Meet the man traveling by wheelchair to advocate for more accessible nature roads

Mackay travellings on the Olympic Discovery Trail near his home in Washington .
Image: Courtesy of Ian Mackay

Ian Mackay considers himself a cyclist and a birder a nature buff who gets lost on lush roads near his Washington state home for hours every day.

But if popular opinion had its route, many people wouldn’t expect Mackay to be able to pursue this passion. They may even assume he couldn’t genuinely enjoy the outdoors independently.

That’s because his “cycle” is his power wheelchair, and Mackay is a quadriplegic man.

Using a power wheelchair in nature does have its challenges, and Mackay is the first be recognised that. But those challenges don’t inherently stem from Mackay’s disability. He says they’re usually a result of nature trails that are relatively inaccessible to those on wheels a problem bicyclists and parents with strollers all grapple with, too.

Mackay is advocating for this to change and he’s use somewhat revolutionary means.

The outdoors enthusiast just embarked on a 10 -day journey, which began on Aug. 13, that will take him more than 300 miles. Beginning in Victoria, British Columbia, and ending in Portland, Oregon, the route will span the entire duration of his home state.

As Mackay puts it, he’s “rolling across Washington” to bring awareness to the need for accessible trails and bike routes. And he’s dubbed the journey Ian’s Ride.

The need for more accessible trails

On June 4, 2008, Mackay was in a bicycling accident at age 26 while traveling a nature road. He was riding home from college on a familiar track in Santa Cruz, California but what wasn’t familiar was unexpected patches of sand on the turns of his regularly traveled trail induced him slide out and lose control. Mackay ran headfirst into a tree.

“I crashed and I violated I broke my neck, ” Mackay , now 34, tells Mashable .

The helmet he was wearing most likely saved their own lives. But Mackay sustained a spinal cord trauma in the accident. The outdoors enthusiast can now shrug his shoulders, but that’s the maximum mobility his body is capable of below the neck.

Mackay travellings theOlympic Discovery Trail in Washington state.

Image: Politenes of Ian Mackay

Mackay’s passion for nature predates his paralysis. He started to appreciate roads in his 20 s, but says he only rekindled his love for the outdoors about two years ago with the help of assistive technology.

Mackay knows he is relatively lucky that accessible roads are abundant near his Washington home. Yet, that access isn’t guaranteed in all places even in other regions throughout Washington.

“Me and my other paralyzed brothers that live in the greater Washington area many of us don’t have the luxury of having access to beautiful roads or easy to access paths, ” he says. “Much of the time, we are stuck on the sides of roads and freeways and we don’t want to be at risk on the shoulder riding next to big rigs.”

In planning Ian’s Ride, there was one key question facing Mackay: In a ride advocating for more accessible roads, how was he going to ensure his road was actually accessible? Much of the journey, after all, is uncharted territory for the outdoor adventurer.

“We are stuck on the sides of roads and roads and we don’t want to be at risk on the shoulder riding next to big rigs.”

Mackay says that’s where Washington Bikes, a statewide organization that advocates for more accessible roads in the nation, stepped up and had an indelible impact. Historically, the organization hasn’t focused on people with disabilities, but instead cyclists and parents with strollers who also frequent roads. But Mackay’s accessibility needs, he says, perfectly align with those of other nature travelers on wheels.

The organization helped connect Mackay to the cycling community in the greater Washington region. After Mackay put together a proposed plan of his route, he posted it on his blog and the cycling community took action.

“I got a tremendous amount of emails from cyclists with pictures of roads I wanted to travel and advice like, ‘There’s very little sidewalk. You might want to reconsider, ‘” he says. “With all of this input, I was able to rewrite and now I have the best scenario possible.”

The route for Ian’s Ride.

Image: Politenes of Ian MackAy

Though he says the bicycling community has given him a “much more polished, viable route, ” the majority of his trip-up will be on roads and shoulders of small freeways. It’s what’s most accessible, Mackay says and an indicator that the work he’s doing is essential.

“Anywhere I can get on a track or trail, I’m going to be on a route or road, ” Mackay says. “But even me being visible on these roads and roads only highlights what I require more.”

