It's mission: To promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.
WELCOMING SHOOTERS ON WHEELS
By Dave Henderson and TRR Staff
(Reprinted from The Range Report, July/August 1999)
Kirk Thomas, of Montgomery, Alabama, has been an outdoor sports enthusiast all his life. He's an active hunter, shooter, archer and angler. He shares his love of the outdoors with others by organizing skeet and sporting clays shoots and archery tournaments as well as hunting and shooting experiences for people in his home state and three other states in the South. Kirk's love for and vigorous pursuit of these sports has not changed, but since 1992, he's participated with one extra piece of equipment: his wheelchair.
Kirk matter-of-factly describes the accident that put him in the chair as a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, pure and simple. While hunting, a tree fell on him, breaking his back. In 1995, he founded Wheelin' Sportsmen of America, a non-profit organization which provides people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy outdoor sports.
A lot has changed since the times when disabled persons were thought to be frail and unable to participate in exercise. Today, physically challenged individuals seek access to more and more sporting activities, including shooting. Thomas points out that in a survey that asked 75,000 disabled veterans to rank the recreational activities they would like to participate in, target shooting and hunting ranked in the top ten.
Dave Baskin, manger of the National Rifle Association's Disabled Shooting Services, fields about 3,5000 inquiries each year for his Disabled Awareness Workshops.
"The whole idea (of accommodating disabled shooters) is relatively new and is still evolving," said Baskin, who for 33 years ran a company that designed adaptive equipment for operating rooms. "We're still in the learning curve."
Activists like Thomas are helping to flatten that curve. He has testified before Congress in support of the Disabled Sportsmen's Access Act and addressed the National Shooting Sports Foundation's annual Shooting Sports Summit in Missouri.
"There have been a lot of factors contributing to my success in overcoming my disability," Thomas said from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. "The support I received has been a tremendous blessing and a key factor in what I've been able to do. Unfortunately, a lot of individuals do not receive the support they need."
By listening to a few suggestions from disabled shooters and applying a lot of common sense and compassion, virtually any range can accommodate physically challenged shooters. And they will deeply appreciate it.
Kirk's Three A's: Attitude, Access And Adaptation
Support, in Thomas's dictionary, means attitude, access and adaptation. Thomas says that once range personnel have adopted the attitude that they want disabled shooters to be able to enjoy the range, much of the hardest work is done.
Dave Baskin points out that the resourcefulness of disabled individuals should not be underestimated.
"One very important thing to remember is that you can layout a lot of stuff, but no range is perfect because disabilities are so varied and individual," Baskin points out. "But don't worry. If you're not used to working with disabled shooters, a disabled person coming in will be able to tell you what needs to be done more than you'll be able to guess or figure out yourself."
Wheelin' Sportsmen of America (WSA) recently accepted a donation of a large plot of land south of Montgomery, Alabama, and planning is underway to construct the nation's first totally accessible shooting facility. It will not only provide shooting for wheelchair-user sportsmen, but will also serve as a model for facilities seeking to accommodate the disabled. Among the design points WSA recommends:
Once a disabled shooter has gained access to the line, existing equipment may need to be modified, or adapted, to allow a disabled shooter to put a round downrange. Key points to consider:
There are so many forms and degrees of physical disability that they are difficult to categorize. Disabled shooters used to be lumped together based on their basic condition - wheelchair shooters shot among themselves, single-arm amputees against single-arm amputees, and so on. But that didn't provide fair and equal competition.
"The key is to look at each individual's function, not their disability," says Baskin, who designs adaptive equipment for shooters. "Each disability is individual. For example, two men may have virtually identical T-6 vertebrae breaks, but one will have function of his arms and the other may not."
Ranges that accommodate disabled shooters may find that other individuals and community support groups become interested. Thomas points out that his group introduces a significant number of volunteers and other to outdoor sports through their involvement with disabled members. "My program is not only for the disabled, it's for everybody," he said. "We have to work together."
Special thanks to the National Rifle Association and Dave Baskin for their assistance in producing this story and providing photos.