Freedom Trax devices remove limits to disabled people’s connection to nature
By Raiza Giorgi
Steve Schulz has always been an active outdoor person. Having grown up in the Santa Ynez Valley, he has been less than half an hour from the beach or the mountains for outdoor recreation. The week before Christmas in 1998, Schultz was in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting shot in a carjacking incident and being paralyzed ever since.
Schulz has learned a new way of life in the 22 years since the incident, from his landscaping design business to volunteering with NatureTrack Foundation, leading outdoor excursions where the trail was accessible in his wheelchair.
“Steve has been with us nine years and when he came to an outdoor event we hosted, it was hard for him to get his chair through the mulch,” said Sue Eisaguirre, founder of NatureTrack. “My husband suggested looking into getting Steve something that had better access and that’s how we found Freedom Trax.”
Freedom Trax is based in Golden, Colorado, and being a native of that state, Eisaguirre said she has gone to their facility to see how they are made.
“There is so much to tell about the lack of accessibility for people who are disabled and thankfully with companies like Freedom Trax, the technology is catching up,” she said. “We take for granted walking to the waters edge, or on backcountry trails.”
Using Freedom Trax removes barriers to accessing beaches and trails for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities. The devices work with manual chairs only and convert them to all-terrain accessible chairs, which can be driven on the beach or uneven trails.
NatureTrack Foundation hosted six Freedom Trax devices at Hendry’s Beach for local wheelchair users to try on Jan. 9. The date also coincided with the beach cleanup event through Explore Ecology.
NatureTrack uses the Freedom Trax so docents, teachers and students can participate in the outdoor field trip programs. Schulz is one of those docents.
“Just a few months ago we learned a teacher who regularly signed up her class to take NatureTrack excursions wasn’t able to actually go herself,” Eisaguirre said. “Now she can, as well as students that had to stay behind. I want nature to be accessible to everyone.”
Eisaguerre added there is no cost to use the Freedom Trax, courtesy of NatureTrack, which also has two manual wheelchairs available for transfer should a wheelchair not fit on the device.
NatureTrack will also lend the Freedom Trax and the wheelchairs to other organizations planning outdoor excursions so anyone can join in.
“We are also working on options for people who just want to go on their own or with family and friends to pick up a unit or we can meet them at the trailhead to show them how to use it,” she said.
To highlight the importance of accessibility, NatureTrack decided to partner with filmmakers Mitchka Saberi and Francisco Lopez of Golden Cage Films to create the documentary “The Accessible Outdoors,” which highlights the importance of connecting to nature for all people, regardless of ability.
“As we were shooting the film about incorporating Freedom Trax into NatureTrack’s outdoor field trips for our website, I realized there was more to tell about the lack of access to nature and the outdoors for disabled people,” Eisaguirre said.
The film highlights Schulz as well as Judy Heumann, disability rights activist, who helped fight for the American Disabilities Act, and continues to work for accessibility for the disabled.
“Before making ‘The Accessible Outdoors,’ we hadn’t considered how extensive the topic of disability access is,” said Saberi and Lopez. “As two able-bodied people, it wasn’t until talking to people with a variety of disabilities we came to realize access to nature isn’t an issue to be ignored until it impacts you or someone close to you.
“We all deserve the ability to experience nature and connect with it, and that ability could easily be taken away from us at any moment,” they said. “We shouldn’t wait until that moment comes to advocate for change in this sector.”
The film already garnered their first award at the Hollywood Independent Filmmaker Awards & Festival, winning the Silver for Best Short Documentary. The documentary is gaining momentum as more film festivals are accepting it into their selections. The Oregon Documentary Film Festival, Colorado Environmental Film Festival, Flathead Lake International Cinemafest and British Colombia Environmental Film Festival will be screening it in upcoming festivals.
They will learn at the end of the month if the documentary will be in any local festivals from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. They are also working on a date and location to show the film in the Santa Ynez Valley, possibly in March. If and when scheduled, it will be announced in the Star.
For more on NatureTrack Foundation and the Freedom Trax options, call 805-886-2047 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.