SAN ANTONIO – The door slides open automatically, the ramp drops to the ground and the injured young man boards a ride to experience the wide open road again.
Mobility Works is a local company that outfits vehicles so football players who are confined to wheelchairs because of a spinal injury can easily get inside and then take off to places they haven’t been or seen for months or even years.
“It’s life-changing,” Mobility Works General Manager Ed Williams-Ruffin said.” I am sure that if you talked to anyone that’s transitioned from a normal vehicle into a wheelchair- accessible vehicle they will tell you it’s life-changing.”
The vehicle, usually a van, is about a foot lower than the average van. When the ramp drops down on the passenger side, that side of the van also goes down about six inches to make it easier for the person to fit through the door space.
The middle of the van inside has been cut out for more room to accommodate a wheelchair. The front passenger side chair is on a platform and the whole mechanism can be removed if the person wants to ride shotgun. In some models, there is a bench in the back that accommodates up to three passengers. If the person really wants to feel the freedom of the road from the drivers seat, it can be removed.
“The wheelchair can go right in there to that drivers position,” Williams-Ruffin said. “We can outfit that vehicle with hand controls.”
That means gas and breaks. The driver goes through training and evaluations to make sure they can handle the changes. Then they can hit the road.
“That really puts a smile on my face when someone says ‘You know what, hey I want to drive’,” Williams-Ruffin said.
“It is almost like your having your freedom back, to be able to get out and do something not to be stuck in the house all the time,” said Chris Canales, who suffered a spinal injury playing for San Marcos Baptist Academy in 2001.
Unfortunately that type of freedom comes at a cost.
Getting players and families into a van is one of the main goals of Gridiron Heroes, a local organization that assists players who have suffered spinal injuries along with their families.
That goal is expensive. A vehicle can cost from $50,000 to $100,000. Gridiron Heroes has been able to supply nearly 20 vehicles and continues to work with Mobility Works to accommodate as many injured players as they can.
“We are grateful for all the support. We need more of the football community, anybody that embraces the game, plays the sport, family members,” said Eddie Canales, founder of Gridiron Heroes.
“When something in the form of illnesses or injuries happen to our youth it’s unnatural. It’s not something that is expected so your heart just melts,” said Williams-Ruffin. “Because it’s a life change, so its bending over backwards just to make sure that everything works, do the best we can to make sure we take care of them.”