CNCounty News

County offers off-road wheelchairs for visitors with disability, mobility issues

Jeremy J. Chatelain rides a trail in El Paso County, Colo. using an off-road wheelchair. Photo courtesy of Jeremy J. Chatelain

Key Takeaways

El Paso County, Colo.’s Trailability Program offers off-road wheelchairs for county park visitors with disabilities and mobility issues, increasing access to nature and reinvigorating residents’ love for the outdoors. 

Jeremy J. Chatelain and his wife, Connie, have always shared a love for outdoor adventures. A year into their marriage, Jeremy dove headfirst into a too-shallow swimming hole, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. The couple’s two children, Sarah, 20, and Dallin, 12, inherited the nature bug, and the family enjoys hiking together, but Jeremy was limited by his disability and couldn’t join them on the trails. 

Chatelain spent over 20 years looking for the “right” all-terrain wheelchair, one that could cater to the needs of a high-level quadriplegic that still felt smooth and didn’t take away from the experience of being out in nature. Then, he found the Terrain Hopper. 

“I was like, ‘This could be it,’” Chatelain said. “I actually began to weep … Finally, after these 20 some odd years, we would be able to get out together again. No more leaving me in the parking lot as they went down the trail, looking back at me, just yearning that I could go with them. Now we can go together.”

Chatelain is an El Paso County Park Advisory Board member, and was, at the time the Trailability Program was created, on the board of The Independence Center, a non-profit working to increase independence for people with disabilities. He had purchased a Terrain Hopper for himself, and after hearing that the county was in the process of trying to make parks more accessible through off-road wheelchairs, suggested it test out the machine. 

Theresa Odello, El Paso County Parks and Community Services Department’s recreation and cultural services division manager, said the county was impressed with the Terrain Hopper, and ultimately chose it for the program, because it creates less impact on the trails and is much quieter than other all-terrain wheelchairs.

“You can still hear the birds, you can still hear the rippling of the creek when you’re next to it,” Odello said. “So, it’s giving you that connection as well, versus overtaking nature.”

The Independence Center bought one of the Terrain Hoppers for the program, and the county’s facilities department purchased the other. El Paso County has two nature centers, Bear Creek and Fountain Creek, and each now has a Terrain Hopper for residents to use at no-cost. 

The Trailability Program is offered from April through October and operates through three-hour reservations. Nature center guides accompany participants, which is for safety, according to Odello, but they also can provide information about the surroundings, depending on what each person is looking for, she noted. 

“Our volunteer staff can be as hands on or as hands off as that individual wants,” Odello said. “Sometimes they want to hike on their own or just be with their friends, and then other times it’s ‘Hey, tell me about this plant’ or ‘Tell me about this bird.’ It’s really at their own pace and what they want to do.”

Each year on Mother’s Day, El Paso County resident Corrie Clancy hikes with her children. Last year, she was diagnosed with ALS and developed mobility issues. The Terrain Hopper allowed her to still take on the Fountain Creek trails with her children, in Mother’s Day tradition, and she said she’ll be back this year. Clancy said the guides add a fun element to the process, making it feel like a “mini field trip.”

“It was really cool to have them along,” Clancy said. “We’d walked that park a million times and didn’t know about some of the things that they showed us.” 

Stacey Kau, the mother of a Trailability Program participant, appreciates the support and flexibility the guides offer. Her daughter, Karlee, can control the Terrain Hopper if she wants to, but if she gets tired, the guide takes over and can control the chair with a remote.

Karlee Kau, who is 18, loves to hike, paddleboard and whitewater raft. “She’s definitely a Colorado girl,” Stacey said. Eighteen is a pivotal age — it’s legal adulthood — and for many, it marks a period of newfound independence. Along with navigating being 18, Karlee is recently adapting to navigating life in a wheelchair. 

She said the Trailability Program is helping her get back her love for the outdoors and giving her a sense of freedom.   

“It’s really nice, just being able to have access to those types of things that allow me to almost like relive a similar experience as to what I previously had being able to walk,” Kau said. 

“And be more on my own and independent, while also having experiences being in nature.” 

Since launching in 2022, the Trailability Program has helped 68 people with disabilities and mobility issues access El Paso County trails. 

“To just go smell the pine trees again,” Chatelain said. “It’s priceless.” 

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