For ISU professor, accident led to new opportunities

March 19 2007

For most people, a paralyzing accident has the potential to greatly limit their lives. But for an Indiana State University professor, it gave him opportunities he may have never had.

At 21, Don Rogers was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“The accident left me with decreased motor function and sensory function,” said Rogers, associate professor of recreational therapy. “I still have pretty good use of my legs, but not enough to walk without braces and crutches, which are a bit cumbersome. I found pretty quickly that the wheelchair was really the best way to get around.”

“It changed my life more than it changed my attitude on life,” Rogers said. “It’s somewhat ironic because I think the accident created opportunities for me to do some things, kind of more consistent with my attitude on life, that I might not have had otherwise.”

Such things include holding the world record in the 100-meter dash as a wheelchair athlete and climbing the tallest mountain in Texas, his home state.

Rogers got involved with wheelchair sports just a few weeks after his accident and won two events. His track and field career accelerated from that point.

He held the world record time of 16.49 seconds in the 100-meter dash. He also held the national record in the 200-meter dash, but was disqualified on a technicality.

“I was disqualified in the final because my left wheel was on the line for more than one whole rotation or something like that,” he said. “I was very upset, but everybody there was in track and field, so they knew that that was a minor thing.”

With such success, Rogers was a sure winner for the 1984 Paralympics. Due to financial problems, though, the Paralympics were cancelled for that year and the U.S. team was unable to compete.

“When I got the news, all the wind went out of my sails,” he said. “I quit working out for a long time. I was just out of the scene. I guess I was probably depressed.”

Rogers ended his track and field career after that disappointment, but he continued to play wheelchair sports. He played basketball for 16 years and tennis for seven. He also dabbled in racquetball and touch football.

“Playing wheelchair sports was one of those opportunities I was talking about that having the disability gave me,” he said. “After I graduated from high school, I really thought the sports part of my life was over, at least from a highly competitive standpoint.”

By playing wheelchair sports, Rogers found his true calling, a career in recreational therapy.

Rogers began his education in engineering, working for a Naval architect firm with an associate’s degree in engineering design and drawing.

“That was going well, in terms of the work, but I was getting deeper and deeper into sports, wheelchair sports,” he said. “I soon realized that’s really where my interests were. I didn’t want to come into an office every day and sit at a computer or sit at a drawing board. I turned in my notice and left.”

At that point in his life, Rogers was getting involved not only with competitive sports but also with outdoor athletics, including backpacking and climbing. He did a river trip down the Mississippi River along the entire length of Iowa, and he climbed Guadalupe Peak in Texas.

At 8,750 feet, the highest point in Texas, the climb was “brutal,” especially in July, in west Texas.

“It took five days to get up there,” Rogers said. “To give you an idea of how hard it was, this was a trail that took people five hours to hike up. We were doing in a day what it took a person to do in an hour.”

“We packed everything except water on our chairs,” he said. “We had a mule that went up with us who carried our water, because it’s obviously very heavy. Also, we were concerned about the dynamics of the water, possibly throwing us off, sloshing around.”

Six people started the hike, but only three made it to the top of the mountain. A film crew and support team accompanied the climbers.

Some of Rogers’s fondest memories are from trips such as this one. On the way to the top of the mountain, Rogers and his friends ran into an older man coming down. He looked at the men in wheelchairs, obviously concerned.

“The man said, ‘You boys know there’s some big rocks up there?’” Rogers said, laughing still at the memory. “‘Yeah, we figured there were,’ we said. That’s a saying, when we’re together, we’ll still say that today. ‘There are some big rocks up there!’ He wasn’t sure if we were going to make it.”

After an adventure trip with some friends, Rogers participated in a challenge course in Minnesota, similar to a high ropes and confidence course used by the military.

After getting to the top of the course, Rogers realized what more he could do if the challenge courses were accessible to people with disabilities.

“I was looking out across through the trees at all these other elements, and there was no way I could get to these other things,” he said. “It just intrigued me. When I got back to Texas, I started designing challenge-course types of things. Based on all of the work I had done outdoors, going through a variety of different trails, I would create different types of trail scenarios. I’d hang things in trees, experimenting.”

His experimenting was implemented during a summer internship at Bradford Woods, an outdoor leadership center near Martinsville, Ind. Rogers designed and built an element for the challenge course at Bradford Woods to make it accessible for people with disabilities.

“Some of the courses at Bradford Woods required so much support from other people, people without disabilities, for the person with the disability to get on the course, to negotiate the course, and to get off the course,” he said. “In my mind, that was really completely contrary to the idea that this is a challenge for you to tackle as independently as you can. That was something that guided my early thinking about those kinds of designs.”

Rogers’s design at Bradford Woods caught on. During the fall, a man who worked with challenge courses for people with disabilities saw it. He contracted Rogers to design an entire course for rehabilitation centers.

“That was so neat for me, because, it was really during my last semester at college that my training and my experience in design and drafting came full circle and started to merge with my interest with the outdoors and challenge courses,” he said. “In my dorm room that semester, I designed this entire course.”

After graduation, Rogers oversaw the building of the course in New Orleans.

“I was scared during the construction, honestly, because, some of the stuff, I knew it was going to work,” he said. “But some of it was really much more technical and had cables and beams criss-crossing under platforms. The guys building it said, ‘It better work.’ And it did.”

Rogers’s career in designing challenge courses went skyward from there. He co-designed Alpine Tower 2, a course that is accessible and “universal.”

“Universal” courses are Rogers’s own idea. He hopes that one day universal challenge courses will become the standard. Courses will be accessible, not only for people with disabilities, but also for people with little or no climbing experience, people who aren’t athletic, people who have anxiety about high courses, and anyone who wishes to participate in the course. Alpine Tower 2 caters to all those needs. There are more than 200 across the country currently.

Today, besides directing the challenge course at Indiana State University and teaching recreational therapy, Rogers is also a member of the Association for the Challenge Course Technology.

He sits on the committee that he founded, the Universal and Accessible Design Committee. He is currently working on making a certification for challenge course facilitators, and making sure people with disabilities are included in that certification.

By being a member of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, Rogers is an advocate for people with disabilities.

Though Rogers no longer participates competitively in wheelchair sports, he is still influenced by his teammates who encouraged him while he was adjusting to his disability.

“These were all very positive guys,” he said. “Many of them were either students, had degrees, had their own businesses. They weren’t letting their disability be an excuse for them to not go on with life. So they were always kind of an inspiration to me. I don’t know if they knew that, but they certainly were. That’s what I wanted for my life, a career, a family, those kinds of things.”

--

Rogers will serve as host speaker for the ISU Film Series showing of the Emmy-winning CBS Sports special “Let Me Be Brave” from 6-9 p.m. March 27 in Cunningham Memorial Library. The film focuses on 12 Special Olympians and their attempts to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The film showing, part of Disability Awareness Month, is free.

Contact: Don Rogers, associate professor, recreation and sport management, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3210 or drogers3@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Megan Anderson, media relations intern, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3773 or manderson13@mymail.indstate.edu

Bookmark and Share

Story Highlights

For most people, a paralyzing accident has the potential to greatly limit their lives. But for an Indiana State University professor, it gave him opportunities he may have never had. At 21, Don Rogers, now an associate professor of recreational therapy, was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Rogers went on to excel as a wheelchair athlete and to design accessible challenge courses in use nationwide.

Bookmark and Share