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Monica Kamal Spaeni

Founder, Access Ability Wisconsin

We have a solution that is increasing independence, increasing social interaction, and decreasing depression. Our wheelchairs are like our shoes; the outdoor wheelchair is like our hiking boots.”

En español | When I was 48, I founded Access Ability Wisconsin (AAW), an organization that makes outdoor wheelchairs and adaptive sporting equipment available to people with physical disabilities to use free of charge. 

The problem I am trying to solve

Everybody should be able to enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation with their family and friends. Getting into nature improves self-esteem and well-being, fights depression and isolation, and enhances social bonds. But once you have a physical disability, your choices are limited. You might find 300 yards of asphalt or packed limestone at a park or preserve, but that doesn't allow you to see cranes in their natural habitat or show your grandkids how to hunt for wild asparagus or morels. Walking aids — canes, walkers, power wheelchairs and regular wheelchairs with skinny wheels — just don’t allow for this. People with disabilities may miss out on bird watching, fishing and family reunions in a park and children may have to sit out school nature field trips. The mission of AAW is to enable individuals with various types of mobility issues to get outdoors and off the beaten path. We raise money to provide outdoor adaptive equipment such as all-terrain wheelchairs, adaptive kayaks and hand cycles, which are prohibitively expensive for most people to own. We purchased the first outdoor wheelchair in 2014 and recently acquired the 12th. Our goal is to get at least one adapted wheelchair in every county in Wisconsin.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was volunteering on my son’s skiing field trip in 2001 when I hit my back on a tree and became paralyzed from mid-chest down. I had to relearn how to dress, toilet, shower and perform daily activities of living. Before my injury, I enjoyed fishing, hiking and kayaking with my two sons. Afterward I wondered how I would experience outdoor activities NOT sitting on the sidelines. In 2012, I participated in an outdoor event using a borrowed all-terrain wheelchair, independently traversing the cornfield and marsh all by myself. It was an incredible feeling, to be “free,” independently “walking.” I hadn’t experienced such freedom since my injury. Knowing the obstacles and positive rewards of nature, I decided I wanted to purchase equipment as a free community resource.

The struggles that shaped my life

I was a foster child and dealt with a lot of family struggles growing up. Through that process, I met a lot of good people who helped me. I decided I wanted to be a missionary teacher in Africa, and although that never happened, I feel this is my way of being a missionary teacher but in the disability community. If I can help people meet their needs for outdoor recreation, I get am rewarded by that. I understand the relief they feel when they experience a little more freedom and get to enjoy time with others outdoors. 

Advice to others who want to make a difference

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I recommend aligning with existing community resources. To ensure that we reach the disability population, including seniors and veterans, we network with organizations with similar missions, such as the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, the Audubon Society, Wisconsin Council of Physical Disabilities, The Aging and Disability Resource Center, and Madison Spina Bifida. Organizations like Middleton Public Lands, Recreation, and Forestry and American Legion posts are hosts for our equipment. Every interaction is an opportunity to create awareness of this resource and recruit volunteers.

Why my approach is unique

No other organization uses our model. We buy the equipment and work with organizations to make it available in strategic locations, such as on public lands. If you want to take the equipment to another location, you can transport it in one of our enclosed trailers. Most organizations only allow people to use adaptive gear in a specific place. And some organizations have one chair for their members but not for the community at large. While other organizations charge upward of $150 a day for the use of an outdoor wheelchair, our equipment is available free of charge. We do ask for a $50 refundable deposit just to make sure that people who are reserving it have some skin in the game, which guards against potential no-shows. Because we are volunteer-run, 100 percent of funds raised go to acquiring adaptive equipment.

When I knew we were having an impact

I knew we were making a difference when I watched an 89-year-old woman who had never seen the local conservancy. She let out a whoop of excitement while using an outdoor wheelchair for the first time at one of our events. People tell us that having access to outdoor activities gives them a sense of belonging and makes them feel like less of a burden to others, and surveys of users are overwhelmingly positive. 

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