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Fatherly Fund Winner Is An Army Pilot Building A Wheelchair-Accessible Swing

The people have spoken, and the first Fatherly Fund grant has been awarded to Ryan Nelson. The Alabama-based U.S. Army helicopter pilot will put the $1,000 to work building a backyard playground that’s fully accessible to his 7-year-old daughter Mary, who is confined to a wheelchair due to Type 1 Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He already has the plans drawn up; all that’s left to do is break ground (and talk his wife into one of the structure’s dodgier features).

Your entry into the Fatherly Fund was born out of a promise you made your daughter. Can you explain that a bit?
We move quite a bit. By the time she was 5 or 6, Mary had lived in 4 or 5 different houses. Prior to Alabama, we lived in New York on a military base where there was a playground that was wheelchair-accessible nearby. She was able to feel included, playing with her brother and her friends. Here, the accessible playgrounds are 10 or 15 miles away. The kids wanted me to build a swing set in the backyard, and as Mary’s gotten bigger she wants to do more things in her chair. In the past, we’ve had a modified swing where I could lift her up and lay her flat so she could swing. But she said she wanted a swing that her chair can go in. So, I said I would do it. My goal is the swing and a playhouse that she can access, which allows her to get to an elevated level where she can play with her friends.

Have you built wheelchair-accessible play structures before?
I have a mechanical engineering background and have built lots of things over the years. My college project was an off-road vehicle that I built and raced, so I’ve done some CAD modeling and some building. It’s not my job, more like a hobby, but I dabbled using simple tools like Google SketchUp, which is free. That’s what I used to design the swing. There are better programs out there, but it works and the price was right.

“The only thing Mary is limited by is our imagination.”

What I’m envisioning is a 2-story structure, like any playhouse you’d see in a backyard, but bigger to allow room for the chair and for her to maneuver around in it. The bottom level will be a foot or 2 off the ground, so that’s an 8 or 10 foot ramp she can drive into it. I wasn’t initially planning on having Mary on the second level, but now I’m dabbling with that. You can see on the plans, there’s a ramp that allows her to get up there, so she can be high off the ground – we’ll see what my wife thinks. She’s the safety officer.

How do you build a swing for a 450-pound wheelchair?
Off the playhouse, there’ll be a frame swing set with a glider swing. It’s four vertical beams that support a platform with a fold down ramp. Think of a glider rocker, turned upside down. Mary will drive onto the platform, we’ll bring the ramp up manually, and then you can either push the swing or, she’s learned that if the platform is large enough, she can drive her chair back and forth and use that inertia to get the swing going.

Your “get out the vote” effort was remarkable – how did you rally so much support for Mary’s swing?
I figured the key was getting out in front right away, so as soon as I heard I was selected as a finalist I went on Facebook and posted it. That gave me an early lead, and we have a good network of SMA families around the world from back when Mary was born. Back then it was mostly email distribution lists, but now it’s mostly through Facebook and I shared it on those as well. So it was a social media feeding frenzy. There’s also this guy I work with named Destin Sandlin who’s kind of a YouTube star-slash-engineer-slash-genius. His YouTube channel is called “Smarter Every Day” and he does physics-based educational videos for children and geeky people. He shared it on social media as well, and that really put us ahead. My wife thought the other guys were gaining on us, but that hit it out of the park.

“You have to be the advocate for your child. You can’t rely on other people to make things happen.”

Do you have any advice for other fathers raising kids confined to wheelchairs?
The only thing Mary is limited by is our imagination. Try not to tell your child they can’t do something – they can do it, they just need a little help. The other thing is, you have to be the advocate for your child. You can’t rely on other people to make things happen. If there’s something you want your child to do and the technology isn’t readily available, go after it. Think outside the box and make it happen. You have to be the person who enables your child to live a normal life.

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