Jeremy Finton knows how difficult it can be to adjust to a disability.
He remembers the early days, fumbling around after breaking his neck in 2001, realizing he would never be able to walk again — let alone play sports or exercise the same way he once could — after being limited to the mobility of a wheelchair.
“I want to make it better for the next person behind me,” the 42-year-old said, explaining that 20 years ago, it was much more difficult to find fitness opportunities for the disabled.
As a full-time staffer at the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s Franklin Park Adventure Center, Finton has been doing his best to adhere to that goal.
He runs several adaptive sports leagues for those with disabilities at Franklin Park, which offers therapeutic recreation programs modified to fit the needs of individuals with disabilities. Before being hired on full time in 2015, he was a volunteer coach at the center starting in 2013.
Located behind the Franklin Park Conservatory off West Broad Street, the Franklin Park Adventure Center offers a score of inclusive sports leagues — everything from blind soccer to wheelchair tennis to adaptive marksmanship — the center’s interim director, Preston Shepard, said. On the second floor, anyone is welcome to use dozens of adaptive exercise machines.
“We have at least 120 people in here a week,” Shepard said. “And we don’t charge for the fitness center. We just ask that people get a waiver signed by their doctor.”
Working out independently
Max Damron has been going to Franklin Park since he was 8 years old.
The 24-year-old, who uses a wheelchair, exercises at the center most days, starting his workouts with a 2.5-mile spin around the gym on the center’s first floor, usually making around 20-30 laps over the course of an hour. Then he heads upstairs to use a modified version of the lats pull-down machine, which exercises muscles in the back and upper body.
“If you have a disability, this is a great place to come work out,” Damron said. “Everyone is really friendly and will help you get stronger.”
Shepard, who also uses a wheelchair, stressed that the center emphasizes independence as much as possible.
“For the (lats pull-down machine), the seating can move out, which allows somebody to not waste their energy on transferring from one machine to the next,” he said.
Exercise, he said, is so important for the disabled because they are much more likely to develop long-term health problems like obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.
“(That’s because) individuals with disabilities often lack access to facilities, lack mobility or motivation, as well as finances and transportation,” he said.
Anyone is welcome to use the center’s machines to exercise every morning from 7 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, Shepard said. Additional hours are 2-6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 2-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) runs an ADA paratransit service called Mainstream that offers a shared ride service for those with disabilities and regularly transports the center’s regulars from their homes to Franklin Park with door-to-door service.
Providing access to equipment, sports, identity
Shepard said he understands that experiencing a paralyzing injury later in life can be exhausting to navigate but being born disabled can be even more difficult and cause isolation at an early age.
“Parents are trying to do the best they can, but they often shelter their kids in an attempt to protect them,” he said.
As interim director of the center, he has seen the impact team-building opportunities through the recreation leagues have had on those who were raised in disability and those who acquired an injury later in life.
That’s where Finton comes in.
In addition to running practices and coaching recreation leagues for wheelchair rugby, wheelchair boccia (similar to bocce) and various adaptive track and field events for the Franklin Park center, he also is a coach for the U.S. Paralympics Boccia team.
“Access to equipment is the biggest barrier,” he said. “We want to make more opportunities available and known because accessing programs where equipment is available to use is huge, plus expertise (from) trained professionals.”
For Finton and Shepard, that means fostering independence in everyone who comes through Franklin Park’s doors, whether that’s a soon-to-be paralympic athlete or a regular in the exercise room like Damron.
“It’s about asking yourself: How do I keep doing things I want to do,” Shepard said. “In order to retain self, you have to keep doing things you love.”
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.