Retired Paralympic archer Alec Denys advocates for wheelchair-accessible parks

Alec Denys at a park in Arizona Photo courtesy of Alec Denys

When Selwyn resident Alec Denys pulls back the drawstring on his bow, he’s doing it from a wheelchair. The arrow flies toward the target the same as if it were from a standing position. But when he wants to explore local parks and experience nature, he faces several barriers most people may not be able to overcome. 

Through his volunteering efforts, the former Paralympic athlete, international archery champion, and forestry conservationist is trying to make parks across Canada more accessible to people with disabilities.

Denys grew up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario, where he got involved in a youth ranger program and learned to hunt with a bow. In 1979, while hunting at a park north of Trenton, he decided to climb a tree for a better vantage point. The branch he was sitting on broke and he fell eight feet to the ground. He sustained a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Denys was working for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in the Tweed Crown Forest Management Unit at the time—a dream come true. With his injury, however, his manager thought it wouldn’t be safe anymore.

“He wasn’t acting in bad faith, but he basically said ‘You can’t walk, so how are you going to get out into the forest?’ I did a lot of searching and found an all terrain track vehicle that would get me where I needed to go independently,” he says.

It was $3,000 for the four-by-six-foot forestry track vehicle built in Drummondville, Que. He says this isn’t a resource most people with disabilities would be able to access, especially since motorized vehicles aren’t permitted in most parks.

Denys then started to observe that people with disabilities face additional challenges when it comes to accessing nature. They tend to be lower income, for example, because it’s more difficult for them to find work. 

“We need more of these natural areas closer to cities, or in places you can access with bus systems,” he says. “I think it’s very feasible because lots of cities have greenspace. It may just take a little bit of effort.”

But not all parks are created equal. Most provincial parks have at least some trails that are paved or filled with wood chips, which makes them easier to maneuver with wheelchairs or hand cycles. Smaller local parks, he says, may not have the same funds to install accommodations.

To get around these limitations, Denys recommends installing a free wheel on the front for trickier trails. This essentially turns the vehicle into a tricycle by lifting the two front wheels off the ground. Free wheels come with several attachments to fit most wheelchairs, and they can be installed in less than a minute while sitting down. He also suggests battery-powered wheelchairs or handcycles.

Again, price is a limiting factor: free wheels cost around $600 to $800 at stores like Toronto-based 49 Bespoke, and electric wheelchairs from sports stores like Batec go for a minimum of $2,000. Hand cycles can cost several thousand. “Generally you wouldn’t have financial access to this, unless you have insurance and your spinal cord injury was the result of an accident.”

Putting mountain bike tires on the back of a wheelchair is a good alternative—they only cost $80 to $100 a pair, he says.

Denys retired from the ministry in 2008, but he continued to advocate for better accommodations in sport for people with disabilities. He became a chair for Archery Canada’s High Performance Committee, and in 2023, he joined Kawartha Land Trust as a volunteer and forestry event host. 

KLT’s “Walk, Stroll, and Roll” event at Rotary Greenway Trail this September is part of their Passport to Nature program, which offers over 20 free nature-based events to the public. Director of people and operations Anna Lee says Denys will guide a group of hikers through the park and teaching them about accessing nature with disabilities.

Lee says regular outdoor activities can be beneficial both emotionally and physically, so they’re trying to remove as many barriers to nature as possible. “We’re really trying to find any opportunity where we can create these spaces.”

The event is a new experience for Denys, who’s excited to put his knowledge of forestry to good use. He also plans to work with Kawartha Land Trust to create an online database for Canadian trails with accessibility signage. The signs would indicate whether a trail is suitable for wheelchair or handcycle, as well as how well the trail is paved. To create the database, he says he will need a team to analyze the width, surface, and obstacles of a trail, recommend changes where necessary, and test the trails after the fact.

Denys thinks parks should make this signage themselves for the benefit of people with disabilities. If this isn’t possible, he says they should at least strive to make the first 50 to 100 metres of a trail wheelchair-accessible, since that will be enough to at least get people into nature. 

The biggest challenge he’s facing in improving park accessibility, however, is a lack of public awareness.

“It’s not that people don’t want to make trails accessible, it’s just they don’t know there’s a need for it,” he explained. They don’t know what is required or how to implement it. “It’s not that much work to make these small steps, but they make a huge difference to someone like myself.”

In addition to being a forester, Denys is an acclaimed archer who placed fifth in the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. He has won several archery world championships, and he’s achieved a world record in team archery. He also swam in the Canadian National Games for the disabled, and he continues to volunteer as a coach for people with disabilities recovering from their injuries.

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