As summer arrives here in Vermont, the weather beckons you outside. Blue sky, light breeze, warm but not hot – there is nothing better! But even as I step outside and debate which activity I want to do that day, I think of the people who don’t have that option. 

For those with a spinal cord injury (SCI) and who use a wheelchair, getting outside and being active is so much more complicated than putting on a pair of sneakers and going for a hike or a run, or finding a pick-up game of basketball. Or even the activities that take some equipment: grabbing a tennis racket or a set of golf clubs or hopping on a bike for a casual ride. 

For someone with an SCI, not only do you need specialized equipment that you can’t just buy at the local Dick’s or bike shop, but that equipment is incredibly expensive. This is where the KBF comes in. We provide grants through the Active Fund for people with SCI to purchase adaptive sports equipment. I wanted to spend today’s blog on some common summer activities so you can compare what that looks like for you against what they look like for someone with an SCI. 

Handcycling. This is the most common sport for someone with an SCI, plus you can do it anywhere. It is a three-wheeled bike that you pedal with your arms and has shifting and gears the same as a standard bike. 

For an entry-level bike, you will pay around $2,500-3,000. This gets you the equivalent of a cruiser bike you could get for $200 at Walmart. You can get a nice bike to race for about $8,000 plus more for nicer components (shifting, brakes, wheels, etc.) and the super fancy fully carbon bike for $15,000. 

Edie, the KBF executive director, loves to ride her handcycle indoors on a trainer in the winter and outside in the nice weather. She says, “Time on the bike is like meditation to me. It clears my head and helps me focus on the big picture – or just nothing at all.”

Mountain biking. This is a hugely growing sport in both the able-bodied and disabled communities. People love to get into the woods and get some exercise. For those of us who can’t easily just walk into the woods for a hike, it is incredibly liberating. For someone with an SCI, having an electronic assist while mountain biking is hugely helpful if not necessary. It allows you to explore a huge variety of challenging terrain, get over obstacles like roots and rocks, and keep up with able-bodied peers to make for an inclusive activity. 

An entry-level mountain bike without an e-assist is about $7,000-8,000. E-assists add about $2,500. This is equivalent to a $300 mountain bike you could get at Dick’s or a $150 pair of hiking boots since this also is our equivalent to hiking. The top-of-the-line mountain bikes with full suspension and upgrade shifting and brake systems with e-assist are around $15,000-18,000. 

Greg, the KBF program director, would spend every waking hour on his mountain bike if he could. “I honestly feel like superman when I am in my mountain bike.” He says, “I can do anything and it takes me so many places and trails I never thought I would be riding. Always a big ‘womp, womp, womp’ moment when I get back into my chair.”

Tennis. Tennis is an incredibly fun sport to play in a wheelchair because you can play with other chair users or with able-bodied players. The only difference in the rules is that able-bodied players get one bounce and wheelchair users get two bounces. To play tennis you need a sports wheelchair that has more camber on the wheels, smaller wheels in the front to allow for more quick movements, and an extra wheel in the back to prevent you from tipping over. 

A tennis chair costs about $2,000-4,000. You can always upgrade small things (wheels, etc.), but there isn’t a huge variation in price from entry-level to higher end. Compare that to a $100 pair of tennis shoes (you still need to purchase the racket; that’s the same whether in a chair or not). 

Edie just went to a sports camp and got to learn more about tennis. She says: “I’ve only just begun, but tennis is so much fun. I like the challenge of it. Getting that one shot right makes powering through all those misses worth it. You know if you keep trying, you’ll get another good one. At some point.”

Golf. Golf is not a particularly common sport for someone in a wheelchair because the equipment needed to do it is so expensive. To be able to golf you need a chair that is specific to golf but looks like a power wheelchair. You control it with a joystick and with the press of a button it stands you up so you can swing a club. It can go anywhere on the course. This chair costs $25,000, which is the equivalent of a $50 pair of golf shoes (similar to tennis, everyone needs a set of golf clubs to play). 

I have a golf cart that I got shortly after my injury. My thoughts: Golf is one of the few sports that is truly inclusive of the able-bodied community. Once you have the chair, you play all the same courses, hit from the same tees, and have a drink at the same bar after. Similar to skiing, other than the different equipment used, you are participating right alongside your friends.

Wakeboarding/waterskiing. This is also a pretty niche sport because to do this you have to have access to a boat and a body of water. But for people in areas where it’s warmer for most of the year, this is a sport that can be really fun and liberating. The equipment needed is essentially a traditional wakeboard or water ski that has a seat mounted on it for someone to sit securely in. This costs about $1,200 compared to $200 wakeboard or water ski for someone able-bodied. 

Greg gets out on his wakeboard in the summers on Lake Champlain. He says: “It’s just incredible to be able to get back on the water and do the things I used to do as a kid growing up. People are always amazed and want to see my setup when I tell them I wakeboard and wakesurf all time!”

These sports look a little different because the equipment is different, but the benefits are the same: fun, stress release, physical fitness, accomplishment, etc. I have been lucky enough to do all of these sports, with the exception of wakeboarding/waterskiing (though it’s on my list for this summer!). These days I spend most of my time on my road bike, though I love the time I get into the woods on the mountain bike. I wish I could play golf and tennis more but with two jobs and two kids, the time seems to evaporate. I’m certainly in the minority in having all these options. I love introducing people with SCI to new sports and seeing their faces light up with elation. This is what being active can do whether you have an SCI or not!