To you, it may sound like a bizarre combination: Disabled vets and Segways. But to them, it’s a match made in heaven.
Jerry Kerr is founder of Segs4Vets, a program that started in 2005 with a simple goal: To give away one Segway to an injured vet. Since then, the organization has awarded more than 900.
“Our goal is to make them independent… and really, really become productive citizens,” Kerr tells HLN. “The families are benefited as much or more than the recipient -- they get somebody back that they have lost.”
Why the Segway?
Kerr knows all too well what it’s like being confined to a wheelchair. He shattered his C4 vertebrae during a diving accident in 1998. Doctors told him he’d never move from the neck down again. While he may not have fine motor skills in his hands, he is able to stand for a while. And let’s just say he was getting a little tired of the view from the seated position.
“I craved the ability to look somebody in the eye and not have to look at somebody’s [rear end] every time I went out,” Kerr tells HLN.
While he was waiting for a specialized wheelchair -- the iBot -- to be released, a new device hit the market.
“The Segway came out and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could use that,” says Kerr. “I started using it and it changed my life.”
Some of the benefits, according to Kerr: You don’t get winded while walking to and from physical therapy -- all your energy can be spent on strengthening your body. Plus, Segways open up a whole new world of possibilities, where vets can feel normal doing things like taking the dog on a long walk or following along with their children as they learn to ride a bike.
Robert Canine received a Segway through the program three years ago. One of the first things he did? Take out the trash!
“I couldn’t walk the trash down there and I sure as heck wasn’t going to put it on my lap when I rolled my wheelchair down there,” Canine tells HLN. With the Segway, he was able to loop the trash bag's strings around his handle and go.
Canine also says the Segways give disabled vets a sense of hope.
“I sat in a wheelchair for six months and that was really hard for me mentally,” says Canine. “Physically it hurts, yeah, but mentally it was probably even tougher … A lot of times I would just ride my Segway around to try and feel a little more normal.”
Kerr also says the technology doesn’t draw attention to your disability. Yes, Segways do draw plenty attention for just being a Segway, but it’s a different kind.
“When I’m in my wheelchair, and I’m struggling across the Mall in Washington, people just don’t want to look at you because you’re struggling,” says Kerr. “When you’re on your Segway, people and kids come up to you and talk to you. They never say ‘cool’ when I’m in a wheelchair. It’s one of those things that really changes your whole life, your outlook on life, the way people look at you.”
Of course, there might be the occasional jerk out there.
Kerr recounts a story where a captain in the Army was called “lazy” for using the Segway instead of walking “like the rest of us.” But he says all the captain had to do was pull up his pants leg. It made that critic put his foot in his mouth (and it probably made him thankful he had two functioning feet to choose from!).
How does the program work?
A veteran must have sustained injuries while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom to qualify for the program. Vets fill out an online application and are put through an extensive vetting process. A “Warrior Board” -- comprised of men who have served and were recipients of Segways -- conducts interviews and makes the final decisions.
The entire program is fueled by volunteers, and at the core are 30 dedicated folks. Kerr says the average volunteer spends 30 days a year in the program, and a number of people volunteer full time.
Awards have a value that ranges from $7,700 to $15,000 (with the average being $9,700). It all depends on how much training and what kind of modifications the vet needs. All of the money comes from donations.
A spokeswoman for Segway tells HLN that their devices have not been designed, tested or approved for medical use (so they don’t market them as such).
“However, we are pleased that Segs4Vets has embraced our product and that American heroes find value in the Segway PT as they strive to regain their mobility and independence after suffering a serious injury or permanent disability,” says Segway rep Suzanne Dumaresq.
“The fact that we’re able to get around standing as opposed to on a scooter or a wheelchair is extraordinary,” says Kerr. “It’s the first time it’s ever been possible because it’s the first time we’ve ever had a device that reacts to the human as opposed to the human having to react to the device.”
If you’re interested in applying, donating or volunteering for the program, check out Segs4Vets.com for more information.