aimee Copeland.

Aimee Copeland helped raise funds to buy a fleet of treaded wheelchairs for rent to park visitors

Aimee Copeland rides a motorized Action Trackchair, which helps her go on hikes and explore parks. (Aimee Copeland Foundation)

Aimee Copeland vividly remembers the first time she went on a hike with the help of a heavy-duty, all-terrain wheelchair.

"I got a few miles deep in the woods. It had been years. And the smells, the sights, the feeling of the damp air on my skin, it really was like a flood of emotion and just a feeling of being home," Copeland, a psychotherapist and social worker, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Copeland lost both her hands, her right foot and her left leg to a flesh-eating bacterial infection following a zip-lining accident in 2012. Since then she's worked to "bridge the gap between nature and accessibility," in her words.

She's pushing to bring the same level of access to parks and nature to other people in wheelchairs. Just last week, the Aimee Copeland Foundation and Georgia Department of Natural Resources brought a new fleet of Action Trackchairs for the state's parks.

Copeland's foundation raised $200,000 US to buy them for $12,500 each, according to The Washington Post.

Ben and Olivia Oxley attend the launch event at Panola Mountain State Park. (Aimee Copeland Foundation)

Each Action Trackchair, designed by a Minnesota-based company, weighs about 230 kilograms and has wheels and treads that resemble those found on a small tank. Copeland says people often react with a "whoa!" when they first see them.

Copeland says she's so far used the chair to visit 15 of Georgia's parks, as well as its beaches. She also has a chair of her own to navigate her property in Asheville, N.C., which is near several nature trails.

"It is very empowering. I feel very powerful and in control when I am in that puppy. And it is pretty amazing all the places it has taken me," she said.

"They're really built for the mountains and for navigating over rocks and roots and on trails. But they also do amazingly on sand, in snow and even in shallow water."

Aimee Copeland speaks at a launch event unveiling a new fleet of all-terrain wheelchairs for parkgoers in Georgia, on Nov. 4, 2022 at Panola Mountain State Park. (Aimee Copeland Foundation)

She added that she's been able to take the chair over tree trunks or down short flights of stairs, despite the manufacturer's recommendation to avoid such terrain.

"I have definitely taken some risks and been able to find exactly what the capabilities of these things are. And I'm floored every time at the places that it takes me," she said.

First-time users aren't recommended to take all manner of risks, however. Prospective users at Georgia's parks must provide proof of ID and their disability, as well as take an online training course before renting a chair. They also have to be accompanied by an adult companion who is "in good physical condition" at all times.

'We want to be out in our communities'

Copeland says the project is important to give disabled people the same access to parks that others have — and to enjoy them together.

"It only took me about a week of living in a wheelchair to realize people in wheelchairs don't want to go to a segregated nature park. We want to be out in our communities with our family and friends," she said.

Caleb Feather attends the launch event at Panola Mountain State Park. (Aimee Copeland Foundation)

Copeland says she's heard glowing reviews from people who have used the Trackchairs for the first time.

"[One] woman said she's able to walk her dog in the woods. And that's something she was never able to do before," she said. 

"We even had one user that on his first ride to the top of a mountain, he proposed to his girlfriend up there, and had just been waiting for that opportunity."

Georgia isn't the first state to offer programs like this. All-terrain wheelchairs are already available at parks in states such as Colorado and Michigan. This week, South Dakota introduced its second chair, with one resident raising funds to buy a fleet of up to 30 chairs.

Copeland says she's been in conversations with officials in North Carolina, where she now lives, to bring chairs to parks there as well.

"We didn't reinvent the wheel," she said — pun intended, perhaps.

"Our goal is an all-terrain USA, all-terrain North America, all-terrain world! I want to see these chairs everywhere."

Interview produced by Morgan Passi.

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