Michigan state parks lead the country in making their beaches and trails accessible by providing track chairs for people who use wheelchairs or have other motility issues.
“Michigan is at the forefront of that initiative in the United States, at least from what we're hearing,” said Michelle O’Kelly, Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division resource and fund developer. “We want to be able to make sure that we're being fair and equitable when it comes to recreation and that what we have is available to everyone.”
As part of the effort to make outdoor recreation in Michigan more accessible, the DNR has collaborated with several organizations to raise more than $450,000 to purchase track chairs for state parks and trails.
These off-road, electronic chairs can easily handle trails, snow, sand, and even up to 8 inches of water, allowing users to explore areas of the parks that traditional wheelchairs might not reach. Fifteen locations around the state now have track chairs available for use at no cost, with 10 additional locations soon to receive chairs, thanks to the fundraising campaign.
The cost of one track chair is about $16,000.
Many sources of support
Support has come from DNR partner organizations, including Kali’s Cure for Paralysis Foundation, Safari Club International, Family Hope Foundation, and supporters of Ludington and Grand Haven state parks and Island Lake Recreation Area. Campers and boaters from across the state who contribute an additional $2 when making their park and harbor reservations also helped the DNR reach its goal.
“It’s so inspiring to see the program grow and to witness more people taking this simple yet powerful action that makes their favorite places more accessible to everyone,” O’Kelly said.
Visitors can use track chairs to explore the trail at Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling. (MDNR)
“It was Kali’s Cure for Paralysis that brought this piece of equipment to our attention, and not only has it grown to be the largest program in any state – we have more track chairs than any other state – it’s attracted national attention," O'Kelly said. "We have states reaching out to us all the time to start this in their state. Kali’s Cure started this movement in our parks and started this movement across the country.”
From Maybury State Park and Bald Mountain and Island Lake recreation areas in Southeast Michigan, to west Michigan’s Warren Dunes, Ludington and Muskegon state parks, to the Upper Peninsula's Tahquamenon Falls State Park and others around the state, track chairs give people with injuries or disabilities greater access to beaches, picnic sites, and trails.
Chairs are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Pets and service animals may accompany track chair users, but owners must follow park rules.
Allowing new experiences
O’Kelly calls the track chair program’s growth “life changing,”
“We are hearing stories from families about how having these pieces of equipment are life changing when they go to the beach or go for a trail hike,” said O’Kelly. “They can go together, where in years past they didn't have the capacity to do it.”
Park supervisors who have witnessed the impacts of these chairs agreed.
“With the track chair at Maybury State Park, Friends of Maybury volunteers are engaged as hike leaders and the chair users, along with their families, can enjoy the meadows, forests and rolling hills areas of the park,” said Traci Sincock, park supervisor at Maybury State Park and Belleville Lake Boating Access Site in Northville. “Having a track chair at Maybury has provided residents with access to this gem of southeast Michigan.”
A track chair in use at South Higgins Lake State Park.
Along the Lake Michigan shoreline, visitors can use a track chair at Holland State Park to access the beach.
“We hear heartwarming stories from people who thought they would never be able to enjoy a day at the beach who tell us how thrilled they are to be here,” said Sean Mulligan, park supervisor. “It really does mean a lot for us to make these experiences possible for even more folks. We try to provide a great place for people to come and create those lifelong memories, and having the ability to expand those opportunities is phenomenal.”
The Family Hope Foundation donated money for two track chairs for Holland State Park after one of the organization’s board members used one at Muskegon State Park.
Grand Haven State Park has three track chairs, which were purchased by Friends of Grand Haven State Park.
Track chairs are different from the beach wheelchairs that are at many beaches because the tracks can be easier to maneuver. The track chair user doesn’t need somebody to push them or move them, so they have the freedom to explore on their own.
The DNR hopes to continue to add to its fleet of track chairs.
“This effort is just one component of the DNR’s department-wide strategy to make outdoor recreation – beaches, campgrounds, fishing, hunting, trails and more – accessible to even more people,” O’Kelly said. “I’m really proud of Michigan for being on the forefront of recreation for all.”
Started with 2017 donation
Outside of the state park system, track chairs are at national and local parks across the state.
The DNR program began when Kali’s Cure for Paralysis Foundation donated five track chairs in 2017. Requests for the chairs at other state parks quickly grew.
“We ended up with about 25 parks that we were fundraising for to try and get the chairs,” said O’Kelly.
After the state added 10 chairs in the past three years, O’Kelly went back to Kali’s Cure to thank the nonprofit for being a catalyst and give it an update.
“They surprised me with a check for the rest of the 10 chairs,” O’Kelly said. “So now we have the funding for 25 track chairs.”
The DNR has set aside maintenance funds to keep the chairs in workable order and replace batteries. Anyone wishing to contribute can make a donation by visiting the DNR state parks giving page.
“We don't want to stop fundraising for them if there's an interest in having more,” O’Kelly said.
Middle schooler leads fund drive
When O’Kelly noticed several donations coming from Pewamo-Westphalia Middle-High School, about 30 miles northwest of Lansing, she called the school to find out what was driving the gifts. A student named Ben Miller had used a track chair and wanted to raise money for one at the Ionia State Park. Other students got behind the effort and held a popcorn fundraiser. Then the community found out about Ben’s goal, and an anonymous donor gave the balance of the funding.
O’Kelly met with Ben and asked him to pick out the color of the upholstery and paint on the track chair, and he was the first person to use it when it was brought to the park.
“Seeing the excitement and Ben's face as he was able to take himself on trails at Ionia State Park was amazing,” O’Kelly said.
Ben Miller uses a track chair.
An important part of the program is getting the word out about the track chairs. Information has gone out in flyers, newsletters, and on QR stickers for accessible parking spaces and at accessible playgrounds.
“It’s imperative for us to be able to mention that if you enjoyed using the track chair here, consider visiting this particular park because they have one as well,” said O’Kelly. “We put the codes on accessible playgrounds so people can kind of familiarize themselves with what features we have.”
Park supervisors are tracking the usage of the chairs at the request of Kali’s Cure for Paralysis Foundation.
For example, one of the original five chairs was donated to Belle Isle Park in Detroit, but it didn’t get a lot of use because most of the park’s trails are paved.
“We contacted the donor and asked if we could transfer it to Bay City State Park, where it's getting a ton more usage. We are paying attention to those things and making sure the equipment is getting used," said O’Kelly.
Effort extends beyond chairs
Accessibility is at the forefront of design when a park’s infrastructure is being updated and remodeled.
The state park system also has accessible deer hunting blinds and kayak launches. The DNR has doubled the amount of accessible hunting blinds in the last five years.
The emphasis on providing universal access to outdoor recreation is due in part to the DNR’s Accessibility Advisory Council, a group of private citizens, appointed by the DNR director, that provides guidance to help the DNR provide opportunities for those of all abilities to enjoy Michigan’s natural resources.
A track chair in use at South Higgins Lake State Park.
The council also strives to educate citizens on the importance of accessibility and to involve citizens in the planning and development of accessible facilities and programs.
Learn more about track chair availability at Michigan.gov/DNRAccessibility
Photos courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.