Mackay isn’t going on the trip-up alone. His mommy, Teena, is his “main roadie.” She will be driving the road, general caregiving to Mackay during his trek. Mackay will also travel with at least two cyclists the entire hour, additionally meeting up with other friends along the way who want to be a part of his journey.

Ian and his mother, Teena.

Image: Courtesy of Ian Mackay

For the first few days, Mackay plans to go about 40 miles per day. But his power wheelchair, which can travel up to 7 miles per hour, only runs 25 or 30 miles on a single charge of the battery, presenting an obvious problem. To curb it was necessary to charge, Mackay is bringing a second chair to swap mid-day.

“I’ve done 30 -mile days, but I’ve never done a 40 -mile day, ” Mackay says. “It’s going to be a first for me, but I’m ready for it.”

Technology helping to facilitate independence

Since his accident, Mackay says he has grappled with the desire for greater independence especially when it comes to exploring nature. For the first several years after his accident, he shied away from the outdoors, feeling unable to take advantage of the roads and tracks he once frequented due to his disability.

Technology devoted him the confidence to reconnect with nature, and it’s a key component of Ian’s Ride.

“The more trails out there, the better for everyone.”

To drive his power wheelchair, Mackay use a sip and whiff a straw-like device that is sensitive to air pressure, letting him to send directional signals to his wheelchair. And while that technology lets Mackay to navigate independently, what really has given him the confidence to explore the outdoors is something people without disabilities use daily a smartphone.

Mackay devotes credit for being able to independently and fearlessly explore nature to Switch Control, specific features released on Apple’s iOS 7 in autumn 2013. The feature lets Mackay to navigate his iPhone with a simple switch placed near his mouth, use flicks of his lips to replace finger gestures other users typically rely on.

“Before Switch Control came out, I was very reliant on someone using the phone for me or navigating a GPS for me, ” he says.

Now, Mackay can be the main navigator in his everyday jaunts and on Ian’s Ride. Over the 300 -mile journey, he will control the GPS and be the point person for all his squad. And he’ll do it wholly hands-free.

Mackay says the importance of technology to people with disabilities while out in nature can not only be life-changing, but also life-saving. And it has been for him.

In summer 2015, Mackay crashed his wheelchair while out on a trail, wholly tip-off over. The road was not well-trafficked, and his mouth could not reach the switching needed to activate his telephone to alert assist. He couldn’t even use the “Hey Siri” option on his iPhone a command that automatically activates hands-free navigation for iPhone users because there was not enough service.

Mackay, however, had a back-up alternative a tracking app that proved to be essential. When he was gone for a prolonged period of time without contact, his family knew to activate the app and find him.

“Having that confidence and knowing I can reach my assist has allowed me to spend hours out there as long as I have someone on call, ” he says. “I now have that feeling of independence again.”

The beginning of accessibility advocacy

Mackay admits that the push for more accessible trails is going to take more than one human on a 10 -day mission. He says it’s going to take communities getting more invested in their own roads and accessibility at large.

“To push for accessible trails, we first need to get more activity and traffic on the ones we already have.”

“All of our communities have great spots in nature that are underused, ” Mackay says. “To push for accessible roads, we first need to get more activity and traffic on the ones we already have. That gets the conversation started.”

But he also recognizes that sometimes advocacy is most effective through policy. He encourages people all over the U.S. to talk to local and state government officials to express a want for more all-inclusive roads even if they don’t inevitably need them themselves.

“You know, I enjoy traveling, ” Mackay says. “The more people can get out in their communities and proponent for this, the very best it is for me and the better “its for” them.”

Even with complex planning and inevitable challenges along the way, Mackay is hopeful his ride will make a tangible impact. And he hopes that impact is felt not only in the Washington disability rights community, but for all people who could benefit from outdoor accessibility nationwide.

“We’re all in it together be it the cyclists, the mommies with strollers, the joggers. We’re all together out there, ” he says. “The more roads out there, the better for everyone.”

To support Mackay throughout his ride, you are able to visit his blog or donate here. All funds raised, Mackay says, will go toward lodging and other accommodations during his trip. Any additional fund will be given to Washington Bikes to assistance the organization in attaining roads more accessible in the state of Washington.

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